What is the Freedom of Information Act and why did Tony Blair call it “stupidity”

Blair

  ‘You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.’


Tony Blair on the Freedom of Information Act in his 2010 Autobiography, A Journey.

 

In the 1997 General Election campaign the Labour Party, now rebranded as New Labour, and under the leadership of Tony Blair planned a number of constitutional changes that had the overall aim of modernising the British Constitution. One of these changes was the Freedom of Information Act (2000). So what was this and why did Tony Blair end up calling himself “naive and irresponsible for introducing it”? 

The Freedom of Information Act is sometimes confused with the Data Protection Act, but they are two very different things: 

– The Data Protection Act was a Statute Law passed in 1998. This law was designed to protect information via which a individually was personally identifiable, for instance their GP’s Records. The Act introduced rights for people to request any information held about themselves. 

– The Freedom of Information Act was a Statute Law passed in 2000 and which came into effect on the 1st January 2005. The Freedom of Information Acts gives citizens the right to access information held by public authorities. The principle behind the Act was to try to make Government more transparent and to increase public confidence in political institutions.

GCHQ
GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters, are one of the organisations largely exempt from the Freedom of Information Act

 The right to request information extends to most public institutions – for example the Police, Prisons and Government Departments. There are however exceptions expressly written into the Act, for example the security services, like MI5 and MI6, are exempt. In addition, information they could reasonably be believed to risk public safety, is also not disclosable. For instance, a Freedom of Information request that asked how many soldiers were living in a certain barracks would be exempt under this clause. However, there are also numerous other exemptions written into the Act, including:  

  • Any information that is already publicly available- Information contained in Court Records
  • Information relating to an ongoing investigation by a public body.
  • Information that would harm Britain’s diplomatic relations with other countries

 Any citizen can request information under the Freedom of Information Act. The request simply has to be in writing and include a verifiable postal address. Since its inception in 2005 there have been around 120,000 Freedom of Information requests per year. Between April and June 2018 12,169 Freedom of Information requests were received. Of these, 44% wee responded to in full and 37% were withheld in full. 

It is clear that the Freedom of Information Act has had a huge impact on governance in the UK. There are a number of very important things that have even discovered through the Freedom of Information Act. A number of very important issues have come to light because of information requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

For example:

 The MPs Expenses Scandal – In 2009 the Daily Telegraph requested to see the details of MPs expenses. What they found turned out to be a journalistic goldmine. It was clear that many MPs were blatantly abusing the expenses system that was meant to help them conduct their parliamentary duties. Some of the things discovered included: 

Duck Island
Sir Peter Viggers claimed £1645 for a Duck Island for the pond at his home. 

Prescott
John Prescott claimed £112 for a toilet seat.    

   

Hogg
Douglas Hogg claimed over £2100 to have his moat cleaned

    

Of particular embarrassment to many MPs was the uncovering of a culture of ‘flipping’. As an acknowledgement that MPs have duties in two different areas (their constituencies and London) MPs were allowed to claim reasonable expenses on one of these properties (their ‘second home’). However, many MPs were using taxpayer money to renovate their properties before changing which property was designated as their ‘second home’, and selling it – often making enormous profits. Some MPs faced criminal prosecutions over this issue.  

Prince Charles ‘Spider Letters’ – In 2010 a Guardian Journalist named Rob Evans made an application under the Freedom of Information Act to see letters that it had emerged that Prince Charles had sent to Government Ministers. The letters were nicknamed the ‘Spider Letters’ due to the Charles’ unique penmanship and presentatitional style.

As Charles will one day become constitutional monarch, and will be expected to politically neutral, Evans and the Guardian believed it was in the public interest for this material to be published. In 2012 the Government refused to release the papers. They argued that the letters had been written by Charles in preparation for him becoming King and were done so under the expectatation that they would be confidential. The Government argued that disclosing the documents may damage Charles’ ability to perform as King in the future. This decision was appealed and in 2014 the case was heared by the Supreme Court in Evans vs Attorney-General. They ruled by 5-2 that the Attorney-General did not have the right to veto the disclosure of the letters under the Freedom of Information Act. In the end, the letters turned out to be pretty mundane and not much of real concern was found in them. However, this case set a very important precedent about the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.  

Spider
An example of on of Prince Charles’ ‘Black Spider’ Letters

 Despite being the person most responsible for its implementation, Tony Blair later said that the Freedom of Information Act had been a mistake. He argued that:

 – For the most part, Freedom of Information was not used ‘by the people’ but by journalists for political purposes. This had not been his intention in pushing for the Act.

 – Government Ministers are no longer able to discuss things with a reasonable expectation of confidentiality. He argues that rather than increasing transparency, this reduces the effectiveness of Government. 

The last point, is a particulary interesting criticism of Freedom of Information. During David Cameron’s premiership members of his team were critcised for conducting Government business via Whatsapp. Their only reason for doing this is to avoid the publication of their thoughts via a Freedom of Information Request. In this respect, it could perhaps be argued that the Freedom of Information Act (2000) has had negative effects on the machinery of government.        

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