Freedom of Information

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November 6, 2012 by Tess Riley

I’ve become rather fascinated by the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act of late as a result of the Prince Charles letters kerfuffle.

Credit gerd.evermann

Let’s start with some basics. http://www.gov.uk states:

The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to ask any public sector organisation for all the recorded information they have on any subject.

Anyone can make a request for information – there are no restrictions on your age, nationality or where you live.

If you ask for information about yourself, then your request will be handled under the Data Protection Act.

This means that anyone can request information from publicly funded organisations that work for the welfare of the whole population, including government departments, local councils, the police, hospitals, schools and universities.

A full list is available here.

The right of access to information held by public authorities is fundamental. Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy*, has worked extensively on matters relating to FoI and writes [pdf]:

It is perhaps as an underpinning of democracy that freedom of information is most important. Information held by public authorities is not acquired for the benefit of officials or politicians but for the public as a whole. Unless there are good reasons for withholding such information, everyone should be able to access it. More importantly, freedom ofinformation is a key component of transparent and accountable government. It plays a key role in enabling citizens to see what is going on within government, and in exposing corruption and mismanagement.

A good example of such mismanagement features in today’s The Northern Echo, which reports that cash-strapped local authorities in the North-East and North Yorkshire have spent more than £600,000 on smartphones and tablet computers for their employees and politicians, information obtained thanks to data released under the FoI Act. At a time when local authorities are undergoing severe austerity cutbacks, it’s important that such spending is not allowed to take place unscrutinised.

Amidst all the FoI commentary that has appeared of late, it is Charles Moore’s Telegraph article that I think is well worth a read. Whether you agree with Moore’s overall thesis or not, the journalist and editor – who is currently writing the authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher – challenges the assumption that the FoI Act is the end of the line where truth and demoracy are concerned:

So the effect of FoI is to promote dishonesty and concealment. I pity any biographer of any prime minister from Tony Blair onwards. He or she will not be short of government paper. Thanks to the computer’s power of infinite reproduction and the advent of the email (to whose implications, by the way, FoI gave no thought), he will drown in material. Because of the cant in which modern administrative documents are expressed, words like “openness” and “transparency” will be spattered over thousands of pages. But there will be no such openness or transparency. The big decisions will all have been made in whispers in a corridor, or abbreviated in a text message. To find out what happened, the biographer will have to rely solely on the fallible memory of elderly ex-ministers and officials.

And well all know how fallible – or mismanaged – those memories can be.

*The Centre for Law and Democracy is an international human rights NGO that focuses on providing legal expertise regarding foundational rights for democracy, including the right to information.

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Lots of good, additional info. on FoI on the Guardian site here.

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