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Thursday, June 25, 2009

The backlash against FOI

Surprise, surprise, the Guardian politics blog reports that ministers and senior civil servants are now saying that the Freedom of Information Act was a bad idea.

The evidence comes from a report from the Constitution Unit at University College London. The authors interviewed civil servants, special advisers and former ministers (on condition of anonymity) to ask them what they thought of FoI:

What's interesting is that, although the respondents were generally in favour of FoI in principle, they were strongly opposed to the way it was operating in practice.

Here are some of the key quotes.

From a former minister:

Overall I have a sense of disappointment about FoI. Perhaps I was naive – but I had seen it as a significant step forward to making us a more literate democracy. But the reality is that FoI is just seen generally as a means of attacking the government, whether the request be from an interest group or a journalist. I would have hoped that people would begin to appreciate the complexities of government through knowing more. But there has not been much evidence of that. I still think it is fundamentally a good thing. But I am disappointed.

From an official:

I am afraid I am very negative about the FoI. It is used a lot in my area by pressure groups who are opposed to what we are seeking to do. There are a lot of "fishing trips", trying to get information which they can use in public, or even in the courts, to undermine our policy. And they will use any information received very selectively to support their own aims ... So in the future, I'll be making sure that there is nothing for them to get at. Part of our problem is that we have had a lot of internal material and our record keeping has been good. But I've told my team to make sure in future we minimise what we write down and minimise what we keep. So we'll be getting rid of emails quickly and we won't worry if the record is incomplete, so long as it contains nothing we wouldn't want to see released.

It is rather sad that what should be a public right to know has produced such a defensive and reactionary response from those in Government. If anything their views should underline the case to strengthen the existing Freedom of Information legislation rather than weaken it.
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