The Campaign for Freedom of Information – which played a key role in securing the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act – celebrates its 30th anniversary this week. The Act itself is 10 years old this month.
When the Campaign was launched in 1984, FOI was supported by the then 3 main opposition party leaders, Neil Kinnock (Labour), David Steel (Liberal) and David Owen (Social Democratic Party). But the prime minister, Mrs Thatcher, opposed it saying that a legal power to force ministers to disclose information would weaken ministers’ accountability to Parliament.
The Campaign, supported by MPs of all parties, saw its role as keeping FOI on the political agenda. By the time Labour came to power in 1997 it had promised FOI in six successive election manifestos. In 1996 before becoming prime minister Tony Blair said FOI would “signal a new relationship between government and people”. But he later described FOI as his biggest mistake and reproached himself as a “nincompoop” for introducing it.
To mark its 30th anniversary and help fund its work, the Campaign is selling a t-shirt featuring Tony Blair in a cartoon designed for it by political cartoonist Steve Bell which he has generously donated to the Campaign. See: https://www.cfoi.org.uk/2015/01/steve-bell-cfoi-30th-anniversary-t-shirt
The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel, who has worked for the organisation for 30 years, said “FOI has strengthened the rights of the citizen to know what public authorities are really doing. It has become a potent tool to help people understand where public services are falling short, make the case for policy changes, discover whether government is fulfilling its promises and hold those in power to account”.
But the Campaign warned that the Act is unpopular with government and has faced a series of attempts to restrict it – which are likely to continue. These have included (so far unsuccessful) proposals to allow authorities to refuse thousands of additional requests on cost grounds, to remove Parliament from the Act and to block access to papers circulated to cabinet or cabinet committees. There has also been pressure to exempt all government policy discussions regardless of the public interest and to introduce charges for requests. The increasing use of contractors to provide public services has also weakened the public’s rights – as information held by contractors is not fully covered by the FOI Act.
An event in London on January 15th to mark the Campaign’s 30th anniversary will be addressed by its founder, citizen campaigner Des Wilson and by Ian Hislop, broadcaster and editor of Private Eye.
The Campaign’s event is being hosted by the international human rights organisation ARTICLE 19 and marks both organisations’ plans to work closely together on FOI work in future.