In the UK, thanks to the freedom of information (FoI) laws, the right to know has become routine. Ten years old this month, freedom of information laws have enabled us to inspect a public document, obtain personnel files, see safety reports of public utilities, examine inspection reports of crèches, schools and care homes, view restaurant hygiene ratings, and so on.
Almost without thinking, this freedom is considered part of the package of fundamental liberties that any citizen can expect – and should demand. It guarantees an element of openness from public bodies that interact with the general public. In my view, this right to know has become fully absorbed into the public consciousness in the past 10 years.
Ideals and realities
When the FoI legislation was introduced in the UK and Scotland (with subtle differences), supporters claimed it would increase openness and transparency. They said it would lead to greater accountability, improved decision-making and a better public understanding of decision-making in government. There were also claims that it would lead to increased participation and increased public trust in government.
In some of these cases, that has happened. Research by the Constitution Unit at University College London has found that public bodies have become more open and transparent and accountability to the public has greatly increased as a result of FoI.
There has been no significant increase in the general public’s understanding of decision-making, however, and no rise in public participation or public trust. In fact the MPs’ expenses scandal led to a significant decline in public trust in parliament – and in government generally (it was actually revealed in a leak to The Daily Telegraph, but the information had been collated because of a series of previous FoI requests).
The hard facts
Since 2005 some 400,000 FoI requests have been made to central government and other monitored bodies (excluding local government). Far more have been made to local government agencies – between 2005 and 2010 there were almost 700,000, and that figure is now likely to have exceeded one million.
The general public make some 40% of all requests and media makes about 10% (though journalists make roughly one-third of all requests to local government). Other categories of applicants include business, lawyers, public interest and advocacy groups, staff of public bodies, academics and MPs.
There have been a large number of significant public-interest disclosures as a result of investigations by journalists using FOI since 2005. Aside from MPs’ expenses, they have included the cost of Black Wednesday, the failure of the Metropolitan Police’s knife amnesty in London and the extent of delays to ambulances responding to emergency calls.
Yet public bodies, particularly in local government, frequently complain that the media abuse the legislation. They are accused of making frivolous requests, the volume of which puts significant pressure on local authorities’ staff.
Requests by journalists have included the cost of toilet paper for Number 10, plans to counter alien invasions, John Prescott’s weight and the type of tea bought for staff canteens. There is also ample evidence that some media applicants have become focused on cost-and-spending-type requests – such as councillors’ expenses and the costs of lunches and receptions – rather than using the Acts to explain decision-making processes.
But journalists are also complaining – and not just in the UK, but internationally. Just like in the UK, FoI laws in other countries have produced important results: massive public spending overruns in Ireland and India and political corruption in Australia and Canada, to name a few.
But despite these successes – or perhaps because of them – journalists complain that freedom of information is under threat. There is evidence from the US, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that documents that form the basis of important public-policy decisions are increasingly not being released under FoI. In Australia the journalists’ union has campaigned long and hard for better FoI.
FoI is intensely political, of course. Shining a light on the inner workings of public bodies exposes politicians and bureaucrats to potential embarrassment. And journalists complain the legislation is being “gamed” by governments using delay and denying tactics. This “gaming” includes the overuse of exemptions and the unjustified classification of material, the use of excessive fees and charges to deter journalists, delaying tactics and, in some cases, even political interference in FoI requests – especially if the requests relate to material that is likely to be politically embarrassing or damaging.
Much has been written about the worldwide move away from open government and back towards state secrecy post 9/11. FoI refusals on supposed “national security” grounds are also increasingly common in the US and the UK.
In the UK, the Home Office even went as far as to ban the investigative journalist Alice Ross, formerly of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, from submitting FoI requests on an investigation into citizens being stripped of their citizenship. She was labelled as a “vexatious requester”, which is grounds for refusing requests under the law, before that decision was overturned on appeal.
To make the situation worse, the offices of information commissioners in a number of Western countries are also under pressure, poorly staffed and drowning under the weight of paperwork. Since they usually hear appeals from applicants and public bodies after the internal complaint process for decisions has been exhausted, their ability to respond quickly is a key component of a viable freedom of information system.
According to the latest UK statistics, only 55% of appeals are turned around by the Information Commissioner within the intended 30-day timeframe. As many as 34% of appeals take longer than 90 days – bearing in mind that the requester will have already spent about three months dealing with the public body before thus final appeal even begins. The proportion of appeals that are upheld in the requester’s favour is 25%.
In Australia the government announced last year that it would abolish the office altogether in a quango-cutting exercised that was designed to reduce costs. Responsibility for appeals are being added to the responsibilities of remaining government bodies instead.
So 10 years after FoI was introduced in the UK, the picture over the public right to know is mixed. It is impossible to deny that the legislation has largely been positive in its impact. About half of all requests are granted in full, for instance.
But equally there are worrying signs about government commitment to FoI both here and elsewhere. It would be highly regrettable if long fought-for and hard-won freedoms were ceded in the name of allowing the political classes to avoid revelations that could damage their chances of re-election.