FOI - a democratic freedom, or a hindrance to government?

Former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw, is one of the key architects of the original Act. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)
Former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw, is one of the key architects of the original Act. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)
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As concerns are raised that the Freedom of Information Act could be watered down, Chris Bond looks at the impact it has had over the last ten years.

WHEN the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) was first introduced a decade ago, it was heralded by Labour Ministers who said it would help make government more open.

Speaking at the time Lord Falconer, then Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, said: “Good government is open government, and good government is effective government.

“Our long-term goal is strengthen the link between the state and the citizen.”

The idea behind it was that information which hitherto had been kept private could now be requested by the public, meaning that police forces, hospitals, schools, local councils and the government were obliged to reply to requests for information.

It transformed the need to know culture into a statutory right to know and was regarded by many people as one of the landmark achievements of the last Labour government.

Over the past 10 years more than 400,000 requests have been made under Freedom of Information laws in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Press has been among the beneficiaries of these requests which have been used to reveal information in a number of high profile stories including the MPs expenses scandal, Prince Charles’s lobbying letters to ministers and last week’s revelation that British pilots had taken part in air strikes in Syria.

Supporters claim that since its introduction the Act has proved a vital democratic tool in helping to hold politicians and other officials to account.

But not everyone feels it has been a success. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has since described the law as one of the biggest regrets of his time in power, arguing it has had the effect of denying civil servants a “safe space” to properly advise ministers for fear their conversations would later become public.

In the last Parliament, Conservative ministers were reportedly considering how to curb repetitive and overly expensive FOI requests, but the Lib Dems were against the move.

But now it’s back on the agenda following news that a cross-party group will explore whether the Act is too intrusive, before reporting back in November.

The group of five influential figures, including former Labour Home Secretary, Jack Straw, one of the key architects of the original Act, will also report on whether it is providing value for money.

The Ministry of Justice, which oversees FOI requests, says the number of applications made to central government bodies had risen steadily since 2007 to the point where almost 1,000 were now received every week.

There’s no doubt these requests have helped bring important stories into the public domain. But critics say they are time-consuming and eat into the already stretched resources of public authorities.

Some of the requests made are certainly odd to say the least. One that was made to Wigan Council asked what plans were in place to protect the town from a dragon attack, while somebody in Leicestershire wanted to know how many roundabouts were located within the county council’s boundaries.

However, Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, argues that some of the more outlandish requests are a “red herring” because they don’t actually cost much to the public purse.

He also believes that the existing system strikes the right balance between the public’s right to know and the Government’s need for secrecy.

“We are concerned about the whole exercise,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “It’s a step backwards and will make it harder for people to find out information and make it easier for public authorities to avoid scrutiny.”