Those in power – understandably – have a had a long and uneasy relationship with freedom of information. And like much that challenges government it has met resistance every step of the way: the Thatcher Government was so concerned in the 1980s it warned that FOI would be so damaging it could reduce the role of Parliament itself.
In that context it was remarkable that the last Labour Government – out of power for 17 years – committed itself to shining a light on the shadows cast by decisions made behind closed doors. Tony Blair said at the time “this [Act] is fundamental to changing the way we do politics in this country…there is still far too much an addiction to secrecy and wish to conduct Government business behind closed doors”.
And what followed was nothing short of revolutionary; literally thousands of cases on every topic imaginable where information obtained was used in the public interest to change policy and, yes, lives for the better: expenses, bonuses, stop-and-search figures, the exposing of child sexual exploitation – all brought to light because of the Act. A Labour achievement and one we should be proud of.
But fresh from kiboshing trade unions, the Lords, charities and anyone else that get in their way the Tories are coming for the Freedom of Information Act.
They have set up an absurd Commission to review the Act which has no remit to look at what has worked well, is packed full of people on record wanting to weaken the Act and is so transparent and free with its information that it itself is not subject to FOI.
And yesterday in the House of Commons the Leader of the House, Chris Grayling, revealed the Tories’ true intentions. He said FoI had been used “unnecessarily” and “abused” by journalists as a “research tool” to “create stories”. It is what many of us know as journalism. And this year alone journalists have uncovered remarkable stories including details of hundreds of dangerous criminals on the run, how many times our data has been breached online, what police knew about child sexual exploitation, and details of Tory donors making millions in housing benefit. Not some fanciful, frivolous requests but stories very definitely in the public interest.
And in fact Grayling’s remarks do not stand up to scrutiny, FoI requests have been stable at around 12,000 a quarter – the vast majority of those from private citizens not journalists.
Some of these stories may embarrass the Government, or reveal things the Government don’t want us to know. But that’s kind of the point. Rather than reverting to type and looking to close down debate, the Tories should work with Labour on how the Act could be improved to enhance accountability in public sector procurement in particular.
That’s why Labour have launched a consultation to look at how we can properly extend FoI to private contractors in the public sector, who currently operate almost entirely free from scrutiny despite the well documented failings of companies like Atos – usually on the back of negligent behaviour being reported.
And Labour have joined forces with the fantastic work being done by the Hands off FOI campaign to protect our right to know. But for the Tories it is another opportunity to reduce scrutiny in a government well versed in doing just that. After they all but gagged charities and are attempting to do the same to trade unions and the Lords it would be their holy-grail to water down the FoI Act.
But for Labour – 15 years on from passing the Act – we remain as committed now as we were then. It has saved time and money and helped countless services improve for the better but crucially it has enshrined in law the right to know about the decisions being taken in our name. Make no mistake, we will fight to defend it.