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

The Freedom of Information Act was introduced under New Labour.

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”? 

What is the Freedom of Information Act and what does it enable people to do?

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. This Act was extended in 2018.

– 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.

What information can be accessed through a Freedom of Information request?

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 2022 there were 12,152 FOI requests across all monitored bodies. Of these, 37% were responded to in fill and 32% 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.

What are some examples of the use of the Freedom of Information Act?

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 (now King Charles III) had sent to Government Ministers. The letters were nicknamed the ‘Spider Letters’ due to the Charles’ unique penmanship and presentational style.

As Charles would one day become constitutional monarch, and would 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 expectation 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 heard 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.  

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

he MPs Expenses Scandal – In 2009 the Daily Telegraph requested to see the details of MPs expenses. They had been trying to ascertain this material for a very long time and it had gone to the High Court. The High Court ruled in favour of disclosure and the House of Commons authorities began collating the information. However, whilst doing so, the information was leaked to the Daily Telegraph.

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. 
John Prescott claimed £112 for a toilet seat.    
Douglas Hogg claimed over £2,100 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 then selling it – often making enormous profits. Some MPs faced criminal prosecutions over this issue.  

Why was Tony Blair later critical of his own idea?


  ‘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.


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 particularly interesting criticism of Freedom of Information. During David Cameron’s premiership members of his team were criticised 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.       

Article Summary

The Freedom of Information Act should not be confused with the Data Protection Acts. Instead of access to personal data, it allows access to public data which is otherwise not exempt. It has been used to find out about a number of things, and was ultimately responsible for the publication MPs Expenses Scandal. However, some have argued that the Act has been counterproductive and has actually made government more secretive.

Key Terms

MPs Expenses Scandal – A major political scandal in 2009 surrounding the publication of expenses relating to MPs.

Data Protection Acts – A series of acts that allow citizens access to the personal data held by bodies, both public and private. They are often confused with the Freedom of Information Act.

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