Freedom of information was hard-won: it must not be diluted now

Can we really not afford to make this investment in open government? We have, after all, just spent

Information is power, and any government's attitude about sharing information with the people actually says a great deal about how it views power itself, and how it views the relationship between itself and the people who elected it.

Tony Blair will not mind us borrowing these words, spoken by him in 1996 before he became Prime Minister, because he and his cabinet appear to have lost enthusiasm for their once-passionate mission to open government to public scrutiny. Eleven years on, seven years after introducing an information bill and after just two years of, on the whole, successful implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, the government wants to rein in its wild child.

According to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the FoIA, implementation of which is estimated to cost roughly £35m a year, has become too expensive. Restrictions must therefore be placed on the type of information (not too frivolous), the cost of collecting it (officials' reading time must be included in the charge) and the frequency of requests from any one individual or body.

The effect of such restrictions will be to halt or reverse that plodding progress we were making as a country, still lagging way behind Scandinavia and the United States, to a position where officials understood, document by revealed document, that they would be held accountable for their actions.

We can dispose of the preposterous notion that the changes are motivated by cost concerns. In state budgeting terms, £35m is a blip - and, assuming a 10 per cent saving from the proposals, the government may expect to find itself only about £5m better off. This is probably less than the current value of Tony and Cherie's house in Connaught Square. Can we really not afford to invest this in open government? We have, after all, just spent around five billions trying to secure the democracy of another country.

Tony Wright is one of many prominent MPs who have been robust in opposition to the proposals. "Freedom of information has not yet got in the bloodstream of public authorities," he argued last month in the Commons. He is right. Consider the much-talked-of frivolous applications. Almost every minister who speaks for restrictions cites as an example of such a "trivial" request the applicant who wanted to know the cost of Ferrero Rocher chocolates supplied to British embassies around the world. Ho ho ho. And yet, why should we not know? And who should decide what is trivial? If we can't know about chocolates, can we know about the ambassador's car? Or her travel expenses? And if we can't know about them, can we know about the cost of the Iraq war? (The answer to that is No, by the way, under old and new rules.) It is easy to see how narrowly circumscribed the class of things that are not too trivial, too time-consuming, or too dangerous for citizens to know could eventually become.

Any dilution now of the freedom of information regime, still imperfect and far from loved by users and officials, would be a sad reversal of a hard-fought-for right. Less than 20 years ago, under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, it was still illegal for a lowly official to reveal how many pencils he used a year. Now an ordinary citizen, a charity worker called Chris Ames, is using the Freedom of Information Act to attempt to find the truth about the origin of the "45 minutes claim" in the dossiers leading up to war with Iraq (See Secrets we need to know and An important day for truth seekers). He has been pursuing disclosure of a particular civil servant's email for almost two years. The Information Commissioner is due to announce the result of his appeal. Ames may or may not be successful, but the FoIA has made it more difficult for our government to hide the truth. On 8 March consultations on the new proposals close. Have your say. (Visit for details.)

No government wants its secrets revealed. We should not be surprised that, in power, new Labour is less enthusiastic about "sharing information with the people" than it was in opposition. But Blair was right in 1996. His colleagues should resist pressure to backtrack on a nobly intended piece of legislation which may even be one of the Prime Minister's greatest legacies.

A tall order for Britain 2012

Citius, Altius, Fortius, as classics scholars and couch potatoes know from former Olympic Games, is Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger". It's the movement's inspiring motto and as old as the International Olympic Committee and drugs tests. Right now, Britain's sports administrators are concerned about "altius", and have launched a campaign for tall boys and girls to come forward and start training to win medals for Britain in 2012.

There are, we are told, simply not enough young men and women of sufficient height in this land of squat snooker players and darts throwers for Britain to stand a leaping chance in the volleyball and handball competitions. Upwardly mobile boys and girls are also sought for rowing. (Sir Steven Redgrave, the impressive frontman for the Sporting Giants programme, is himself an imposing 6ft 5in, as is that other rowing knight, his one-time partner Sir Matthew Pinsent.)

It's a blow to learn this late in the day of yet another reason to dread 2012. While we had our eyes on the problems of insufficient funds to build an Olympic park, we missed the vital question of citizens' heights - particularly galling, as the press seems to know the exact weight and body mass index of every child in the land.

It is not too late. Our children have five years in which to stop spreading outwards and start extending upwards. Grow, children, grow . . . and we'll give you back your playing fields.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery