Tory attack on Freedom of Information is ‘assault on govt accountability’ – Liberty

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron © Nguyen Huy Kham
Transparency and government accountability are under attack as the Conservatives move to review the state’s Freedom of Information (FoI) Act with a view to curbing its scope, human rights group Liberty has warned.

Liberty Director of Policy Bella Sankey said the act has assisted the group in safeguarding citizens’ human rights for a decade. She decried the Tories’ move to reform it, insisting it has played a critical role in some of Liberty’s most “successful legal cases” against the state.

“The FoI Act’s impact over the past decade has been invaluable. Without it, we would not have known about the MPs’ expenses scandal, police use of Tasers on children, the incineration of miscarried and aborted fetuses as clinical waste, Sir Cyril Smith’s attempts to threaten police investigating claims he had molested young boys and hundreds of care home residents dying of thirst,” she said.

“We have very few pieces of legislation which let us hold our public institutions to account. The Freedom of Information Act is one. The Human Rights Act is another. It appears our new government is intent on curbing both – and they cannot be allowed to get away with it.”

Earlier this month, the government announced the creation of a new Commission on Freedom of Information. Cabinet Office Parliamentary Secretary Lord Bridges claimed at the time the government backs the state’s FoI legislation, but feels the time has come for it to be scrutinized.

Bridge said the purpose of the review was to ensure the Act, which came into effect in 2005, is functioning “effectively.” He argued the Act requires comprehensive scrutiny if the public interest is to be protected.

One focus of the commission’s review is to decipher whether the FoI Act balances citizens’ right to transparency and accountability with the need to ensure “sensitive information” remains robustly protected.

A second focus of its review is to discern whether the Act provides adequate leeway for policy formation and the imposition of “frank advice.”

The commission will also seek to review whether citizens’ right to access information burdens state bodies.

‘Invaluable legislation’ 

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 National Party (SNP) MPs.

Liberty argues scrutiny of the Act is unnecessary, as the legislation was comprehensively reviewed by Britain’s cross-party Justice Select Committee in 2012. The committee concluded the scope of the act should not be limited. However, the government remains determined to press ahead with further scrutiny of the legislation.

“After considering expert written and oral evidence over seven sessions from witnesses, including senior politicians, journalists, academics, civil servants and organizations including Liberty, the committee found the FOIA had been a ‘success,’ had ‘enhanced the UK’s democratic system’ and had made our public bodies ‘more open, accountable and transparent,’” said Sankey.

In late June, it emerged Justice Secretary Michael Gove was attempting to make it considerably more difficult for citizens to seek information from state bodies.

A number of proposals had been floated by policy makers at the time and Gove was considering how they might be implemented, sources told the Financial Times.

Giving ministers the power to veto the publication of certain documents was tabled, as was altering government officials’ method of calculating the cost of sourcing government data.

Both measures could seriously impact on Britons’ right to know, bolstering state secrecy in the process. These legal changes could also serve to create “think time” and redaction costs that would drive up the cost of FoI requests. Transparency advocates warn such reforms would leave government data inaccessible for many.

While it’s unclear whether these measures will be implemented following the commission’s FoI review, the likelihood cannot be discounted.

Conservative ministers’ move to limit the scope of Britain’s FoI Act signals a death knell for Prime Minister David Cameron’s vow to forge a new wave of transparency in Britain. The Tories’ planned crackdown on FoI legislation sharply contradicts Cameron’s rhetoric four years ago.

Writing in the Telegraph in 2011, the PM promised Brits a far-reaching “revolution in [government] transparency.”

“Information is power,” he said.

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

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