Friday, December 29, 2006

Smothering freedom of information in the UK

Two years ago, with great fanfare, the UK's Freedom of Information Act 2000 finally (and belatedly) came into force. It was intended to usher in a new age of open government for Britain. Unfortunately, that ended up being a little too inconvenient for the Blair government, who were suddenly being expected to answer all sorts of questions about, for example, their case for going to war with Iraq or the degree of cooperation with the US over Guantanamo, torture and rendition. And so now they're trying to gut it, introducing regulations which would impose an arbitrary time or cost limit on requests (in New Zealand they just charge at a fixed rate beyond the first few hours), and allowing successive requests by the same person or organisation to be treated as one for the purposes of calculating it. The result, according to Maurice Frankel, will be that

Requests on subjects such as identity cards, the Olympics or the war in Iraq might be refused out of hand in future because the number of hours needed to think about and discuss them exceeded some arbitrary threshold.

A journalist asking the Home Office for information about, say, prison escapes, could use up most of the £600 limit in one go. Any subsequent request to the Home Office from any of the paper's journalists could be refused, whether it dealt with immigration, policing, drugs, passports, anti-social behaviour orders, race relations, equal opportunities, animal experimentation, DNA testing or airport security.

This would effectively prevent the Act from being used by the very people who can best use it to hold the government to account and drive public debate: MPs, researchers, and journalists. But somehow, I suspect that is the point. The Blair government does not want to be held to account and it does not want its actions scrutinised and debated by the public. Instead, it wants things back the way they were: behind closed doors, with the public safely on the other side of them.