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19 January 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 7:17am

The Freedom of Information Act has just one problem: it doesn’t go far enough

Tom Brake explains why he's calling for freedom of information to be extended further.

By Tom Brake

We all want a good government. We want a government that protects the most vulnerable, encourages prosperity and harmony in society and which puts the interests of the people in our country first. Significantly however, a good government is also one which can be trusted and respected by the public, and this is why the Freedom of Information Act is so important.

The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act fosters an openness and transparency in government which is vital for our society. It gives the public a greater understanding of what their government is doing and how this affects the country. From Freedom of Information requests uncovering figures regarding A&E Ambulance delays and the cost of policing to, famously, the MPs expenses scandal, the public benefits from the ability to obtain and reveal embarrassing information.

Our Freedom of Information Act however is far from perfect and needs strengthening yet, the Government is doing all it can to dilute the power of the FOI Act to give less scrutiny to its decisions. This should be cause for great distress to us all and is why I am moving in Parliament for an extension of the FOI Act, through my Freedom of Information (Public Interest and Transparency) Bill.

I am calling to end the long standing hypocrisy of the ‘Ministerial veto’ which allows Ministers to block FOI requests. The most famous example being that of Jack Straw who blocked minutes from meetings leading up to the decisions relating to how the Blair government led our nation into an illegal war in Iraq being published.

The public deserve to have this veil of secrecy over the government lifted, regardless of whether scars of poor government are revealed. Freedom of Information requests are unpopular with certain ministers, and Tony Blair famously implied that the worst thing he did was introduce the Freedom of Information Act; a strange statement from someone who sent our troops into Iraq and shows just how fearful ministers, from both major parties, are of the power the FOI Act has to uncover their failings.

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My Bill goes even further and will remove the ability for the Speaker, on behalf of Parliament, to veto FOI requests related to the running of Parliament without a public-interest test applied.

As well as this, I am calling for the FOI Act to be extended to cover the Royal Household. I believe that while members of our Monarchy hold a special place in society given their important public role, they should not be immune to the FOI Act when their judgements and decisions affect our country so greatly, particularly that of the Monarch or future Monarch.

Most importantly however, our FOI Act fails to cover private companies which now are contracted to carry out public sector work. These include companies such as Serco and G4S, which undertake important security work, train companies such as, the much maligned, Thameslink and Southern Rail and increasingly, some of our hospitals. It is incongruous  that these companies can not be investigated and the public have so little ability to scrutinise them when they are directly providing public services.

We need an FOI Act that is tough, that provides the public with the knowledge that they can hold their government to account, and not one which lets Ministers or companies doing public work off the hook. That is why my Bill calls for the extension of the FOI Act to cover any private companies, social enterprises and charities which are carrying out public sector work. Furthermore, I am calling for an end to the seemingly endless time organisations and Government departments are allowed to respond to a FOI request. The introduction of a statutory time limit will force requests to be dealt with promptly.

Freedom of Information laws are fundamental to our democracy, particularly when there is a sole party of government. Without a credible main opposition to challenge the Government on their actions it is more important than ever that the public and the Press are able to hold our Government to account. For that reason, I am today unequivocally calling for the expansion of the Freedom of Information Act. 

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