Saving the Freedom of Information Act

Houses of Parliament (CC-BY)

Back in 2011, David Cameron announced that he was going to change the way government did business. No more hiding information away, making it difficult for people to retrieve. Instead, in an article published in the Telegraph, Cameron highlighted the importance of transparency at the heart of government. Information, said Cameron, “lets people hold the powerful to account” and, as a result, there needed to be more transparency about the workings of government. As Francis Maude, then Minister for the Cabinet Office, underlined, the “ambition [was] to make the UK the most transparent and accountable Government in the world“.

With such high words about the importance of transparency at the heart of government, it seems somewhat surprising (well, not that surprising) that Cameron’s government has launched a review into the Freedom of Information Act, a review that seems pretty loaded to produce a particular outcome: a curtailing of the power of the Act (which is saying something given its current limitations). So much for people holding the powerful to account.

The problem is that Cameron always had a particular narrow definition of government transparency. In his 2011 Telegraph article, he makes it pretty clear what he means by transparency: publicly accessible datasets. Releasing datasets is fine, indeed it’s a much welcome move. Their release certainly offers a degree of transparency. But it is a limited degree of transparency. Datasets alone can only tell you so much, they offer a very superficial form of transparency: transparency without context. Datasets do no negate FoI, they make FoI even more important.

At the recent Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) gathering in Huddersfield we talked about conducting research and the importance of FoI in helping to extract information from public bodies. The Act is a valuable tool for activists, enabling them to obtain information that can help to reinforce their case. It’s something that I have found an effective tool as part of my involvement in Voices for the Library – obtaining valuable information about the delivery of public library services throughout the UK.

Whilst the Act is limited at present, it does offer an opportunity to obtain information that can, just maybe, instigate change. Further restrictions to the Act will significantly limit its effectiveness and, further, make the kind of research discussed at the RLC gathering virtually impossible, not to mention creating difficulties for activists more generally. As Cameron himself said, “information is power”. Without access to the kind of information held by public bodies, we do not have power and without power we cannot instigate change.

But what of the review? Well, the figures involved in the review process should cause alarm for those concerned with transparent governance. Jack Straw, for example, is a known critic of the Act previously arguing that there needed to be substantial changes to the Act due to the impact it was having on government. Another figure on the panel, Michael Howard, was the subject of a number of freedom of information requests in 2005 that led to 500 pages of internal files being released relating to “controversial issues” he dealt with as home secretary in the 1990s. It seems hard to believe that he will be a great fan of the Act. And yet another member of the panel, Lord Carlile of Berriew, is not a particular fan of government transparency. The peer argued in 2013 that The Guardian’s publication of “stolen state secrets” was a “criminal” act.

With such figures involved in the review, it seems clear that at the very least the Act will be significantly watered down. This is not a surprise, it took years to make such an Act a reality and it’s not for nothing that the United Kingdom is known as one of the most secretive states in the Western world (we do, after all, retain an Official Secrets Act). Indeed, it transpired a couple of weeks ago that the Ministry of Justice is consulting on the introduction of Tribunal fees – which will very likely have the same effect as the introduction of tribunal fees elsewhere (ie people won’t take decisions to tribunals, which of course means that the government and public bodies are likely to get away with withholding information).

Given the attack on a vital piece of legislation that plays a vital role in giving people the information they require to hold the government to account, what can be done to put pressure on the government and ensure that at the very least the Act survives in its current form (it certainly needs extending, but that seems highly unlikely at present – if not impossible under a Tory government)? I’d highly recommend checking out this blog post by Paul Gibbons,  a consultant and trainer in information rights and information management. I’d also urge you to support the Campaign for Freedom of Information as much as you possibly can. I was very privileged to be invited to their recent 30th anniversary celebrations and hearing about the work they have done and continue to do was incredibly inspiring. But they need support to carry that work forward, so if you can support the Campaign (either through donations or amplifying their work on social media) please do so. Do also see their “Stop FoI Restrictions” page. They deserve all the support they can get for their tireless efforts to ensure that we all have access to information from the state.

Transparency at the heart of government should be a concern of every citizen, but I believe that information professionals have a particular obligation to ensure that not only is the Act not watered down, but that we also work to strengthen it. Information is power. With a weakened Freedom of Information Act, our power is severely curtailed.

Freedom of Information and getting things done

Last night I was very privileged to have been invited to the 30th anniversary celebration of the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CfFoI). I have to concede, that I was more than a little surprised to have received an invite, I am not someone who works within the field and therefore have no first-hand experience of dealing with the Act or any real expertise in the area. That said, as a librarian I am passionate about the importance of an informed citizenry that can both engage fully in the democratic process and hold elected officials to account. For this reason, I am a great believer in the Act and believe that the CfFoI is a vital force for good in a country that has a history of keeping citizens in the dark.

Listening to those who have been working for 30 years to firstly establish a Freedom of Information Act, then to keep the pressure on to ensure that an imperfect Act is improved and defended from efforts to try to water it down and diminish it (and we know full well there will be repeated efforts by agents of the state to diminish the Act and undermine its credibility) was particularly inspiring. As someone involved in various campaigns and groups, a lot of the words really rang true.

Campaigning is hard. It’s all graft and grind with very little reward. Indeed, the fact that it took 20 years for the CfFoI to be successful in getting an FoI Act on the statute book underlines how difficult it is to be successful. It takes years of dedication, a whole host of sacrifices, very little glory and perpetual optimism. As one speaker said last night, campaigning is not about photo ops and marches, it’s about the daily grind, doing the grotty (and often tedious) work that takes your campaign forward and that, ultimately, leads to success. Successful campaigns are built on years of hard work.

From my perspective, I always argue that it is best not to get bogged down in believing that you will get results quickly. That what you aspire to will come to fruition within a short time frame. It won’t. It’ll take years. Some of the change you may aspire to will probably not even happen within your lifetime. The important bit is to do the graft and lay the groundwork. So long as you are realistic, I believe you can maintain that dedication and enthusiasm for whatever cause you are involved in. If you are too unrealistic, you will very quickly find yourself burnt out and disillusioned. Fight for what you believe in, but be aware that it will take time, effort and dedication. Change does not come easy.

The people behind CfFoI have kept that dedication, that determination to be successful in effecting real change in terms of how we are governed. By creating an environment where at least there is a chink of light where before there was only darkness. The challenge now, in my view, is to turn that chink of light into something bigger.

Ian Hislop speaking at last night’s event.

One other thing that was re-emphasised for me last night was the importance of building connections across the information profession. I certainly find within the world of the librarian we often seem to exist in a silo that is detached from other information professionals. I struggle sometimes to understand this. Of course we all have our individual areas of expertise, but I think it is important for librarians (who after all are concerned with facilitating access to information) to be aware of and engaged with such discussions across the profession. As librarians we should be engaged with the fight for freedom of information, we should be helping citizens to utilise the tools available to them to hold their elected officials to account. We should be engaged in data protection, particularly in a world where data is increasingly being bought and sold, often without the awareness of those who the data is extracted from. As librarians we should be engaged in making information and data more accessible with regards to the state, whilst protecting individuals from the commodification of their personal data. When one considers the ethics that underpin our profession, it is clear that we should be engaged in these areas.

The last ten years are not an end with regard to the battle to ensure transparent governance, they are a beginning. With further funding cuts in the pipeline, the growth of private sector contracts to deliver public services presents new challenges. As government seeks to outsource public services, so we lose our right to know. It is clear that the Freedom of Information Act will need to be expanded and adapted in the years to come. To have any hope of achieving that, groups such as the CfFoI need to continue keeping the pressure on. But for them to do so requires all of us who believe in their aims to show our support in whatever way we can to ensure that not only does the Act continue to remain relevant but that the light it shines on how we are governed gets brighter rather than dimmer. The efforts of those who have led the campaign over the past 30 years demonstrates that whilst it won’t be easy, we can be optimistic.

You can find out more about the Campaign for Freedom of Information here. I’d urge you to support them in whatever way you can.