Cry freedom of information
The eyes of the news media have been elsewhere, but the House of Commons justice committee has just restated an important constitutional principle: freedom of information is a good thing.
A long-awaited post-legislative review of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 concludes: ‘We do not believe that there has been any general harmful effect at all on the ability to conduct business in the public service, and in our view the additional burdens are outweighed by the benefits.’ This is good news, and not just for journalists.
I have two worries. One is that the committee shies away from a strong recommendation that private firms running outsourced public services be subject to the act. Instead it reckons that contracts ‘provide a more practical basis for applying FoI to outsourced services than partial designation of commercial companies’. But this is enforceable only if contract terms are placed in the public domain.
Sure, the present government has pledged to publish all its contracts in full online - but it is the sort of pledge that gets shelved when political embarrassments start piling up. Let’s have a solid legal requirement that the provider of a public service be subject to the rules of transparency of a public service.
My second worry is more personal. Although the committee comes out against charging inquirers, largely on the grounds of practicality, it seems to accept the principle that people who use information thus obtained should somehow be made to pay. This would naturally include journalists, on the basis that revelations based on freedom of information ‘sell more papers’.
The journalist’s stock answer to this is that, as a rule, we do not sell more copies by probing the back offices of public administration but by putting pictures of the Royal Family on the front.
But this is a side issue. Charging commercial users is wrong because it conflicts with the principle of ‘requestor blindness’ - if the information should be in the public domain, it does not matter who has asked for it. It also suggests a very English disdain for entrepreneurship of the very kind that we’re supposed to be encouraging in the knowledge-based economy.
Answering FoI requests is expensive, but it’s a necessary price to pay for a democratic society. And as the information commissioner, Christopher Graham, never tires of reminding us, the way to cut the costs of requests is to put the information out there before it is asked for.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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