Ditching FoIs would be the ‘biggest mistake’

“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.”

Rather than a disincentive to carry on reading, those are Tony Blair’s self-remonstrations – made in his auto-biography over his introduction of Freedom of Information requests.

The former Prime Minister is known to consider the introductions of FoIs to be amongst his biggest mistakes and regrets while in government . The rationale for his volte-face is that FoIs were supposed to be a tool the general public could use to ensure transparency within government, but actually came to be nothing of the kind.

Mr Blair is entirely correct in his analysis. FoIs have been used by some members of the public. But they are primarily the preserve of journalists, public relations consultants and political strategists, used to create data that in turn can drive campaigns and make news.

The Financial Times reported today the Justice Secretary Michael Gove is considering a crackdown on FoIs that would make it harder to get data from government departments and bodies. Mr Gove’s plans are said to include allowing officials ‘thinking time’ when assessing how much obtaining information would cost. Another suggestion apparently being mooted is making it easier for ministers to veto the release of certain documents.

The rationale is that the release of data can sometimes impede the work of government. Equally, ministers are acutely aware that the majority of FoIs are submitted either to secure information for news stories benefitting non-governmental agendas, or for opponents to create a stick with which to beat the Government.

These are valid concerns, as are suggestions that FoIs are an oft-overused tool. But clamping down on them would still be entirely the wrong move. It would undermine openness in government, countering David Cameron’s commitment to a “new era” of transparency. And it would also hinder effective scrutiny of government. Many political consultants will remember the rows over the Department of Health’s refusal to publish the ‘risk register’ for the Health and Social Care Act. And while Labour was demanding the document to challenge the Government’s health reforms, there were valid concerns over the Act, necessitating public site of its risk assessment.

Governments must be able to keep some secrets. Not everything can be public knowledge. But clamping down on FoIs to prevent publication of the next set of ‘Black Spider’ letters or similar would be in error and at the cost of transparency in a modern society.