For the main political parties, your view on Freedom of Information appears to be directly linked to whether you are in Government or Opposition. Labour, which introduced the system, was by its last term in office routinely bemoaning it and trying to water it down, while Conservatives like Chris Grayling eagerly deployed FoI requests to dig up information on the Brown administration’s failings. Fast forward to 2015, and the very same Chris Grayling is proposing to limit FoI, and the Labour Party is arguing for it to be preserved.
In short, both are guilty of very public inconsistency. Freedom of Information can indeed be a pain to those in power – but that’s the point. Voters and taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent and their state administered, and for obvious reasons sometimes those doing the spending and the administering find it embarrassing when their errors are revealed.
The routine complaint about FoI is that it is used for frivolous requests – what a council’s plan is for a zombie apocalypse, or how many toilet seats get broken each year, for example. That is part of the price of transparency (and indeed at least one council has responded with its zombie apocalypse plans, suggesting time-wasting isn’t the preserve of FoI requesters).
Oddly, though, that doesn’t seem to be the Government’s complaint. Asked about proposed changes in Parliament, Grayling said:
‘[Freedom of Information] is, on occasion, misused by those who use it as, effectively, a research tool to generate stories for the media, and that is not acceptable.’
Surely that is precisely an acceptable and desirable use of the Act? The media are just as much part of the scrutiny and accountability system of this country as any individual citizen. Large-scale use of FoI – first by the TaxPayers’ Alliance and then by various newspapers – has allowed proper study of the state on its true scale, for instance by comparing particular types of spending across all local authorities. As a result, the people have more opportunity than ever before to assess whether one public body does a better job than another.
All of which helps to improve the running of the State – and, if you want to be partisan about it, also helps the right more than the left. The case for lower public spending and lower taxes – as well as the case against huge, inefficient bureaucracies – is the main beneficiary of greater transparency. Pulling the curtains against the disinfecting sunlight would not be a boon to Conservatism, even if it made some Ministers feel more comfortable in the short term.
The real question about how FoI functions comes when you consider its cultural impact on government. It is a good thing that our public servants have to factor in to their decisions the possibility that the public might find out about them – goodness knows how much waste has been pre-empted by that simple consideration. But less good is the shift towards ‘post-it note government’, a trend in some quarters to avoid writing anything down lest it one day be published.
As Conservatives, we ought to consider the unintended consequences of a law rather than just its stated aims. While some in the public sector have embraced transparency, others have simply changed their behaviour to remain opaque and unaccountable. As a result, good government suffers because water-cooler conversations become more likely than written instructions and meetings go un-minuted. There are also suspicions that some destroy documentation when an FoI request comes in – a clear breach of the law, but one which it is very hard to prevent or punish.
So rather than seeking to restrict access to information – either by tighter rules or higher costs for those seeking to finding it out – the Government ought to consider how to better enforce transparency within its own operation. When the Act was first passed, many organisations hired Freedom of Information Officers, whose job was to advise colleagues on making information available and to ensure that lawful requests were fulfilled accurately and in the specified timeframe. Over the years, most of those roles have shifted into press offices – where the brief is protecting the organisation from any perceived threat, including the release of embarrassing information, and being helpful to a person submitting a request is a second-order objective. Separating out the two roles once more might make a difference.