Clinging to the culture of secrecy

Labour may come to regret introducing the Freedom of Information Act but without it MPs might have been able to keep their expenses private. Peter Facey looks at what the act has done for genuine transparency

Who would have guessed, a decade ago, that one of the most radical pieces of legislation introduced by New Labour in its first term of office would be the Freedom of Information Act? After Dr David Clark's far-reaching White Paper 'Your Right to Know — the Government's proposals for a Freedom of Information Act' came Jack Straw's significantly scaled back version.

At the time, organisations such as the Campaign for Freedom of Information and Charter 88 were united in their condemnation of a piece of legislation with so many caveats and get out clauses that it appeared to merely protect the government's right to remain in secrecy, hidden behind the fig leaf of reform.

Many of those criticisms remain valid as any journalist or researcher who has attempted to get information out of government can testify. It is still too easy for civil servants and ministers to use the existing legislation to lead people on a game of cat and mouse and hide behind commercial confidentiality and dubious claims of national security. Gordon Prentice MP recently highlighted in Parliament how he had "30 closely typed pages of freedom of information requests going back to 2005 that have not been properly addressed by the Information Commissioner".

This backlog is at least partially due to the small budget the Information Commissioner has to work with. But while getting straight answers out of public bodies remains a struggle, it is now clear that the legislation has, obliquely, opened a Pandora's box. What is fascinating is that a culture of freedom of information within the media has arisen quite quickly, partly fuelled by the Internet, while Whitehall and Westminster have doggedly stuck to the pervading culture of secrecy.


Freedom of information – the genie's left the bottle (Public Service, 30 November 2009)