A right to keep digging

Observations on freedom of information

Freedom of information has never been popular with British politicians. Only as recently as 2005 did Britain guarantee the right to access information held by public authorities, when the Freedom of Information Act came fully into force. It was among the last countries in Europe to do so. Now, both government and opposition want to water down the act.

While Labour is still considering new fees regulations to limit the media's use of the act, a Tory back-bench attempt to exempt parliament itself from its scope has been building up a head of steam. Tory backbencher David Maclean's Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill sailed through the first stages of parliamentary consideration virtually unopposed.

As we go to press, there is an attempt to "talk out" the bill at the third report stage, but the government is making no attempt to protect the act.

Under Maclean's bill, parliament would be withdrawn from the ambit of the FoIA. It would also bar disclosure of MPs' official correspondence with other public bodies. Maclean justifies his bill as protecting his constituents' privacy. In an interview with a constituency newspaper, he explained: "If someone approached me and asked for a letter [that had been] sent to the police or council about a constituent, I would tell them to go away. But there have been cases where the other body can be approached and things slip through the net. I want to make sure this cannot happen."

It is hard to believe Maclean's stated reasons for exempting parliament, which ought to be the most accountable institution in the country, and MPs, who should be the most accountable persons in the country, from any freedom of information obligations. The central claim for the bill, that it is to prevent MPs' letters on behalf of constituents from being released to the press, simply does not hold. Constituents' personal details (if divulged in correspondence) are already protected under the act.

However, the bill would have the effect of making all correspondence between MPs and public authorities exempt.

There is also no valid reason to exempt parliament as a whole from the FoIA. The act already contains a wide range of provisions to protect parliamentary documents from disclosure under certain circumstances.

It would seem that the act has become a victim of its own success. It is striking to note that although it was among the last in Europe to introduce a legal right of access to public information, Britain's FoIA has been among the most widely used. Thousands of applications have been made in the two years it has been operational, and hundreds of press stories generated. From the point of view of improving transparency and accountability in public life, the act has done great good.

Alongside the Human Rights Act and House of Lords reform, freedom of information legislation was the third plank of new Labour's master plan for constitutional reform. So, why now does the government appear happy to throw this away?

Its proposals, if successful, would more or less put a stop on media use of the act. If this were really only about the high costs of some queries, then it could have proposed charges for heavy usage rather than stop it altogether.

We should be very concerned that the government has made no attempt to oppose the Maclean bill, adoption of which would put the UK out of step even with the newest and most fragile European democracies, such as Bosnia and Serbia, both of which have opened parliament to public scrutiny.

The cabinet is reported to be split on the matter, with Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett and Peter Hain backing the Tory bill.

Whatever their reasons, they are misguided. Beckett's own department preaches the gospel of openness abroad. She cannot be credible in this if, at the same time, she tries to limit rights of public access to information back home.

The Lord Chancellor is among those who have expressed worry at the government's appearing more and more closed. He is right: it is seen to be increasingly secretive. But there is an easy solution. It can oppose the Maclean bill and, in June, take very seriously the hundreds of responses expressing serious concern about the new fees regulations.

Peter Noorlander is senior legal officer with Article 19