Open Government – Freedom of Information Act

December 30, 2004

Open government: here are a few things you need to know …Richard Morrison CRY freedom! Lift high the trusty banner of truth. Tear down the barricades of Whitehall secrecy and Westminster obfuscation. Why? Because in two days’ time we enter a brave new world. Saturday is the glad dawn when Britain’s glorious new Freedom of Information Act comes into effect. Yes, I know it was promised before the 1997 election and passed by Parliament more than four years ago. But you can’t hurry a big thing like open government, you know. Just ask our friends in North Korea. It’s only fair that ministers and civil servants should be given a little time — in fact, eight years — to prepare for the shock of being transparent and accountable. All those e-mails had to be erased from the system for a start — purely in the interests of good housekeeping, of course. And that has been an heroic task. Can you imagine the terrible risk of repetitive strain injury run by a civil servant who has to press a delete button 100,000 times? Anyway, now is not a moment for cynicism. After all, just look at the powers that the Act gives us, the newly liberated citizens of Great Blair and Northern Ireland. For the first time we can ask for information held by thousands of public bodies, ranging from government departments, local authorities and police forces to GPs’ surgeries and schools. And, from the Prime Minister to your local roadsweeper, they are all required to tell us what we want to know. Up to a point, of course. As Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, told journalists last month: “The Freedom of Information Act does not signify a ‘free for all’.” Perish the thought, milord! No, fair-minded people accept that there have to be a few exemptions to what Lord Falconer calls “a presumption of openness”. Well, 17 closely typed pages of exemptions, to be exact. But perhaps I could run through a few of these, just to show how reasonable they are. You wouldn’t expect, for example, that information held by our security services would be made public. And when I say security services I am also including the Tribunal established under section 65 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the Tribunal established under section 7 of the Interception of Communications Act, the Tribunal established under section 5 of the Security Service Act, the Tribunal established under section 9 of the Intelligence Services Act, the Security Commission, the Security Vetting Appeals Panel and the National Criminal Intelligence Service — all exempted from the Act. What do you mean, you had no idea that Britain had so many creepy quangos of spooks? You should be grateful. Besides, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. Information can also be withheld if its disclosure is likely to prejudice the defence of the realm, or “the economic interests of the United Kingdom”, or “the financial interests of any administration in the United Kingdom”, or “the administration of justice”, or relations between Britain and other countries, or “relations between any administration in the United Kingdom and any other such administration”. Nor can you demand information if it relates to the “formulation of government policy”, or “ministerial communications”, or “the operation of any ministerial private office”. Quite right, too. What a Cabinet Minister requests in his private office is entirely a matter between him, his lover and her nanny. What else? Well, you surely agree that a ministry shouldn’t reveal things which, “in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person” (eg, a Cabinet minister), would be “likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”. And no, that isn’t another reference to poor Mr Blunkett. Please stop sniggering at the back. These are vital matters of state. Talking of which, all “communications with Her Majesty, with other members of the Royal Family or with the Royal Household” are off limits. Of course. Can’t have details of the Prince of Wales’s phone bill bandied about like the racing results. Not until a butler reveals them in his memoirs, anyway. You also can’t ask for “personal information”, or information given to a public body in confidence, or information that is “a trade secret ”, or “likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person”. Anything else? Two other little things. A public body can ignore your query if it would cost too much to answer it. Or if, in its opinion, your request is “vexatious”. So remember: don’t make any requests that might annoy the politicians and bureaucrats who run our country so brilliantly. It’s typical of the woolly liberals in our society that this tiny list of exemptions should be held to indicate that the Freedom of Information Act isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In the words of Lord Falconer, the Act is “the next stage in a revolution which, step by step, is reshaping the relationship between citizen and state”. It certainly is!

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