Freedom of Info at 10: Tony Blair's WORST NIGHTMARE
Apart from Dr Kelly coming back from the dead, that is ...
Although the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000, it didn't come into force until 1 January 2005, meaning we've had just about 10 years of FoI – as the Information Commissioner's Office was keen to point out in a minor PR blizzard.
That load of celebratory snippets* included such worthy-but-dull moments as the first ICO decision notice. Issued in February 2005, it ordered Westminster Council to cough up information about pavements.
On the flip side, FoI has been responsible for putting a lot of good information into the public domain. The biggest by far was the MPs' expenses scandal of 2009, when, after MPs consistently refused to disclose any information at all and tried resorting to the courts to hide their dirty linen, a fed-up source eventually sold the Daily Telegraph the full, unredacted list of expenses, right before a redacted version was due to be released. Chequebook journalism at its finest.
Subsequent police witch-hunts against journalists have led to a situation where it would be impossible to expose such widespread criminality among the political class ever again. A handful of MPs and peers were jailed as a result of the scandal.
It's not all been smooth sailing for FoI, however. As the Associated Press reported, Tony Blair, the prime minister who oversaw its introduction, bitterly regretted it:
"You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop," Blair wrote of himself in his autobiography A Journey last year, recalling his adoption of the law, which took effect in 2005. "There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it."
So, with all that in mind, is FoI really a means of forcing the government to hand over proof of their incompetence and stupidity, putting power back into the hands of the people? Er, not really.
Take a look over the excellent WhatDoTheyKnow website, a publicly viewable treasure trove of FoI requests and answers. Taking a quick look over recent requests made to the Ministry of Defence, we see: owners of ex-military vehicles asking for their wagons' service histories; someone with a lengthy fixation on paramilitary activity in Kent; and a significant number of requests tagged "awaiting classification" or "awaiting response".
It's that latter which tells us the most about how FoI's affected us in its 10 years. While the FoI Act itself created a general right to access documents held by the public sector, there are virtually no meaningful penalties for failing to comply with – or outright ignoring – the law.
Sure, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) will dish out the odd verbal slap or decision notice, but – as your correspondent has plenty of personal experience of** – a lot of local and national government departments are quite happy to just sit on embarrassing information, or otherwise stall requests, until Joe Public gives up and goes away. Indeed, for years there have been whisperings that central government wants to restrict the scope of FoI, supposedly on the grounds that complying with the act is too much of a burden.
Yet anecdotes aren't data. On the whole FoI has forced the doors of government open, to a limited extent. The rich can actually put the legislation to its intended use, as the Guardian is proving with its dogged court battle to secure access to Prince Charles' letters to ministers about government policy.
Campaign groups absolutely love FoI as a means of digging up new facts to back them up, as this press release about the impact of the High Speed Two railway line shows, while FoI's impact on journalism has, it rather goes without saying, been huge.
Does it give power to the people? Judging by the 1,500 requests made to a single council alone, there's clearly a huge appetite for seeing the documents which governmental bodies use to inform their decision-making. Even with its drawbacks taken into account, clearly it's A Good Thing for keeping politicians and their lackeys on the straight and narrow, in the knowledge their actions can be held to public scrutiny at any time. Long live FoI. ®
* For some reason the ICO's timeline draws a strange amount of attention to things completely unrelated to FoI; the fact that Labour won the 2005 General Election, British soldiers' 2009 withdrawal from Iraq and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, to name a few.
** Your correspondent is locked in a titanic epically tedious battle with the Home Office over an FoI request for an obscure government policy document. They tell me they won't obey the law and release it "to avoid the premature disclosure" of policy and to allow a "safe space" for policy wonks to do their thing. The document in question was issued in the early 1970s and its author has been dead for 20 years.