Is the three-year-old Freedom of Information Act up to the job? Civil servants are using loopholes to sit on data until it stops being embarrassing
* Chris Ames
* Friday May 16 2008
* Article history
Is freedom of information working? Depending on who you listen to, it's either tremendously successful or expensive and badly abused. Neither of these caricatures is correct. Thankfully, a proper academic study is trying to cut through the spin and find the answer.
True, freedom of information is essential in a democracy and the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which came into force in January 2005, could be a vital tool to hold public authorities to account. Now that plans to water it down have gone away, we can and should hold the act itself to account.
The constitution unit at UCL is about halfway through a project "evaluating the impact of freedom of information in the UK". Their main question is whether the act has made Whitehall more transparent and responsive. But now they are seeking the views and experiences of the ordinary punter or, in technical terms, "requester" of information under the act.
The project has set up an online survey with a dedicated page for Cif readers and would like to hear from you if you have experience of using, or trying to use, the FOI act. They want to explore the experiences of people beyond the high-profile cases to build up a better picture of who is using FOI, what their expectations are and whether they are being met.
The survey seeks to establish what people want to find out through FOI and from whom. Are people getting the information they want and how quickly, and what do they do with it? What do they do if they don't get it?
These are all questions that need to be asked as there are a lot of myths around the act. The government floated some of these myths recently when it proposed changing the rules on costs and "serial requesters". Caricatures of requesters as obsessives, time-wasters and UFO nuts were put about. It was said that the legislation was being misused by lazy journalists at great cost to the taxpayer. A request that asked for spending by embassies on Ferrero Rocher chocolates was widely reported, even though it was obviously cherry-picked for this very reason.
To justify plans to tighten the rules on cost limits, it was claimed that FOI costs £35m annually. This highly disputed figure is in any case dwarfed by the hundreds of millions the government spends making sure information of its choice is suitably spun.
The proposals to water down FOI were dropped soon after Gordon Brown came to power, having met strong opposition from press and politicians. The episode showed that it's hard to give people rights and then take them away. But it put supporters of FOI on the back foot and perhaps made them overly positive about it. Now we can be more honest about how well FOI is working.
The information we have obtained through FOI has been a mixture of the highly significant and the trivial. Isn't that fair enough? The UCL project (pdf) has suggested that two almost simultaneous decisions earlier this year might be "the high watermark" of FOI. The information commissioner ruled that cabinet discussions on the Iraq war should be published and the information tribunal ordered the disclosure of MPs' expenses claims. Then, last month, the tribunal said that ministers cannot expect their discussions with lobbyists to remain secret.
But what all these decisions have in common is that we haven't got the information yet. It's impossible to judge the effectiveness of FOI without bringing in the issue of how long it all takes. Delays devalue the information that is released. The main issue with the act is that it has so many exemptions that the authorities can always find a reason not to release something. To get anything really significant the requester often has to go through a lengthy appeals process.
Take spin doctor John Williams' first draft of the Iraq dossier for example. Although this was released in February, that was three years after I first asked for it. You wouldn't think that the release of such a document could be anything other than in the public interest and both the commissioner and the tribunal thought it should have been released in the first place. Expecting civil servants and ministers to weigh the public interest objectively against their own embarrassment is perhaps as naive as letting spin doctors loose on intelligence.
This high-profile case may be unrepresentative but I would suggest that there is an inverse relationship between the significance of information and the ease with which it is extracted. Politicians will fight tooth and nail to save embarrassment, as the battle over MPs' expenses - currently at the high court - shows.
Perhaps the process will get shorter as precedents are set and dodges are ruled out. On the other hand, perhaps new dodges will be invented. What FOI needs is a watchdog with teeth and a willingness to bite. On recent form, the commissioner is moving in the right direction and should be encouraged.
It's also arguable that the most significant revelations still come not as a result of FOI, but from leaks. There was the suggestion in the Williams draft that Israel had brazenly pursued weapons of mass destruction in a way that was comparable to Saddam Hussein. The information tribunal agreed that this should be suppressed, to protect relations with Israel. It looks like it was a leak that eventually put this information into the public domain.
So many FOI cases end up with the opponents effectively drawn. The authorities can't always stop information being released but they can lock it up long enough to take the sting out of it. It's not good enough just to defend FOI. A modern democracy needs a Freedom of Information Act that does what it says on the tin.