Speech of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, at the presentation of the Campaign for Freedom of Information 1997 Awards, 28 April 1998

Transcript of a tape recording

Before the last General Election, the Labour Party pledged to fight the culture of secrecy in Government in our manifesto. In our Manifesto, we argued that culture leads to contempt for other points of view which, in turn, leads to defective policy decisions. Ill-conceived policies lead to waste and misery.

We promised a radical solution – a Freedom of Information Act which would give Britain a strong culture of Government openness. We promised to make Britain a world beacon by creating a model freedom of information regime.

These were – and are – our aims.

In Opposition, we had prepared much of the ground for our ambitious constitutional reform programme – Devolution for Scotland and Wales; giving greater effect to the European Convention on Human Rights; granting independence to the Bank of England; and much more.

But, though our aims for Freedom of Information were clear, real work remained to be done on the detail. The Campaign for Freedom of Information – more than anyone – will appreciate the complexities.

Some criticised us for not proceeding with Freedom of Information immediately. But we wanted to make sure that our policies were thought through properly. And of course, no government can carry through its whole manifesto in one year. We also wanted to make sure we were much more radical than the Code of Practice used by the last government. We needed to make sure those changes would be both effective and enforceable.

When we published our White Paper, “Your Right to Know”, in December last year, our critics were silenced. Our proposals have been warmly welcomed, not least by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, as you have heard. The Campaign said they “should provide a fundamental break with Britain’s tradition of Government secrecy.”

We have begun as we mean to continue. Alongside the White Paper, we published a volume of background papers. These papers help to explain why our proposals have developed in the way they have. They were intended to make the debate on Freedom of Information more informed.

This is an example of the way a Freedom of Information regime should work. Government should adequately and actively take the lead in promoting openness. We should be ready to open our doors, our files, our databases, so that the British people know what is being said and done in their name.

These background papers were, generally, well received in the spirit in which they were published. Those unused to transparency in Government worried that we were being too open. Some feared that these papers would be used only by our opponents, searching for information to use against us.

That has not happened. The background papers have not brought the house down. They have not been the cause of anger or anxious debate. Instead, what they have done is helped to make the debate better informed.

This is really what Freedom of Information, I think, is about – giving people the chance to understand how Government works and why it has reached particular decisions.

I have no doubt that journalists and campaigners will take advantage of our regime of greater openness to reveal facts which may be uncomfortable for officials and Ministers. That is their job. Investigative journalism has an important role in making open government a reality. Over time, we can expect there to be a few headline-grabbing revelations as a result of the Freedom of Information Act. And why not? The media will be big gainers from the new freedom of information regime but the public will benefit even more.

The great majority of requests for information under the Act will be from ordinary people who want to be better informed. Armed with the information that only Governments can provide, they will be able to evaluate Government policy. We will also see increasing openness in the very ordinary everyday business of delivering public services. And from this Act, and from the Data Protection Act, individuals will have better opportunities to check the personal information held about themselves by public organisations.

I said that our White Paper was well received. It has also been well debated. At every stage of the process of formulating our policy, we have been open. This will continue. We received over 500 responses to the White Paper. This month they were published on the Internet. They are also now available in book form, in 6 volumes – I am afraid – for £37.

This is a timely reminder that Freedom of Information does not come without cost. We will do everything we reasonably can to minimise charges to applicants seeking information, but it is unrealistic to ask for all enquiries to be met free of charge. After all, every pound of taxpayers’ money we spend on providing information is a pound which cannot be spent on school books, or hospital beds, or nursery care.

Government is about tough choices. In an ideal world, certainly, Freedom of Information would bring no costs to the public. But we are not living in an ideal world. We have to balance all these competing demands for funds. Some form of charging is unavoidable.

I know that this is an area which troubles the Campaign. Your thoughtful response to our White Paper forcefully makes the case against charging. We will consider it very carefully because, of course, it is a major issue. But I cannot promise that we will come to an end result which will be entirely to your satisfaction.

Charging is not the only question which needs to be discussed further. Consultation revealed a raft of issues on which more thought or greater clarification is needed. The range of possible exclusions; the role of commercial confidentiality; access to personnel records; information given in confidence; and the impact of the Freedom of Information legislation on local government are just a few of the areas we need to consider further.

Perhaps even more importantly – and more fundamentally – we need to start considering how to make Britain’s Freedom of Information regime effective. How can people make use of the powers which the Freedom of Information Act will provide? How will they find out what information exists? How will they know what to ask for?

The Government needs the help of organisations like the Campaign to begin answering these vital questions. We have no monopoly of good ideas. We are very ready to steal some of yours!

There is still time to look for the best way to provide an effective regime. The consultation period on the White Paper has closed, but that is not the end of the dialogue. We are committed to openness at every stage.

Our next step will be to produce a draft Freedom of Information Bill. When it is ready, it will also be subject to wide consultation. Our aim is for the draft Bill to be published during the Summer. By the time we come to legislate, our proposals for a genuine Freedom of Information regime in this country will have been debated, scrutinised and considered from every angle. As a result, we should have a strong regime that will stand the test of time.

We have no doubt that open Government is good Government. Politicians of all parties should be encouraging the people of this country to engage in debate on the way their society is being shaped for the future.

But this is a hollow desire unless our citizens have access to official information. This Government is committed to openness, but our goodwill is no guarantee for the future. That is why we will enshrine the principles of open Government in statute.

Our intention is that no Government should ever again be able to shrug off the legitimate questions of the British people.

I close with this pledge. We will deliver a Freedom of Information Act and it will deliver.

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