Friday, December 31, 2004

Open government finally reaches Britain

Tommorrow, thirty years after it was first promised, the UK will finally get a Freedom of Information Act. Rather than having to wait thirty years for information to become available, people will now be able to request information from the British government and expect a response (even if only a reason for refusing to provide what was sought).

The British legislation seems to be a little weaker than our own Official Information Act 1982, particularly with regards to information about policymaking. In New Zealand, information can be withheld in order to protect the free and frank p[rovision of advice by Ministers and officials, however in practice this lasts only as long as a matter is being considered. Once a decision has been made, such advice can be released. The British law, however, specifically allows only "statistical information used to provide an informed background to the taking of the decision" to be released once a decision is made; the implication is that all information on policy formulation - cabinet papers, briefing documents, official research, the bread and butter of any request in New Zealand - is exempt. Furthermore, there is a blanket exception to the duty to confirm or deny the existence of such information (unlike New Zealand, where refusing to confirm or deny existence itself requires good reason). There is also an extremely broad "effective conduct of public affairs" clause, which allows Ministers to refuse any request which (in their politically-coloured judgement) might adversely affect the business of government. This effectively grants Ministers and officials a blank cheque with which to cover their own arses. Still, even an act with these flaws is better than the previous regime, where British citizens had no right to know what their government was doing in their name, and far fewer ways of holding that government to account.

The Act will face its first real test immediately, with the Guardian's request for the British attorney general's advice on the legality of the invasion of Iraq. This is precisely the sort of information open government laws exist to uncover, and precisely the sort of information Blair's government does not want to see released - but if it is withheld, the new act will be tainted as a sham from its inception.