On 1st January 2005 the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 and the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 all entered into force. For the first time in the UK people had a right, backed by Statute, to ask for information held by public bodies and to be given that information unless it fell within the ambit of one of the exemptions in the Acts or Exceptions in the Regulations. Those rights were backed-up by independent regulators who had the power to order public bodies to release information where it had been incorrectly withheld by public bodies.
Today, is of course, the 10th anniversary of the coming into force of those rights and it has become so ingrained into our lives that we probably don’t notice it. Every year thousands of stories that we see on TV or in the newspapers or hear about on radio have been the result of information obtained under Freedom of Information; much of that information may well have remained hidden had it not been for the rights enshrined in law to obtain that information.
Freedom of Information has been used to uncover scandals around Parliamentary expenses, both in Westminster and in Holyrood. The late David McLetchie resigned as leader of the Scottish Conservative party following revelations that he had used taxpayers money to pay for taxis used in connection with party, rather than constituency, business. That information was obtained under Freedom of Information. At Westminster some politicians have served prison sentences as details of their expenses claims were revealed with help from FOI (and a leak to the Telegraph).
Over the last 10 years, Freedom of Information has become a powerful tool for local and national campaign groups to obtain information from the State as to how and why decisions have been taken. It has enabled public bodies to be held accountable much more easily and for the public to better understand decisions that have been taken by public bodies.
Of course, FOI has not come without its problems and difficulties. It does add an additional burden to public bodies – but the legislation does have limits to ensure that the burden doesn’t become too big or disproportionate. There are individuals who abuse their rights under FOI. There are a group of individuals who make use of FOI to try and keep open grievances that they have had with the public authority – some of which have been running for many years and been subjected to every form of scrutiny possible. There are also those who make requests about plans for dealing with a Zombie Apocalypse or how many red pens had been bought.
There have also been regular attempts to undermine Freedom of Information by representative bodies. These attempts have often cited ‘bizarre’ FOI requests. Many of these so called ‘bizarre’ requests have a perfectly legitimate basis as explored here by Jon Baines. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, also has some pretty strange ideas as to what Freedom of Information is.
FOI was a hard won right, with organisations such as the Campaign for Freedom of Information spending decades campaigning for access to information rights. As a consequence we have some of the best access to information rights in the world. Our rights are wide-ranging and simple to use whereas in other countries they are restrictive and contain a multitude of technical requirements making them difficult to use while others put the rights out of the reach of ordinary people by requiring fees to be paid in order to exercise those rights. However, while it is probably true to say that our FOI laws are some of the best in the world it is also true to say that they are in need of serious protection. As the way in which public services are delivered has changed, a lot of information has fallen out of the scope of FOI. The regular attacks from bodies representing public authorities also threaten FOI. These are important rights and it is right that on the 10th anniversary of FOI we remember their importance and how easy it would be for a Government to reduce, restrict or remove those rights. As a rule, politicians don’t like FOI – it can be embarrassing for them and leads to a much more informed electorate. A better informed electorate is a good thing, as is removing the Government’s total control over the flow of information.
The House of Commons Select Committee concluded that FOI ‘has been a significant enhancement to our democracy’ in a report following its post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. FOI has changed our democracy for the better, the 10th anniversary is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of how significantly things have changed in the last 10 years as a result of FOI and how valuable it has become.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information fought hard to get FOI onto the statute books and continues to work hard to promote it, campaign for its strengthening and protection; perhaps you would consider donating, even a small amount, to help them with this important work.