Freedom of information: we have the right to know
Author: Zoe Stavri
Published on Oct 04, 2012
Labour’s shadow justice secretary has said that under a Labour government, freedom of information laws would be extended to cover private-sector companies that deliver public services (£).
At present, companies such as A4e and G4S, both of whom have had multi-million pound contracts with the government, are not subject to scrutiny under FoI. A4e have been marred by allegations of fraud in their delivery of the government’s welfare-to-work scheme, while G4S came under heavy criticism for their failure to deliver adequate security for the Olympics, leading to the army being called in to cover for them. Covering such companies under FoI would allow us ability to detect problems and hold those responsible to account, so this move would be welcome.
However, it’s easy enough for Labour to say this while they’re in opposition. Once in power, though, it might be a different story entirely. From the outside, it looks as if governments aren’t particularly keen on FoI, with both Alex Salmond and David Cameron having come under fire from the Scottish and UK information commissioners, respectively. The commissioners expressed concern that the governments were trying to avoid scrutiny under FoI.
Even the man who brought FoI to the UK seems less happy with it. Tony Blair wrote in his autobiography:
"Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.
Once I appreciated the full enormity of the blunder, I used to say - more than a little unfairly - to any civil servant who would listen: Where was Sir Humphrey when I needed him? We had legislated in the first throes of power. How could you, knowing what you know have allowed us to do such a thing so utterly undermining of sensible government?"
It is hardly a surprise that FoI is less than popular among those in power, as it is they who are most affected by it: the better FoI is, the easier it is to scrutinise abuses of the power they are given and then hold them to account. We need to know, and we deserve to know.