The War on Freedom of Information

by | Jan 6, 2012 | FOI | 1 comment

Years ago, I was told what I assumed was an apocryphal story that New Labour had intended to remove the commitment to Freedom of Information from the draft of the 1997 General Election Manifesto, but someone had forgotten to do so. Saddled with this albatross, the politicians lied through their teeth and pretended they were all for it. Though I never really believed it, I repeat this tale whenever possible on the basis that it seems to embody a truth about the way politics is driven by two-facedness and incompetence as often as it is by principle and skill. And after Tony Blair’s ugly, elitist repudiation of FOI in his memoirs, I think that the story is true.

In 2012, the already declared war on the Freedom of Information Act 2000 will begin in earnest, and you will have to decide which side you’re on. Few people have the courage to oppose FOI actively (I’d have perverse admiration for anyone who did). Instead, with the Justice Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny opening up the opportunity for attack, the phrase “I’ve always been a big supporter of FOI” is one you’re going to hear a lot as it becomes the transparency equivalent of “I’m not racist but…”.

Blair’s acolytes Sir Jonathan Powell and Sir Gus O’Donnell have laid the groundwork. The Local Government Association has already put the boot in, issuing a disingenuous pre-Christmas press release with the usual “Some of my best friends are FOI officers..” line. This recalls the moment I tried to convince a senior manager that FOI was a frontline service, and they laughed in my face. It cannot be a coincidence that a version of the same story has also come out of the Higher Education sector while Simon Hart MP has weighed in on behalf of the police. The Constitution Unit have even more examples here.

The case against FOI currently seems to be because of the burden, but the cited requests in the above stories would not detain a good FOI officer for more than five minutes. As a consequence of the oncoming fight, perhaps those of us who make FOI requests should try to avoid becoming part of the case for the prosecution – people who make multiple requests a day, hundreds of requests overall, or ask about masturbation or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle will be used by those who want to circumscribe the legislation, much as they did in the Republic of Ireland by introducing an FOI fee. Vexatious or frivolous requests feed a Manchurian Candidate style conspiracy to undermine FOI from the inside, and now more than ever, FOI needs to be perceived as serious and legitimate.

Nobody can expect politics to get this right by itself. Labour clearly had (and still has) FOI adherents. David Clark’s original FOI white paper was excellent, and Lord Falconer still makes a passionate and admirable case for the legislation. The same person who told me the manifesto story also said that most Labour backbenchers refused to back the Home Office’s attempts to deliver a neutered, toothless Act. But Blair’s rejection of FOI ought to be seen as a scar on the conscience of his party, and lots of current Labour MPs voted to exclude Parliament from FOI.

On the other side, Cameron set his face against FOI restrictions when leader of the opposition (as did Gordon Brown when he became PM). But despite that most sinister Little and Large tribute act Francis Maude and Eric Pickles demanding wider publication of data than the Information Commissioner has ever had the bottle to extract, Maude’s Cabinet Office have a shocking FOI record, and the DCLG’s humourless mishandling of Derek Tickles is hardly evidence of best practice. I should mention the other coalition party (if only to thank Mr Huhne for the fine material he’s given me for training courses), but did anyone involved in battle ever look up from the fray and shout “We’re saved! The Lib Dems are coming!” And for the purposes of economy, let’s just repeat that joke for the Information Commissioner and move on.

I’m biased – FOI gave me a career when I was floundering, the best 9-5 job I’ve ever had was as a Data Protection and FOI officer for a local council and now, the FOI training courses I run help me to live life without a boss. But I don’t think this stops me from making the case for FOI strongly and passionately. I believe that FOI is a vital tool for the ordinary citizen to stick his or her oar in and get involved. No matter how well you understand your audience, FOI allows your customers and service users to open a window into what interests them, rather than accepting what you give them, it holds the mighty account.

So if you’re an applicant, an FOI officer, a journalist or just a regular citizen who doesn’t like to be patronised by the establishment, in 2012 you need to stand up for FOI. We all need to lobby our MPs, the Justice Committee, the Ministry of Justice and the Cabinet Office. In 2012, we need to tweet and blog and agitate to get the message out that FOI is fundamentally a tool for democracy and openness, stopping those in power from condescending to the great unwashed, telling us only what they want us to know.

And if you really want to make an FOI request about drawing pins, it’ll keep till 2013.

UPDATE 13/2/12: 
Blogger was not behaving itself, so here is a comment from @bitsofours

I’d say the political (big and small P) appetite for FOI was always a sparce one and it’s easy to see how the transparency agenda could get brushed to one side in the current climate.  I agree, that FOI-savvy citizens from which ever side of the FOI coin need to keep information legislation on the radar.

One thing I’d note on the the issue of “good FOI officers” – I was an FOI officer for a number of years and more often than not the people actually doing the job of fulfilling an FOI request are caught between a rock and a hard place; wanting to respond within the spirit and the letter of the law but being subject to top-down, risk-averse, protectionist thinking from senior management.  In most organisations the FOI officer is not of sufficient seniority to make decisions about the release of information and are often caught between their personal desire to meet the requirements of the act and the politics of their organisation.