The last few months have been worrying for those who believe in greater transparency and openness in government. The freedom of Information laws that have kept local and national government on their toes were put under review, with lots of speculation that they would be diluted.
A consultation on proposed changes to FOI saw a host of public sector organisations make all sorts of absurd claims that FOI was damaging and expensive, that it led to lazy journalism and fishing expeditions. The obvious retort being that general disclosure is better, and more of it would make FOI unnecessary.
Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent and there are hundreds of examples of waste and poor value for money exposed by FOI, so any effort to remove it would be bad for democracy and accountability. This is acknowledged by people from all parts of the political spectrum.
So today’s story in the Times that FOI may be extended to charities and the ministerial veto could be strengthened should receive a mixed reaction.
Applying FOI to organisations that receive large amounts of taxpayers’ money would be a positive move; the Kids Company scandal being the most notorious case in point. Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was given to this charity, which now has now closed with some very serious questions remaining over its efficacy and spending controls. Greater scrutiny may have headed these problems off and prevented more money from being wasted.
In contrast, increasing the ability of ministers to veto an FOI would be harmful for the democratic process. There already exists a clause that allows Minsters to bar the disclosure of their communications (section 35), and so there is no plausible reason to try to extend the ministerial veto.
This combination of moves may be seen as a compromise intended to satisfy all, but the reality is that the situation does not require such a tit-for-tat response. Extending FOI to charities and companies that receive taxpayers’ money should not be done to justify other restrictions, or vice versa; it should be done because it is inherently right.
Instead of looking to restrict FOI this government should continue try to make access to taxpayer-funded information more open and more accessible. Extending it is a good idea, but not as a sop for other restrictions.