out for updates on this subject
Let’s be honest, the UK’s freedom of information act (FOIA) is a bit of an embarrassment. It is a shadow of the original white paper introduced soon after Labour came to power. If the original bill were law, we could hold our heads high as a proper, civilized democracy.
Instead, we have a law so riddled with numerous and vague exemptions that it’s a corrupt politician’s best friend. Delay is endemic and enforcement weak at best.
But it is a law. And that means something. It means that a government official can no longer simply ignore questions from the public. It means that, in order to keep something secret, a bureaucrat has to go to a good deal of time and expense justifying why secrecy is in the public interest.
It may be weak and weakly enforced, but our little FOIA is revolutionising the way we are governed. It reminds me of the little dog Toto in ‘The Wizard of Oz’: not a big, muscled watchdog there to protect us, but quite successful nevertheless at pulling back the curtain that hides the inner workings of the great and powerful.
And the great and powerful do not like their lever-pulling exposed.
I often hear people complain that FOIA in the UK is useless, but consider this: if it is so useless why did politicians fight so hard to keep it from becoming law? And why are ministers attempting, just two years in, to kill it off?
The law is instituting a culture change, albeit a slow one.
There are as many as 20 stories a week generated by “freedom of information” in local and national newspapers. We now know more about the police then ever before, more about the number of serious criminals that are receiving cautions rather than the full weight of the law, more about officers with criminal records, the number let off speeding fines, more about crimes in our neighbourhoods and more about operational failures.
We are discovering the myriad flaws and failures of the home office, whether it’s losing criminals, failing to monitor our borders, failing to track those on probation, failing to monitor sex offenders, failing to check criminal backgrounds or failing to enter arrests into the police national computer.
We know more about the NHS and that at least 13 trusts are bankrupt. Citizens can discover what sort of ‘value for money’ they are receiving from private finance initiatives, which used to be conducted in almost total secrecy. We are coming closer at last to finding out the detailed expenses of MPs, something their Scottish counterparts have been forced to publish for the past year.
And to those, notably ministers, who say that FOIA costs money: may I point out that as a result of FOIA, the amounts claimed by Scottish MSPs have plummeted.
Despite the lack of publicity about FOIA (compare £322 million spent annually by the government’s central office of information telling us what politicians want us to know, with the measly £200,000 spent advertising FOIA: things we want to know), the public has embraced freedom of information. Not just journalists, but campaign groups and trade unions, along with individual citizens, have made good use of it.
With all these people’s efforts, the feudal attitude that government knows best is gradually being replaced by something more democratic and egalitarian.
I hope that my recent win at the information tribunal against the BBC, following my FOIA request for the minutes of the governors’ meetings, will begin to eliminate the outdated belief that public servants can only make good decisions in secret.
Secrecy is the nemesis of good government: it leads to inefficiency, incompetence and corruption. When I wrote the first edition of ‘Your Right to Know’, a book that provides a detailed guide to FOIA in the UK, I had no idea whether the British public would take to the idea of open, directly accountable government. The recent publication of a second-edition of the book proves that there is a demand for this type of governance.
Two-way information sharing may not be to polit-icians’ liking – and they are doing all they can to stop it – but it has found the public’s favour. If politicians do not embrace it, they risk losing what little electoral legitimacy they hold.
Heather Brooke is the author of ‘Your Right to Know: A Citizens Guide to Freedom of Information’ (£13.99, 2nd edition, Pluto Press), shown right, available online from Amazon.
Comment on this article
Tim Gopsill: curbing FOIA is bad for democracy
Why ministers’ attempt to foil FOIA needs to fail
What’s up with the information commissioner?