Your right to know is being trampled on in the tumult of the pandemicby Alice Wright / November 22, 2020 / Leave a comment
Politicians are often exuberant about transparency and laud the notion of freedom of information, until they find themselves in government. For then transparency equates to accountability. It was Tony Blair’s administration that finally wrangled the lofty arguments for “right of access” into legislation, but Blair now retrospectively describes the Freedom of Information Act as “utterly undermining of sensible government,” arguing that the act is not used “to bestow knowledge on ‘the people.’ It’s used as a weapon.”
Yet, having spoken to concerned citizen activists, the Institute for Government, leading academics, The Campaign for Freedom of Information and the figure behind the initial white paper that led to New Labour’s groundbreaking legislation, the consensus is that freedom of information, under threat for some time, is now on the verge of crisis. The most up-to-date data supports this. According to the Institute for Government, of the resolvable requests received by government departments in the second quarter of this year, only 37 per cent have been delivered in full. We are in a crucial moment for a right that is ardently worth protecting.
It has been 20 years since David Clark’s (now Lord Clark of Windermere) brainchild, the Freedom of Information Act, achieved Royal Assent, and 15 years since it came into force. Looking back Clark tells me: “I wanted to increase democracy and therefore I felt freedom of information was critical. I was determined to try and write very radical Freedom of Information Act but also one which served the ordinary citizen.” The act provided citizens the first legal right of access to the information of government and public authorities. Freedom of information is often mistaken as an intrinsic part of the state or a deeply embedded right. Yet it is really only a legislative fledgling and therefore far more precarious and in need of protection than you might think.
The act is enforced by the non-departmental Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The commissioner has two main recourses, a decision notice to state whether a public authority has complied with the law and if not what should be done to put things right, and an enforcement notice if there is a systemic problem. However, the office has only ever issued an enforcement notice four times. Maurice…