Tory crackdown on Freedom of Information sparks transparency fears

(Reuters / Susana Vera)
Conservative ministers are plotting a clampdown on Britain’s Freedom of Information (FoI) laws, a move that observers warn could signal the death knell for Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge to cultivate a new wave of transparency in Westminster.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is attempting to make it considerably more difficult for citizens to seek information from state bodies, the Financial Times revealed Monday.

Sources told the newspaper that a number of proposals have been floated and Gove is currently considering how they might be implemented.

Giving ministers the power to veto the publication of certain documents has been tabled, as was attempted when Prince Charles’ notorious “black spider” letters were recently published.

Altering government officials’ method of calculating the cost of sourcing government data has also been proposed. Both measures could seriously impact on Britons’ right to know, bolstering state secrecy in the process, critics warn.

These legal changes will also serve to create “think time” and redaction costs that will considerably drive up the cost of FoI requests. Transparency advocates warn they will leave government data inaccessible for many.

The planned crackdown on citizens’ right to know contrasts starkly with Cameron’s transparency rhetoric four years ago. Writing in the Telegraph, the PM promised the electorate a far-reaching “revolution in [government] transparency.”

“Information is power,” he wrote in 2011.

“It lets people hold the powerful to account, giving them the tools they need to take on politicians and bureaucrats.”

The state’s FoI Act was implemented in 2005, under Tony Blair’s Labour government. Current plans to reform the legislation will likely receive strong opposition from Labour Party and Scottish Nationalist Party MPs.

Critics maintain Westminster’s quiet assault on Britons’ right to access government data has already begun.

A number of Downing Street practices have recently surfaced, which reduce Whitehall’s ability to uphold the public interest.

On Tuesday, it emerged that emails sent from computers in 10 Downing Street are deleted within three months as a rule. The practice was leaked to the FT by a number of ex-Downing Street employees. It was reportedly put in place 10 years ago under Blair’s government.

One former Number 10 worker told the FT the system breeds dysfunctionality in Whitehall.

Speaking to the newspaper, director of Britain’s Campaign for Freedom of Information said citizens’ right to access information freely is under threat.

He warned many of the proposals being discussed by Tory ministers “could have had severe consequences for the right to know.”

The campaign called upon Labour MPs Jenny Chapman, Dan Jarvis, and Stephen Twigg to challenge Gove’s transparency crackdown plans in parliament on Tuesday.

Downing Street denied claims the government is planning to increase officials’ scope for withholding data.

“There are no plans to change the Freedom of Information Act to make it easier for officials to withhold information,” the PM's official spokesperson said.