What price freedom of information?

It looks as if the assault on freedom of information is underway. According to Ministry of Justice research, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has not improved decision-making, has failed to increase understanding of government and may even have reduced trust. Civil servants have also called for higher fees for those making requests under the act because the current costs do ‘not adequately reflect the total amount of time spent…in compiling the information’.

Well knock me down with a feather, civil servants don’t like freedom of information?  Rarely is transparency about making bureaucrats’ lives easier or even about making things work better, although that should be a by-product.  Rather, freedom of information is about making institutions and the people within them accountable, both for the money they spend and the decisions they make.  I'd say it's vital for preserving democracy and freedom, and you can’t quantify that with some sort of cost / benefit analysis.

Labour’s election victory in 1997 felt like a breath of fresh air and key to that was the commitment to usher in a new era of ‘open government’ and introduce the FOIA as a statement of the sort of government it intended to be.  The fact that Tony Blair later denounced the act and ‘quake(s) at the imbecility of it’ shouldn’t detract from those original intentions.

Civil servants have now joined Blair in bemoaning the fact that the act is not used by ‘the people’ but by journalists fishing for a story.  Notwithstanding the disreputable mess Fleet Street now finds itself in, what exactly is wrong with that?  Fishing for a story it may be, that doesn’t disqualify it from being a legitimate and important activity.

But now the vultures are circling.  In January last year, Lord McNally and the Deputy Prime Minister announced a ‘post-legislative assessment’ of the FOIA:  would that all legislation was put under so much scrutiny.  While the MoJ’s document won’t be the only evidence considered, you can be sure it is likely to carry a great deal of weight, not least because it reinforces the opinions of the act’s critics.

In response to this smear campaign I thought I would set out some of the things we wouldn’t know without it.

Only this morning, the BBC revealed the Crown Prosecution Service and Met Police paid a family more than £600,000 in damages and costs after a child witness, who had been promised anonymity, was identified to the same violent gang against whom he had agreed to give evidence.  The boy’s family was threatened following the disclosure and had to be relocated as part of a witness protection scheme.  The CPS had initially failed to release detailed information of the case and the BBC had to appeal to the Information Commissioner.

Last July the government was ordered to release papers relating to the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster following a long-running FOI dispute with the BBC.  The BBC’s request for documents relating to cabinet and other discussions about Hillsborough involving the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher was turned town by the Cabinet Office but backed by the Information Commissioner who ruled releasing the files would be in the public interest.  As a result, the general public and those directly affected will finally know exactly how the government reacted to the worst disaster in British sporting history.

The scandal of MPs’ expenses came to light thanks to a freedom of information request in 2005.  It took three years and a high court victory to force the then Speaker of the House, Michael Martin, to issue the details of exactly what our elected representatives thought it fit to purchase at our expense, including loo seats, garlic peelers, brickwork for a waterwheel structure and porn films.  The following inquiry led to thousands being repaid and a number of high-profile resignations and criminal prosecutions.  To say the scandal undermined public confidence in MPs would be an understatement.

In 2009, public sector union Unison surveyed 50 authorities using the FOIA to establish how much they had spent in legal fees defending equal pay claims.  Topping the table was Sandwell in the Midlands that paid lawyers £1.3million in an attempt to stop low-paid women winning equal pay.  It found even higher spending by health bodies, including a whopping £3.3 million by North Cumbria NHS trust.

And just to show that local councils continue to be really good at spending your money wisely, in November last year an FOI request found that Scottish Borders Council had spent more than £300,000 on external lawyers in the past three years, despite its own legal team being recognised as one of the best in the country.

The Guardian used the act to uncover documents pinpointing the moment when the government’s leading law officer changed his mind over the legality of the invasion of Iraq.  The paper also revealed how magistrates were urged to abandon sentencing guidelines when dealing with rioters last summer.  The text of emails circulated to justices’ clerks were released following an FOI request and appeared to show a sense of confusion and even chaos as the courts tried to deal with the hundreds of suspects arrested for looting and violence.

The Evening Standard found that prosecutors dropped more than 20,000 criminal cases in 2010 despite having enough evidence to bring offenders to court.  Proceedings were halted because they were not deemed in the ‘public interest’ to continue.  The figures obtained by an FOI request showed the number of cases shelved in London alone soared by 37 per cent in two years.

Yes, some of this stuff is going to make uncomfortable viewing, but the response shouldn’t be to turn the lights out and allow corruption and vested interests to flourish unchallenged.  Instead, public servants, elected or otherwise, should be putting their house in order.  Trying to circumvent the act by using private email accounts or attempting to deny access by claiming privacy concerns or prohibitive cost just erodes trust even further.

Heather Brooke, who unearthed the MPs’ expenses scandal, says with proper databases, information searches should not cost government departments anything and that ‘ if there was any other law they did not want to comply with, they would be prosecuted’.  Exactly.  Disorganisation is no defence.  But there must be a fear that in these austere times this is precisely the stick that will be used to bash freedom of information on the head: a potentially devastating example of knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

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