(Acclaimed News) War criminal Tony Blair has often said that one of his biggest mistakes was to create the Freedom of Information Act. And no wonder, since our one-time Prime Minister had a preference for secrecy. Since its birth, the FoI Act has been widely and effectively used by citizens and journalists alike.
Those in power tend to view FoI as a problem and try their hardest to ignore it, manipulate it or defeat it. That is why there are moves afoot across the nation to attempt to neuter the Act so that it becomes effectively useless. Anyone who places importance on the values of transparency and accountability should take measures to oppose these moves before it’s too late.
The Freedom of Information Act, created with the intention of improving Government through better decision making and accountability, has been on the statute books for just over 10 years. However it faces constant opposition from Civil Servants and those in power who prefer to hide behind a veil of secrecy.
Mr Blair spoke out against the Act as long ago as 2010, commenting that only journalists made use of it rather than “the people” as a whole. But of course the Government, under the terms of the Act, are supposed to be open and transparent about any relevant information, which is never an appealing thought to the political elite.
In 2010 he said:
“The truth is that the FoI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists.
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.”
On the contrary, The House Of Commons Justice Select Committee commented in 2012 that the FoI Act was a useful tool in improving the UK’s democratic system, with the result of being able to hold public bodies to account for their actions. Therefore, to that end, they had no plans at that time to attempt to restrict the scope of the Act.
The British government has been the subject of many FoI investigations by investigative reporters who have managed to discover numerous issues with the way the country is run. In the course of these investigations, they have also managed to uncover a scandalous amount of procrastination, and in Northern Ireland, even the virtual refusal of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to comply with the terms of the Act. In many cases, they have either ignored FoI requests or outright refused to reply. The OFMDFM even failed to make an adequate response to a letter from Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, the top judge in Northern Ireland.
It is therefore little wonder that the authorities are delighted at the prospect of limiting the scope of the FoI Act. Here is a taster of some of the possible clampdowns that could be brought about:
A tighter cap on time-scales for release of information – any requests that are dragging on will face immediate rejection.
The costs cap may be lowered and individuals may face a limited request allowance, potentially just one a quarter.
Not only would these restrictions effectively diminish the Act entirely but they would also signal the end of transparent bureaucracy.