If you follow us on Facebook, Twitter or even LinkedIn you may have noticed we’ve been sharing and commenting on a number of stories involving the 2000 Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and using hashtags such as #SaveFOI.
The Freedom of Information Act is an important part of our current political system. It has greatly enhanced government transparency by allowing ordinary citizens to question what their taxes are being used for and ask how decisions are made. Much of the research we conduct at the TaxPayers’ Alliance consists of trawling through government accounts and sending FOI requests for information that isn’t already available, and that allows for a more informed public debate on key policy issues.
It’s undoubtedly in the public interest that our government be as transparent as possible; that our politicians and civil servants are accountable to the electorate at all times. And yet The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information has been tasked with assessing (and potentially weakening) the scope of the Act. This worries us, and a diverse body of individuals, organisations and politicians.
There are already a number of valid reasons why a body could refuse to answer an FOI request, including if the information is already accessible through other means such as annual statements or if the information is sensitive.
And yet, despite allowing 'vexatious requests' to be turned down, the Act is still too broad. Or, that’s what a number of responses to the commission consultation implies. Suggestions for amending the Act range from only allowing registered bodies to submit FOIs, charging for each request, exempting Universities entirely and allowing bodies to refuse if the information is not deemed in the public interest.
All of these suggestions and the reasoning behind them should be rejected.
We need the FOI Act because taxpayers should have the right to know what their representatives are doing on their behalf and how their money is being spent. The idea that only registered bodies, or only constituents should be able to send local requests should also be thrown out. Newspapers are a part of our political process in the UK and, unfortunately, requesting information can be an art that only comes with practice. There have been many stories over the last few weeks detailing the number of public interest stories that have been researched with the help of the FOI Act.
If your council is complaining that the cost of responding to FOI requests is too high, or you’re worried about ‘lazy journalism’ then there is a simple, cost-effective solution available to all government bodies without the need for additional legislation or reviewing the current FOI Act.
Publish more data.
Publish data in a sensible format and move the burden of putting together numbers and digging for data on journalists and members of the public rather than the FOI officer.
There is simply no need to narrow the scope of the FOI Act and attempts to do so should be treated as a serious backward step for transparency and accountability. In fact, there are solid arguments to strengthen the Act, such as including the work private sector organisations do on public sector contracts paid for by taxpayers.
At the moment the consultation is ongoing and we can hope that nothing will come of it. But in the meantime, talk about this with your friends, follow and share this post or one of the ones we've linked to and keep an eye on your local public bodies. At the moment only those responding to the consultation are involved, but it's important that everyone else fights for FOI too.