Gordon Brown’s promise today to extend freedom of information is welcome, but how much difference will it make? FOI needs to be deepened, not widened, if it is truly to hold power to account.
In Parliament today, Gordon Brown paid tribute to the “vital role transparency has played in sweeping aside the discredited system of allowances, and holding power to account”. Consequently, he argued, “we should do more to spread the culture and practice of freedom of information.”
What is clear from the expenses scandal is that FOI is pretty well untouchable just now, even if it was a leak that did the real damage. After the House of Commons authorities failed in their bid to keep MPs’ claims under wraps and a group of MPs had to drop a plan to exempt themselves, any attempt to restrict the public’s right to know will not get very far.
But neither are things moving very far in the other direction. Brown’s promise that Justice Secretary Jack Straw will look at broadening the application of FOI to include new bodies that spend public money is not new and is an easy pledge to make at virtually no cost to to central government.
What would be more impressive would be a commitment from ministers that they will release more information themselves. But in vetoing the release of the pre-Iraq war cabinet minutes, despite rulings from the Information Commissioner and information tribunal, Straw has shown that holding power to account has its limits.
Instead of undermining the enforcement process, Brown and Straw should be strengthening it, for example by increasing the powers and resources available to the Information Commissioner to crack down on abuses.
As a recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed, the response of ministers and civil servants to FOI is a perpetual game of cat and mouse to prevent — or delay — embarrassing disclosures. There are so many exemptions that finding reasons not to be transparent is child’s play. While Brown and Straw talk up FOI, government officials are strangling the life out of it.
Four years since FOI came into force, I recently experienced the most blatantly obstructive tactics I have seen yet. I asked for a copy of a letter that Colin Matthews, chief executive of airport owner BAA sent Geoff Hoon, then transport secretary, lobbying for the expansion of Heathrow. The Department for Transport refused to disclose the document, on the grounds that BAA had issued a press release that included “the substance of the letter”.
It should go without saying that if we have to be satisfied with the version of events put out by spin doctors, instead of finding out what really happened, freedom of information is meaningless.
Similarly, while Brown’s pledge to get Tim Berners-Lee to help government “drive the opening up of access to government data in the web” is welcome, it will be of little use if government only opens up the data that it wants people to have. Direct access to the information that we want would be truly revolutionary, but without a complete change in the culture of government, the tendency to bury bad news will prevail.
And on the third part of Brown’s pledge the story is the same. The 30-year rule will become a 20-year rule (not 15 as Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre recommended) but, of course, “there will be protection of Royal Family and Cabinet papers”. Brown may say that the exemptions will be strictly limited, but it’s the exemptions that undermine the rule. Once again, freedom of information on the government’s terms, when it suits them, looks like the order of the day.