In 2005, UK citizens obtained rights under the Freedom of Information Act. In a nutshell, we have the right to ask publicly-funded bodies for information, and, if they hold the information, in most cases they are obliged to provide it.
While these rights are highly beneficial to the populace, they do, of course, prove worrisome, inconvenient and irritating to some of those in public office. They were scrutinised once in 2013, by a Justice Committee at which WhatDoTheyKnow were invited to give evidence, and now there looks to be another potential attack.
On Friday, the Cabinet Office announced the establishment of a cross-party Commission on Freedom of Information, in a statement which on the one hand asserts their commitment to transparency, and on the other suggests a desire to move away from it under certain circumstances.
Pivotal to the announcement is the stated aim to ensure that “a private space is protected for frank advice” within government policy-making, which we interpret to mean that the law would be modified to ring-fence certain information, preventing its access via the FOI Act. As has already been suggested elsewhere (for example, on the BBC website), the commission’s review panel might have been pre-selected specifically to include known opponents to the Act.
The WhatDoTheyKnow team, supported by mySociety and its overseeing body UKCOD, agree with the Cabinet Office’s statement that the advances made in government transparency since the introduction of the Act are to be broadly welcomed.
However, we are also gravely concerned by the proposal for restricting the FOI Act’s reach within government. We hope that the commission will consider that, while there is a cost to Freedom of Information, there is also a huge benefit to the nation.
Freedom of Information allows citizens to access information from public bodies, the authorities that we fund ourselves. When those bodies operate in secrecy, they are hiding truth from not only the people they are supposed to serve, but the people who finance their very existence.
It’s the sign of a thriving democracy when the actions of our governing bodies are functionally transparent. FOI helps uncover and discourage corruption, and provides checks and balances to the actions of the authorities working on our behalf.
But for FOI to really work it has to be applied across all departments, in all public bodies, with as few loopholes or exceptions as possible. If Government itself is shown to be sidestepping its responsibilities in transparency, then what is to stop other authorities from taking their cue from them? As we learned at our recent Alaveteli conference, during which we heard from practitioners running FOI sites in many countries, when bodies stop responding to requests, public accountability suffers.
At WhatDoTheyKnow, we know there’s a massive public demand for information, because we process more than 5,000 FOI requests per month. The information that we then publish online is accessed on average by a further 20 readers per request. We strongly wish to be able to go on providing this service to our users, and for it to apply across all public authorities.
We await concrete proposals being made available for a full public consultation, whereupon we would be keen to participate from our unique position of running WhatDoTheyKnow, the UK’s only public freedom of information website. We will be doing all we can to defend your right to information—from every authority.
Image: Redvers (CC-BY-ND)