Friday, October 26, 2012

The purpose of freedom of information

What's the purpose of freedom of information? Our Official Information Act talks about "promot[ing] accountability" and "enhanc[ing] respect for the law", but at its core, freedom of information is about one thing: stopping governments from lying to us. Its a lesson being brutally illustrated in Scotland right now, where an FOIA request has caught the government lying over something vitally important: whether it would be able to join the European Union after independence:

The first minister has repeatedly said that Scotland would be an automatic member of the EU, be free to adopt sterling as its currency and would inherit all the UK's opt-outs on EU immigration and border controls. He has asserted that this position was supported by his government's legal advice.

But Salmond was forced to make a statement to the Scottish parliament late on Tuesday after opposition leaders accused him of "lying" and "covering-up" following an admission from his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, that no specific legal advice had been given by Scottish law officers on EU membership.

He's now facing allegations he breached the Scottish Ministerial Code - their equivalent of the Cabinet Manual. And of course having been caught lying over something so important is not going to strengthen the cause of Scottish independence. Salmond's deceit has probably just cost him any chance of winning his referendum. The sheer stupidity of it simply beggars belief.

Politicians lie and mislead in order to get their way and convince a sceptical public. Freedom of information lets us catch them at it. Which hopefully will mean a reduction in such deceitful behaviour in future.