Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Freedom of Information under threat in the UK

On Friday the UK government announced that it would be reviewing that country's Freedom of Information Act:

Ministers have launched a cross-party review of the Freedom of Information Act that is likely to be viewed as an attempt to curb public access to government documents. The move comes just hours after papers released on Friday under FOI disclosed that British pilots have been involved in bombing in Syria.

Matthew Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister, laid a statement before parliament outlining details about the five-person commission that will be asked to decide whether the act is too expensive and overly intrusive. Members will include Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, who is already on the record calling for the act to be rewritten. Straw is still the subject of FOI requests over the rendition of a terror suspect during his time in office.

Lord Carlile of Berriew will also sit on the commission. He accused the Guardian of “a criminal act” when it published stories using National Security Agency material leaked by Edward Snowden. The committee’s other members will be Michael Howard and Dame Patricia Hodgson, and it will be chaired by Lord Burns.

Hancock wrote that the review was intended to make sure that the act is working effectively, 15 years after it was introduced by Labour. “[The commission will] consider whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection,” he wrote. “And whether the operation of the act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation and frank advice.”

So, a commission stacked with enemies of transparency, some of whom want to cover up their crimes, with an explict mandate to limit access to (embarrassing) policy advice. Yes, I'm sure this will be a neutral and unbiased review of the law rather than the usual establishment hatchet-job.

Meanwhile, its worth remembering what we've learned through the UK FOIA: MP's expenses. Charles Windsor's "black spider memos". Endless failures of government policy. And this transparency has allowed government failure and wrongdoing to be exposed, allowing politicians to be held accountable. Which is precisely why they want to nobble it.