The Freedom of Information Act was among Tony Blair’s greatest achievements as Prime Minister. Tellingly, it was also a reform that he bitterly regretted.
In his memoirs, Blair reflected:
“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it…”
“For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead,’ and handing them a mallet.”
Yet for Conservatives who wish – as Margaret Thatcher put it – “to have the state as servant not master” it has been a welcome method of holding our rulers to account. Given the great progress that David Cameron has made in advancing transparency, it is ironic that the Government should have contemplated weakening Freedom of Information. The report in The Sun this morning that it is retreating from this ill-judged path is welcome. The comment from Chris Grayling that it was “not acceptable” for FOI requests to be “used as a research tool” by journalists was perverse – as Mark Wallace pointed out at the time. The usual complaint against journalists is that they don’t “check their facts” – yet when they do so and the facts turn out to be inconvenient to those in power we see this rather odd complaint emerge.
Complaints that FOI represents a financial burden are disingenuous. The ability to find out what the various branches of the state are spending and how effectively they are doing so drives costs down. It is natural that bureaucrats don’t wish us to know what they are up to but it is welcome for taxpayers.
There will always arguments about the detail. Why should the letters sent by the Prince of Wales to Ministers be published when those sent by others remain private? It is reasonable that candid advice should be given to politicians privately. But in terms of what the state does – rather than thinks about doing – we should be told more. For instance, housing associations – effectively part of the public sector – should be subjected to FOI requests and to the requirement to publish spending items of over £500.
FOI should be considered in the context of the wider transparency agenda. Charities are often substantially funded by the state. They should be subjected to greater scrutiny. A report this morning reveals that many of them spend less than half their money on charitable activities.
We should trust the people. When John Major was Prime Minister the decision was made to publish school league tables so that parents could make more informed choices. The move was bitterly resisted by the Labour Party and the teaching unions. Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary has done much to ensure that NHS failings are exposed – in contrast to the preference under the Labour Government for them to be covered up.
Far from constraining Freedom of Information, as Conservatives we should make greater use of it. Quangos and local councils should be penalised for bogus excuses and delaying tactics in their attempts to keep their extravagance and inefficiency concealed. The Taxpayers Alliance has used FOI requests very effectively and more should follow that example.
If it had not been for Jeremy Corbyn putting the Labour Party into such a mess, the Government would have suffered far more from attacking FOI. Ministers should put their Conservative principles above self-interested administrative convenience.