Liberal Democrat councillors defend Freedom of Information

February 3, 2016 8:30 PM

Moving a motion opposing Government attempts to water down the Freedom of Information Act, Cllr David Faulkner said :

There is nothing wrong with legislation being reviewed after 16 years - it's probably a sensible thing. But doing it through a commission, most of whose members are known publicly to wish to reign in the act, doesn't seem to me to be right. Here I reference Jack Straw - who took the act through Parliament in the first place and is now on record as saying that enquiries about ministerial communications and the formulation of government policy should not be allowed any more. Then there's Michael Howard (of whom Ann Widdicombe famously said that there was something of the night" about him - too true) And sadly our own Alex Carlisle, a great champion of civic liberties and transparency, but not on this issue.

Chris Grayling, Leader of the House and former Injustice Secretary, is leading the charge against freedom of information - because, he says, journalists are using it to generate stories. Perish the thought. Actually the number of FOI requests from journalists is no greater now than five years ago, and the vast majority of FoI requests come from private citizens.

The commission set up to review the act ahead of legislative changes has no-one on it who is a known supporter of the act, and has no remit to look more broadly at the act and what has worked well. However, just three years ago, the cross-party House of Commons Justice Committee, under the chairmanship of Alan Beith, carried out an exhaustive review of the Act, with a whole range of witnesses, suggested some improvements not curtailment, and called the act a "significant enhancement of our democracy".

There's no doubt that freedom of information has allowed for the revelation of many inconvenient truths - exposing child sexual exploitation and cover-ups, the inappropriate use of stop-and-search, and of course the scandal of MPs' expenses.

There are two myths - one is that it's an incredibly expensive burden for councils and others covered by it. Is it very much in the context of the spend of these bodies? What about the way in which opening practices to greater disclosure and transparency actually saves money. MP's expenses scandal again, as an example. And isn't it the price we pay for living in an open and transparent society?

The second myth is that FoI removes the so-called safe space for policy discussion and development. I don't believe that there's any evidence to justify that - However, I do think that there is a culture of secrecy in our public decision-making processes, and that without effective Freedom of Information it would be even worse.

The wish of the Government to curtail freedom of information is all part of the undermining of the media (for example the BBC) and part of a wider weakening of those likely to embarrass or oppose government, whether it's political parties, unions, charities, even the House of Lords.

It was good that former minister Simon Hughes managed to get Network rail under the law's remit but there are many other agencies that should be covered. We should be strengthening, not weakening freedom of information