The Freedom of Information Act, set up in 2000, has allowed the general public to find out things that without it would have died as secrets within the walls of Westminster and Whitehall. Things such as the MPs expenses scandal, how tasers had been drawn on more than 400 children in 2013 and the amount of NHS contracts being handed out to private companies.
We at diginomica have used the Freedom of Information Act ourselves many a time to try and find out details that the press offices in Whitehall departments aren’t willing to tell us. Although critics claim that FoI requests create a lot of costs for government, often the requests are necessary given the other blockers that are put in place.
And one thing is important to remember: the information that government departments hold isn’t their information, it’s ours. We as citizens, given that we are living in a democratic society, have a right to know what elected officials are doing with our money and data.
But the current government isn’t entirely convinced by this. In fact, it has set up an independent commission to ‘investigate’ the process governing Freedom of Information requests. The commission - which has been labelled as independent, but doesn’t include any pro-FoI voices - is considering changes to the law, including the introduction of charges.
If we were in any doubt about the sentiment towards the Act within the current government, cabinet minister and leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling recently spoke out about how the media ‘misuse’ the tools to create stories. He said:
It is, on occasion, misused by those who use it as, effectively, a research tool to generate stories for the media, and that is not acceptable. It is a legitimate and important tool for those who want to understand why and how governments make decisions, and this government does not intend to change that.
Especially when those stories relate to MPs misusing public money, I’m sure.
Take this in combination with the comments made by the Cabinet Office, which said:
Our aim is to be as open as possible on the substance, consistent with ensuring that a private space is protected for frank advice. To that end as a government we must maintain the best environment for policy-makers to think freely and offer frank advice to decision-makers. The most effective system is when policy makers can freely give advice, whilst citizens can shine a light into government.
It is obvious, in my opinion, that the government wants to limit the use and capability of the Freedom of Information Act in order to be able to do more of its business in private. Or should I say, do more of OUR business in private.
This all, ironically, comes at a time when the current government is claiming to create the most open government in the world. But what it means by open often equates to dumping large amounts of data on to websites, which are generally unusable to those that don’t have a degree in data science and analytics.
What can we do?
There are some organisations out there - namely mySociety and campaigning group 38 Degrees - that are doing an excellent job of informing citizens about what they can do to ensure that these proposed changes don’t go through. For example, mySociety has said:
Information released via Freedom of Information responses is used to inform debate and scrutiny at all levels from local community meetings, through local council chambers, to the House of Commons. Our democratic system does cost money: elections, councils, Parliament are all expensive. Freedom of Information helps ensure we get value for that money, and helps our democracy function, by enabling deliberations and decisions to be well informed.
Money spent responding to Freedom of Information requests needs to be considered in the context of wider public spending. In 2012 it was reported that Staffordshire County Council had spent £38,000 in a year responding to Freedom of Information requests.
The then Director of mySociety, Tom Steinberg, commented: From this I can see that oversight by citizens and journalists cost only £38,000 from a yearly total budget of £1.3bn. I think it is fantastic that Staffordshire County Council can provide such information for only 0.002 per cent of its operating budget
Equally, 38 Degrees has done a very good job of creating an easy to use web form online so that anyone can submit evidence directly to the commission about the proposed changes. It states that the commission’s survey for evidence is “full of jargon”, so it has created one that has “translated the questions into plain English”.
If you care about protecting the future of the Freedom of Information Act and the tools it provides to help find out how our government is operating, then it is important that you submit your evidence by MIDNIGHT ON FRIDAY AT THE LATEST. Please consider spending 5 minutes to jot down your thoughts.
I’m going to leave you with the words of actor Michael Sheen, who has been campaigning to protect the privileges granted by the FoI Act. He has said that the commission and the proposed changes are “nothing short of a full frontal attack” on the public’s “right to know”. Sheen added:
"If the politicians and civil servants behind this assault get their way, then the right of you and I to understand the workings of our democracy will be seriously damaged.
"Newspaper journalism, whether local or national, has used FOI to hold the government to account on everything from MPs' expenses to staff shortages in the NHS."
"Without a strong FOI Act, it would be much harder for me and those like me to see and understand the effects of government policy [on vital services like the NHS].”