History of freedom of information in the UK

The table below summarises some of the key dates in the history of FOI in the UK, starting with the passage of the 1911 Official Secrets Act and ending with the full commencement of the FOI Act in January 2005.

1911 Official Secrets Act passed. Section 1 dealt with espionage. Section 2 made the unauthorised disclosure of any information on any subject an offence.
1972 An official report, the Franks report, calls for Section 2 to be abolished and replaced by a much narrower new law.
1977 Government introduces to the so-called Croham Directive, named after the then head of the civil service, promising the release of background papers to policy decisions. In fact, very little was disclosed under it.
1978 A major attempt to introduce freedom of information legislation in the form of a private member’s bill introduced by Clement Freud MP. The bill, drawn up by the Outer Circle Policy Unit, had considerable Parliamentary support but fell when the 1979 election was called.
1981 Another freedom of information bill, also drafted by the Outer Circle Policy Unit, was introduced by Frank Hooley MP. The bill was opposed by the Conservative government and defeated at second reading.
1984 A Freedom of Information Bill drafted by Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) is introduced by David Steel MP.
1984 Data Protection Act passed – it gives individuals the right to see information held about themselves on computer.
1984 Local Government (Access to Information) Act passed – result of a private member’s bill promoted by the Community Rights Project and introduced by Robin Squire MP. It gives public wider rights of access to council meetings, reports and papers.
1984 Sarah Tisdall, a young Foreign Office clerk, is prosecuted under section 2 of the Official Secrets Act for leaking information about the government’s plans to handle the public relations aspects of the arrival of cruise missiles in Britain. She is convicted and sentenced to 6 months in prison.
1985 Clive Ponting, a senior Ministry of Defence official, is prosecuted under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act for leaking information showing that ministers had misled parliament over the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser the Belgrano, during the Falklands war. In his summing up the judge rules that Mr Ponting’s defence – that he was acting in the public interest – has no basis in law. The jury disregarded his ruling and acquitted Ponting.
1987 Access to Personal Files Act passed – the result of a private member’s bill promoted by the CFOI and introduced by Archy Kirkwood MP. It gives people the right to see manually held social work and housing records about themselves; access to school records, originally in the bill, is brought in under existing legislation by agreement with the government.
1988 Access to Medical Reports Act passed – another private member’s bill drafted by the CFOI and introduced by Archy Kirkwood. It gives people the right to see any report produced by their own doctor for an employer or insurance company.
1988 Environment and Safety Information Act passed – private member’s bill promoted by CFOI and introduced by Chris Smith MP. Gives people right to see enforcement notices issued when organisations breach laws dealing with environmental protection and safety.
1988 A bill to reform section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, drafted by the CFOI, is introduced by Richard Shepherd MP. The bill, proposes to narrow its scope; create offences only where “serious injury” to the national interest is proved; and create a public interest defence, allowing a defendant to argue that a disclosure benefitted the public. The bill was defeated by the government after they imposed an unprecedented 3 line whip on their own MPs to vote it down.
1989 Government passes its own legislation to repeal Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, replacing it with a narrower measure which protects information about security, defence, international relations and law enforcement. The Official Secrets Act 1989 contains some ‘absolute’ offences, for which a person can be convicted without evidence that a disclosure caused harm. There is no public interest defence.
1990 Access to Health Records Act passed after twice being ‘talked out’ in the Commons. This private member’s bill promoted by the CFOI and introduced by Doug Henderson MP allows people to see information put on their medical records after November 1991.
1992 A Freedom of Information Bill, drafted by the CFOI is introduced in January 1991 by Archy Kirkwood MP. The bill has only 45 minutes in parliament and does not get a second reading.
1992 The Labour front bench publish the Right to Information Bill, which Labour will introduce if elected. The main part of the Bill is the same as the Kirkwood bill but it also includes proposals to reform the 1989 Official Secrets Act.
1992 Roy Hattersley MP, shadow Home Secretary, promises a Freedom of Information Act will be the first piece of Home Office legislation if Labour wins the election. The Conservatives promise other action to reduce official secrecy – but not a freedom of information law. After the election a Conservative cabinet minister, William Waldegrave, is given responsibility for implementing the ‘open government’ policy.
1992 Mark Fisher MP (Lab) introduces The Right to Know Bill, with the support from MPs of all political parties. The Bill obtains an unopposed second reading in the Commons in February 1993 and completes its Committee stage before being “talked out”.
1993 The Environmental Information Regulations come into force. Derived from a European Directive they provide a right of access to information about the environment held by public bodies. However the Regulations contain wide exemptions and an impractical enforcement mechanism, meaning that in practice bodies wishing to block disclosure of information can get away with it.
1993 The Government publishes its Open Government white paper in July. It proposes two new legal rights to information: to manually held personal files and to health and safety information (which in fact are never implemented). Access to other official information is to be based on a voluntary Code of Practice to be supervised by the Parliamentary Ombudsman.
1994 The Code of Practice comes into force on April 4. It contains some unnecessarily broad exemptions and grants access only to information, not documents.
1995 Code of Practice on Openness in the NHS comes into force in June.
1996 The Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (the Ombudsman) publishes its report on ‘Open Government’ and recommends that a Freedom of Information Act be introduced – the first time a select committee has done so. The government rejects this recommendation but accepts that the Code of Practice needs amendment. A slightly revised version of the Code is introduced in February 1997.
1997 At the May general election both Labour and the Liberal Democrats promise freedom of information legislation if elected. The Conservatives pledge to introduce the rights to personal files and health and safety legislation promised four years before in the Open Government white paper – but not a freedom of information law.
1997 Despite initial reports that a Freedom of Information Bill will feature in the new government’s first session, it decides to publish a white paper first. David Clark, the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, promises this will be published in July, but it is then delayed until December.
1997 The government publishes its Freedom of Information white paper, Your Right to Know, in December, which receives wide support for its “substantial harm” test and the broad scope of the bodies it proposes to cover, including the privatised utilities. It is criticised for proposing to exclude the law enforcement functions of the police, and for the total exclusion of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ from the Act. The government promises to publish a draft Freedom of Information Bill in early 1998. No commitment is given to legislate in the second parliamentary session.
1998 The Select Committee on Public Administration publishes a report in May calling for the FoI proposals to be tightened up.
1998 More than 240 MPs sign a parliamentary motion in July calling on the government to introduce FoI legislation in the next parliamentary session.
1998 The government publishes its response to the select committee report in July. The government promises to publish its draft FoI bill by the end of September. David Clark, the minister in charge of FoI loses his job in the July Cabinet reshuffle, and responsibility for FoI is transferred from the Cabinet Office to the Home Office.
1998 Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, announces in September that the draft FoI bill will not be published until early 1999, ruling out the prospect of legislation in the 1998-1999 parliamentary session.
1998 A Freedom of Information Bill drafted by Campaign is introduced by Andrew Mackinlay MP (Lab) under the 10 Minute Rule procedure.
1998 A slightly amended version of Andrew Mackinlay’s bill is introduced into the House of Lords in November by the Conservative peer, Lord Lucas of Crudwell. It receives a second reading in February 1999.
1999 The Macpherson Report into the Stephen Lawrence police inquiry recommends in February that the police should be fully subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and only able to withhold information if its release will cause ‘substantial harm’. The government’s response in March does not accept this recommendation, stating that there will only be an ‘appropriate’ harm test, and that two important classes of police information will be excluded from the Act altogether.
1999 The government’s draft Freedom of Information Bill is published for public consultation in May. The Bill represented a major weakening of the white paper proposals that had preceded it and attracted universal criticism. CFOI pointed out that in many areas the draft Bill was weaker than the non-statutory Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. The Bill was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny in both Houses of Parliament and both committees endorsed CFOI’s criticisms of the proposals. The government responded by making some welcome improvements, but serious defects remained when the Bill was introduced to Parliament. Fortunately, many of these were subsequently corrected during the Bill’s Parliamentary passage.
2000 The Freedom of Information Act receives Royal Assent on 30 November. But hopes that the long wait for a right to know would be over soon fade as the government delays implementing the legislation.
2001 The government’s intention had been to phase the right of access in, starting 12 to 18 months after Royal Assent. In November this timetable is abandoned on favour of one which delays the right of access for more than 4 years. Press reports suggest Tony Blair himself intervened in the decision.
2005 The FOI Act’s right of access finally comes into force on 1 January. Five new rights come into force at the same time: the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 comes into force, providing similar though slightly stronger, rights to information held by Scottish public authorities; the Environmental Information Regulations and Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations, implementing an EU directive, provide parallel rights of access to environmental information held by public authorities and some private bodies; and amendments to the Data Protection Act 1998 take effect improving people’s rights to see personal information held about them by public authorities.
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