Friday, 15 December 2006

Too much freedom and accountability

Credit where credit’s due, the Labour Government has done some very good things since it was elected. Sadly, most of those were in its first term, and the best was within its first week. I genuinely believe that had Gordon Brown resigned after one week in office, having handed control of interest rates to the Bank of England on his sixth day, he would forever be known as the greatest Chancellor Britain has ever had. Instead, he will be known as the man who wrecked the public finances and raised taxes to their highest level in a quarter of a century.

Another of those great innovations were the Freedom of Information Act. It is a commonplace of democratic societies that for the citizens to hold the executive to account, information must be available for them to examine. The legislature has had this right for a long time through parliamentary questions (usually written and rarely the stage-managed Whitehall farce that is Prime Ministers’ Questions). All governments curb this right with qualifications – one can hardly expect MI5 to reveal what’s in its filing cabinets – but the general principle is that information is available unless it meets a specific exemption category.

One thing that should not affect this right is whether the executive believes that the enquiry is a good use of public time and money. It is implicit in the fact of the Act that it is a priori in the public’s interest that the time and money is made available to providing the information, because the public’s interest is served by the executive knowing that its records can be scrutinised.

But one can have too much of a good thing; the public interest can be served too well. How is a government to function when pesky journalists and politicians keep digging up the dirt hiding in their files? Occasional requests by people affected by a particular policy may be tolerable, but these researchers and campaigners who are a constant thorn in the side of government need to be curbed. After all, the government knows best; that has always been part of the Labour mantra – at least, when they are in government; when they are out of government that is because it has been captured by special interests, or the voters have succumbed to lies or selfishness or ‘just don’t get it’.

So to its eternal discredit (and this government has been eternally discredited by many of its policies over the years) it has announced today plans to curb its own Freedom of Information Act. It is looking to include officials’ time in the calculation of the cost of responding to a request, which will mean that many more requests – and particularly the complicated ones that journalists submit – breach the £600 limit over which requests may be turned down. If one involves enough officials or pays them a high enough salary, almost any request could be shot down in this way. Another suggestion is that ‘serial requesters’ (the FoI equivalent of nuisance callers) should be limited to only a certain number of requests over a certain period. So, for example, repeat offenders with nothing better to do than harass hard-working government departments such as, oh, say the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Guardian or a political party, will only be able to put in a limited number of requests a year (and yes, the do intend to lump organisations together, rather than count each journalist individually).

In truth, this is evidence of the yawning gap between the high principles that Labour espoused ten years ago and the sordid reality of a decade of power. No longer are they scalded by opposition and keen on open government; now they are burnt by sleaze and scandal and keen to be able to hide behind the veils of Whitehall. Freedom of information is not just any law, like licensing hours or the speed limit, that can be debated and amended every few years by parliament to reflect the will of society. Freedom of Information is a fundamental liberty, without which we cannot hold our executive to account. And as with all infringements of liberty, one has to ask what the tyrant is trying to achieve; or in this case, what are they trying to hide?

No comments: