The matter of Government transparency and accountability is so important to David Cameron that the Conservatives would like to end our right to ask questions via the Freedom of Information Act (FoI).
The Act gives us the right to ask for information from public bodies, rather than depending on what the government is prepared to let us see. Such information allows us to make informed decisions and to challenge the government with evidence when policies have adverse outcomes. Any attempt to curtail public access to information will have profound implications for government openess, transparency, accountability and for democracy.
Many campaigners have voiced fears that government proposals could make it more difficult, and costly, for the media and public to use the Act to access information held by public bodies.
Chris Grayling, Tory tyrant extraordinaire, along with others in his party, has a history of altering and editing laws that he regards an inconvenience. He claims that “it is wrong that the Freedom of Information Act was being used as a research tool to generate stories for the media and that is not acceptable.”
But surely research, investigation, providing evidence and sharing information and news with the public is what we ought to expect from the media, it’s precisely those criteria that establish high quality journalism.
Grayling’s outrageous remarks were condemned by Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour party, who believes the FoI Act should be strengthened, not undermined. I agree.
Watson said: “Chris Grayling’s assertion that the Freedom of Information Act is ‘misused’ to generate stories for the media betrays a greater truth about this government’s thinking.
“What they’d really like to see is less open government. It is the job of journalists to hold the government to account on behalf of the public. The Freedom of Information Act is a vital tool in their armoury which should not and must not be removed or weakened.”
Grayling said it should be used for “those who want to understand why and how government is taking decisions”. It is, and that includes by journalists who inform the public about those decisions and the likes of bloggers such as me – a lot of my work wouldn’t be possible without the FoI Act, I use it frequently so I can share crucial information, as do many other bloggers.
Many of us submitted a FOI regarding the mortality rates of sick and disabled people undergoing the controversial work capability assessment, after the government refused to publish the information after 2011, and fellow blogger Mike Sivier from Vox Political fought in court to ensure that this important information was finally released.
And who can forget Steven Preece’s request from Welfare Weekly, that revealed the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) had lied about the “success” of the punitive sanction regime, using fake characters giving fake testimonies, which the DWP published in a leaflet and were subsequently forced to retract it. Steven’s FoI, details of which were widely shared by the mainstream media, (as were the details of Mike Sivier’s FoI) highlighted that the government is not above shameful lying to get its own way.
There’s a strong element of cooperative work amongst bloggers. I submitted a subsequent request for further detailed information about sanctions recently, which has yielded a lot of information that I’m researching around, so I can also share information and analysis, too. Writers frequently draw on other people’s FoIs to analyse, cross reference and to share important information.
I was memorably refused information about the government risk register regarding the Health and Social Care Bill back in 2012, and despite being ordered by the Information Commissioner and a tribunal to release that information, we have yet to see it. The claim behind the refusal was that it isn’t “in public interests”that the information is released. I beg to differ.
We clearly have a government that doesn’t like democratic processes, dialogue and public engagement regarding its policies and impacts and any kind of critical appraisal and challenge.
The very short timescale of the public consultation regarding the future of the Freedom of Information Act also indicates an utter lack of respect for democratic process and the public’s right to access information that they feel is in their best interests to know. The call for information was published on the November 9, and the closing date for submissions is November 20. That’s scandalous.
The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information’s terms of reference require it to consider the implications for the Freedom of Information Act 2000 of the uncertainty around the Cabinet veto and the practical operation of the Act as it has developed over the last 10 years in respect of the deliberative space afforded to public authorities. The Commission is also interested in “the balance between transparency and the burden of the Act on public authorities more generally.”
The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information invites anyone to submit evidence on the questions raised in the call for evidence paper. See: Independent Commission on Freedom of Information: call for evidence
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