Progress article

A version of this article by the Campaign’s director, Maurice Frankel,
appeared in the October/November 2002 edition of ‘Progress’ magazine

Only one in ten people trust politicians to “tell the truth when in a tight corner” and only 16 per cent trust governments of any complexion to “put the country’s needs above those of their own party”. These figures, from the latest British Social Attitudes survey, should worry ministers. No government can operate effectively if the public don’t trust it, and if ministers are disbelieved – even when telling the truth – they’re in big trouble.

Freedom of information legislation was meant to be the antidote to this. In 1996 Tony Blair promised that Labour’s FOI Act would address the public’s “disillusion” and “disaffection” with politics. It would “signal a new relationship between government and people” and be “absolutely fundamental to how we see politics developing in this country over the next few years”.

Well, the next few years have gone, and although an FOI Act was finally passed ministers have delayed the access right till January 2005. In the meantime, surveys show that public trust in government has now sunk below that of the Conservative years.

What difference will the Act make when it does arrive? On the plus side, almost the whole of the public sector will be covered, from government departments to quangos, local councils, NHS trusts and schools. The law will be retrospective, allowing access to old records. And it will apply to any written or emailed request, even if the applicant doesn’t mention the Act. Charges for information will be modest and an independent Information Commissioner will handle appeals.

Many of the exemptions involve a public interest test, an important safeguard which may require disclosure even where an exemption has technically been triggered. But sometimes it complicates what should he a simple matter. The facts on which policy decisions are based – straightforward information which should routinely be disclosed – will be released only after the complex exercise of weighing the public interest in disclosure against the public interest in confidentiality. Inviting officials and politicians to look for the public interest against disclosing facts (and we’re not talking about cases involving security, defence or other sensitivities, where other exemptions apply) will reinforce the worst of the secrecy instinct.

Ominously, the Act gives ministers a veto, allowing them overrule the Commissioner if he orders disclosure on public interest grounds – the sole basis for openness in many cases. Labour’s FOI white paper had ruled this out saying a veto would “undermine the authority of the Information Commissioner and erode public confidence in the Act”.

The veto could prove just a comfort blanket, calming ministerial fears about the new regime, but never actually used. But the omens are not good. Last year ministers for the first time refused to comply with one of the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s disclosure recommendations under the ‘open government’ code – something their Conservative predecessors never did. The Ombudsman had ruled that anonymised statistical data about the number of times ministers declared possible conflicts of interest to their colleagues was not exempt.

The prime minister himself intervened to block disclosure. The then cabinet secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, offered the dismal justification that such information could be used against ministers, adding “there is no such thing as just a little bit of information which can safely be disclosed…there is no piece of information, however small, that cannot become significant”.

If that’s the starting point, the prospects for FOI will not be good.

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