This article by the Campaign’s director, Maurice Frankel,
appeared in the Jan/Feb 2004 edition of Progress, a Labour Magazine
By the time of the election, the Freedom of Information Act will be up and running. Will we find government brightly illuminated by the new right to know? Or business as usual, with inconvenient facts easily hidden?
Freedom of information is a symbol of honesty in government. It helps deter governments from promising one thing and secretly doing another. It provides a safeguard against improper influences on decisions and a check on arbitrariness, misconduct and substandard public services.
The value to the citizen is obvious: but why should government embrace the legislation? The answer is that trust in government has plummeted to new depths. In 2000, only 16% of people said they trusted governments of any kind to put the country’s interests above their party’s. Ministers cannot do their job – let alone hope to re-elected – if people do not believe them when they tell the truth, dismiss news of improvements as spin and assume an ulterior motive behind every decision.
What will happen in January 2005 when the new law kicks in? The Act itself has many of the ingredients for an effective right of access. But it also has escape clauses which could undermine key requirements. Much depends on the spirit in which authorities approach the legislation.
Those that accept FOI as a legitimate right, necessary and desirable in a modern democracy, will enhance their public standing. They are more likely to be seen as conscientious and responsive to the public’s needs and to be given the benefit of the doubt when taking difficult decisions.
Those that see it as a low priority and fail to prepare for it or resist reasonable requests will stoke up public suspicion about their activities. They will attract increasing numbers of requests, complaints, and enforcement proceedings, damaging their reputation and credibility.
This is not an issue on which government itself can afford to be neutral. While ministers at the Department for Constitutional Affairs appear to take the subject seriously, the same is not always true elsewhere – and Downing Street itself has often appeared hostile to the measure.
One thing above all else has symbolised government reluctance: the ministerial veto. Ministers can overrule the Information Commissioner if he orders them to disclose information under the Act’s critical ‘public interest test’. Why should ministers need this power, when other public authorities do not, and when the Act already allows decisions to be appealed first to a tribunal and then on a point of law to the courts?
By insisting on this massive loophole ministers highlight their own doubts about freedom of information and undermine public confidence in the legislation. If they want to get this reform off to a proper start, the best thing they can do is abolish the damaging veto.
Please follow and like us: