The Creeping Threat to Our Freedom of Information Rights

That oft quoted apothegm “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance”, which is usually attributed to notables from Thomas Paine to Abraham Lincoln (via many others), in fact owes its origins to an Irish politician and lawyer John Philpot Curran, who said, “It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance." Philpot, a learned wit, was probably aware that he was speaking in a tradition that dated back thousands of years: politicians have always needed check in order to prevent dishonesty.

Social media and television mean our MPs are scrutinised as never before; Prime Minister’s Questions forces the head of government to answer in person for a whole range of government policies and the country’s problems; our free press, far from perfect, is capable of asking awkward questions of the powerful; we also have the Freedom of Information Act 2000, a law designed to enshrine the right of the public to access information held by public bodies.

I am, by nature, optimistic about politics. Even when governments veer away from values and policies I cherish, I prefer not to disparage their motivations. However, recent comments by the Leader of the Commons, Chris Grayling, about supposed “misuse” of FoI by journalists who want to generate uncomfortable stories, reveal an instinctive mindset against transparency. Of course, only the uncharitable or even cynical, would suggest Grayling now wishes to deny others similar opportunities to those he used as an opposition attack terrier.

I say ‘used’ but perhaps ‘misused’ would be a better word. Surely the purpose of Freedom of Information is exactly to discomfort our politicians and subject them to accurate scrutiny? What is the point of access to important information if not to reveal what has been hidden or remains covered?

The commission is in danger of making wrong-headed and backwards recommendationsStuffed full of political hacks, some of whom like former Home Secretary Jack Straw have made plain their view on the legislation, the government’s independent commission, set up in July, does not inspire hope: they sound about as open-minded a branch meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. The commission is in danger of making wrong-headed and backwards recommendations. Press stories, obtained using FoI, may result in difficulties, but if the government restricts the act the public, who makes the majority of requests, will suffer as well.

A case can be made for change. There is a risk that transparency becomes damagingly intrusive, not into the actions of government but into the thought-processes and space which public servants need to operate effectively. Bold, even unconventional, thinking is necessary in government but we cannot expect this if outspokenness is subject to constant outrage. Hillary Clinton’s damn emails - and less sensationally Michael Gove’s extra-governmental email activity - were mostly very interesting to the public but fewer were necessarily of public interest.

Vast swathes of the public sector are now contracted out to private companies; charities provide necessary services with government grants, yet their structures have remained unchanged. Anyone who recently watched Alan Yentob before the public accounts committee could not say that he was fulfilling his fiduciary duty as a charity trustee objectively. These organisations are often public agents but they do not receive equal scrutiny as public bodies. It is precisely because organisations such as Kids Company work with the most vulnerable that we should hold them to a higher standard.

Campaigner Heather Brooke has said that the UK’s culture of secrecy would made it harder for a scandal similar to Watergate to be brought to light here. That is why FoI is important. And it goes further than culture: British government and legislature are irretrievably entwined. The executive has huge powers of patronage which it uses to its advantage. To want to be a minister is not an ignoble ambition yet is part of subtle and accumulative political corruption which sometimes stifles legitimate scrutiny.

While changes to the House of Lords and new devolved bodies mean that they are no longer as powerful, governments with a majority still command considerable advantages. With no meaningful separation of powers, FoI gives the public an extra watchman.

​Scrutiny ​of how policy is implemented, how money is spent may be embarrassing but it does make for better governmentUnleashed from the cumbersome negotiation of coalition, the government has started its term by acting as if majority status in itself gives it absolute mastery. Over tax credits it has discovered things are not so simple.

Last week the Birmingham Mail, fearing greater restrictions on public access, charges for FoI requests and more ministerial vetoes, has launched a campaign, Hands Off Freedom of Information, which has shown just how many stories were broken thanks to FoI; the Press Gazette has started a petition to save the act.  They will also face opposition from Labour and from Conservative backbenchers and peers.

​Scrutiny ​of how policy is implemented, how money is spent may be embarrassing but it does make for better government. Grayling grasps the former but refuses to acknowledge the latter.

While we do not know what the independent commission will recommend, indolence (or in my case optimism) won’t do; vigilance is necessary because that is what this is about. 

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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