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Politics/Current Affairs

Freedom Of Information Act Scuppered By Own Success

Thursday, February 8th, 2007 at 10:16 by Rhys Wilcox

Ministers are looking at a bill that will exempt MPs from public scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act.

The FoI has been in effect for two years and has been responsible for cutting through a swathe of statistics, generalisations and misinformation. Rather than the broad sweeps of the all-encompassing arm of blame stating how bad departments in the public sector have been, information has been released to be able point the more specific finger of accusation at the underachievers. The dirtiest hospital, the most ineffective police, the chaviest school and the most liberal expenses-claiming politicians have all been outed recently.

Perhaps more importantly, though, is what the Act represents. No one could deny that we are living in dark times where most people just don’t know what’s going on behind the closed doors of power. All we could do is try to trust the judgements of senior staff within the departments or the Government statisticians. The FoI has been a beacon of light; perhaps the only bill within recent years that has brought the public closer to the idea that we do live in a democracy and there is something we can do.

It’s not perfect, granted. Departments are still allowed the luxury of delaying the release of documents. Requests can be challenged by saying that they aren’t genuinely in the public’s interest. It can cost a lot of money. But when the results expose expenses-abusing MPs, bankrupt NHS trusts and the potential hidden dangers of those already dubious new policies (especially when Blair flatly refuses to reveal the details), it delivers a message that no one is (or should be) unaccountable. And it is us who can do the counting.

But now the Act’s has been so successful that the very people it is there to keep in line have issued a bill to give it a bit of a tinkering and introduce a few more loopholes and some more small text. Acting like a bunch of huffy teens because they’ve been caught smoking in the garages, ministers are hurrying through an ‘It’s Not Fair, We Don’t Want To’ bill that - if passed - will exempt MPs from revealing their information whether it be deemed in the public’s interest or not.

Funnily enough, it seems to be getting quite a bit of in-house support. Well, you wouldn’t want any old Joe Blogs dropping you an email and asking to see how many Interflora deliveries to the typing pool have been put on your expenses, would you?

Now, your average cynic might think these people have something to hide, however these detractors from the current arrangement are arguing that it infringes on the privacy rights of their constituents. Any communications between them (or any made on behalf of them) should remain outside of the FoI.

But once there’s one exception, more are bound to follow. For example the one about all those requests that will cost over a certain amount to produce. What will be included in the bill is the time it takes to discuss and review the information request. Then, of course, there’s also the one that will restrict requests from individual sources and so cutting back on how much information the media can get their hands on.

Why is it that the FoI got passed in the first place? How did these MPs even think that they would not be viable targets for public scrutiny when they are the most secretive and distrusted sector going? Doesn’t this move just enforce (and justify) every negative feeling we have for them?

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4 Comments on “Freedom Of Information Act Scuppered By Own Success”

  1. DannyMackay Says:

    naughty dictators! How dare they bring in a Freedom of Information Act! How dare they massively increase scrutiny of the public sector as a whole! I want to rant…

    Right, how can I satirise this?

    I know - I’ll call the era of greatest democratic scrutiny in history a “dark age” - ooo and I can label MPs childish - ah and how about I exagerate a small legal ammendment as a bill to end democracy…

    yeah - that’ll do.

    Evil evil dictators!

    (in case its not clear - I’m not convinced silly comparisons make a rant into satire.)

  2. Rhys Wilcox Says:

    Riiiight! So is your rant a satirical critisism of my non-satirical article or an ironic, self-aware comment teetering on the edge of misunderstanding?

    What are your thoughts on the actual bill? You seem more interested in my (in)ability to formulate a narrative rather than the issue itself.

    This ’small legal ammendment’ could be enough smallprint to negate the effectiveness of the Act forever. This doesn’t bother you?

  3. Simon Kimber Says:

    “How dare they bring in a Freedom of Information Act! How dare they massively increase scrutiny of the public sector as a whole!”

    Danny, I’m not quite sure where you’re coming from with this. You seem to be implying that the writer is saying the FoI act is a bad thing when to me he seems firmly in favour of it and is concerned about the losing that scrutiny! I don’t get it.

    “I’ll call the era of greatest democratic scrutiny in history a “dark age””

    Surely you have to concede that you’re twisting what was said a bit there? Also the term was “dark times”, not a “dark age”, which I read as a reference to the public being kept in the dark on certain issues - the government’s refusal to disclose the letters between John Reid and the police recently, for example.

  4. DannyMackay Says:

    I quite like most of whats written on this site - though granted in general i fall prey to the old addage that the satisfied stay silent, and thus don’t comment on most articles.

    Then everynow and then I read something that gets up my nose - one example being the TB Legacy article - which did that annoying and oh so common thing of saying labour and tories are the same – so I commented. I didn’t agree with the person who said the article looked like a Daily Mail rant – it was in fact a funny and interesting article that got up my nose (no bad thing).

    Then having taken a quick look on there to see any of the comments other people put – I read this – and it was so horribly close to a tabloid rant that I felt compelled to criticise it.

    The exaggeration – the absolute nature of the negative – the dark imagery – the cartoon stereotypes - the writer adopting the position as spokesman for the people –

    So I did what you invite people to do – and commented.

    I tried to do it in a mocking way – since I like the tone.

    ps - i don’t like the new legislation - but that doesn’t mean i like every article that criticises it.

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