Today saw Jack Straw give evidence to the justice select committee as part of their post-legislative review into the Freedom of Information Act, introduced in 2000 by the Labour government.
The Act, which Tony Blair has revealed he later came to regret, really ought to be a centrepiece of the coalition’s drive towards freedom and transparency. Yet, it seems rather unloved. Civil servants complain of an increased workload, public bodies that the act forces them to take on excessive costs.
As Jack Straw’s evidence revealed, the Freedom of Information Act is not perfect. Straw warned that the increasing use of technology such as smart phones to make decisions could render the act impotent against media that might “disappear”. This after special advisers and even education secretary Michael Gove were caught using private email accounts to conduct official business in the hope that they would not be subject to freedom of information requests.
These problems all fit in with David Cameron’s assertion that the act ‘furs up’ government business, while former cabinet secretary Lord O’ Donnell claimed it was having a “very negative impact” on policy discussions.
Last week, Newsnight revealed government plans to introduce charges for information requests, describing them as ‘paralysing’ and, at £8m, costly.
That revelation appears wholly at odds with the government’s wider attitude on the matter. In 2010, Eric Pickles rebuked local councils that were charging journalists for FOI requests by claiming that “If town halls want to reduce the amount they spend on responding to freedom of information requests they should consider making the information freely available in the first place”.
Presumably Pickles would be only too happy to reiterate that stance around the cabinet table.
The plans raise two immediate problems. Firstly, the bureaucratic needs of instituting the charges are likely to be excessive, making it harder for the public to access information when the very point of the Act is to make it easier. Secondly, it doesn’t play well in the media or with the public. Having to pay to access information that we were told was our right is not an easy sell. Add this to recent controversy over so-called 'snooping', and the government that was meant to send a ‘transparency wrecking-ball’ through parliament instead appears to be one reluctant to release its information, but eager to store ours.
Clearly, the Freedom of Information Act is far from perfect. Successive prime ministers have come to loathe the toll it places on government time and money. Yet, it remains unclear how a government so rhetorically committed to transparency can hope to push through measures that would limit public access to government information at the very same time as proposing a bill that allows the government even greater scope to store ours.
As information commissioner Christopher Graham told the justice select committee: “There really is a gap between the rhetoric of openness and the reality of reluctance.”