The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOI Act), which has given us important stories such as the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, is currently being reviewed by a government commission. The commission is being chaired by Sir Jeremy Heywood, Britain’s top civil servant and a well-known critic of the Act. His goal is to limit it, and so has set up a commission to review it and potentially identify “improvements” that could be made to the Act.
First of all, what is it? The Freedom of Information Act 2000 was brought in to create a public “right of access” to information held by public authorities. This can range from finding out how many arrests a year the police make for knife-related offences, to statistics on waiting times in NHS hospitals.
It was brought in by a Labour government to much adulation from members of the public and especially the press. The most notable usage of the powers afforded by the introduction of the Act is the exposé of the MPs’ expenses scandal by the Daily Telegraph. However, the Act is used all the time by journalists in search of statistics that haven’t been revealed by authorities that are in the public interest.
‘Public interest’ is a key phrase here. Chris Grayling, leader of the House of Commons and a critic of the FOI Act, claims that journalists are “misusing” the power to request information as a “research tool” in order to “generate stories”. However, journalists assert that the information requested is well within public interest, hence why they feel the need to ask for access to it. Sir Jeremy Heywood also criticises the Act, arguing that confidentiality is more important when it comes to policy-making.
But the law does take this view on board already – it is deliberately flexible and offers Whitehall officials and ministers a ‘safe space’ in which to debate domestic policy plans. Here’s the key phrase again – the details of discussions are only revealed if the public interest in disclosure outweighs the need for confidentiality. Even then, these are only revealed after a policy has been decided and publicly announced.
Who is the FOI Act important to? Everyone technically, but strictly speaking, it is massively important to the media. Journalism has long been there for those in power to be held to account, and the Act helps journalists do just that. It can help show unwelcome trends, bring wrongdoing to light and show neglected areas that the government are failing to address.
Many stories that you see about stuff like increases in crime or hospital failings will more than likely have come about through a journalist utilising the FOI Act. It is also arguably fairly important to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who shows great pride in exclaiming that he heads one of the most transparent governments.
However, with his Government setting up the commission to make recommendations on whether it should be changed, it could be debated whether or not Cameron really does like having this Act in place.
How is it being reviewed? The Independent Commission that has been set up to review the Act is made up of a panel that is handpicked by Sir Jeremy Heywood. This panel includes Lord Burns, commission chairman and a former top Treasury official, former Tory leader Michael Howard and ex-Labour Cabinet minister Jack Straw.
The latter of the trio mentioned, Jack Straw, fought very hard to water down the Act when he was a Cabinet minister, so his appointment does make the panel look a little suspect. This is if it doesn’t already look suspicious enough, with the critical Heywood having picked the commission’s members. The commission meet in secret and no one can find out what they discuss because their deliberations aren’t covered by the FOI Act.
So how does this affect us? Well, for a start, public services could be badly affected by cuts or general neglect by the government (if not both). Without the FOI Act, or with a heavily watered down version of it, this disservice could not so easily be revealed to the public – if at all. Growing problems may not be nipped in the bud as easily, and could cause big issues as the problem at hand suddenly becomes much more blatant as it gets worse. Not only will we not be aware by the mistreatment of public services – but we could be directly affected by it.
Universities are not exempt from the FOI Act, despite the fact they are not public authorities. This is because they receive so much public funding. However, some argue that universities should become exempt from the Act.
Some believe that the FOI Act may undermine universities as businesses. Chris Cobb, pro vice-chancellor and chief operating officer at the University of London, says that universities should not have to abide by the Act “as public funding for universities reduces and the level of competition increases (not least from private providers, who are not subject to FOI).” However, would exemption be beneficial when universities play such a big part in public life, regardless of decreasing funding?
The argument for universities to not be included in the FOI Act is built on the fact that private competitors do not have to abide by it, but surely that just adds to the argument of extending the FOI Act to include these private competitors and private companies as a whole?
In a democratic country where freedom of speech reigns, it is surely natural that freedom of information also follows. It cannot be a true democracy if important facts and information are hidden from the general public. Therefore, the FOI Act is a key part of the UK’s modern day society and if any changes at all face it, they should surely be changes to extend the Act, not reduce it. As the commission continues to discuss and review the Act, it is well worth keeping an eye on developments as this key tool for society faces change. After all, it could well be the last change to legislation that you’re able to see.