The free flow of information and ideas lies at the heart of the very notion of democracy and is crucial to effective respect for human rights. – UNESCO
In the House of Commons last week, Justice Secretary Michael Gove said that he believes we need to “revisit” the Freedom of Information Act, adding to renewed speculation that the Government is planning to make it more difficult for people to access information about Government and public services.
I think we do need to revisit the Freedom of Information Act. It is absolutely vital that we ensure that the advice civil servants give to Ministers of whatever Government is protected so that civil servants can speak candidly and offer advice in order to ensure that Ministers do not make mistakes. There has been a worrying tendency in our courts and elsewhere to erode the protections for that safe space for policy advice, and I think it absolutely needs to be asserted. There is no contradiction between making sure that we give civil servants the protection they deserve and also ensuring that the data – for example, the amount we spend in any Government department – are more transparent than ever.
– Quote from Michael Gove recorded in Hansard, Tuesday 23 June 2015
What are Freedom of Information requests?
Anybody can make a written request for information, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, to any UK body that is publically funded and legally they must respond within 20 working days. This is covered in the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Responses will either contain the information asked for or give a legal reason why the information cannot be provided.
Why should we care?
Gove seems to be saying that information given to members of the public should be limited, so that advice given by civil servants to Government Ministers would not be made available through FOI requests. Whilst we don’t know the details of the suggested changes, and therefore cannot address them directly, it’s sensible to reflect on why the Freedom of Information Act is so important.
FOI is crucial for openness and accountability. If the purpose of Government is to serve the people, then it is important we can access information that helps us to understand the decisions being made on our behalf.
Citizens can only fully participate and hold Government to account if we have access to the information that helps us form our opinions. It can be argued that it is undemocratic for a Government to be gatekeepers of this information. Citizens have a right to know how decisions are made – to know that processes and options have been fairly and thoroughly considered; and we have a right to know what the outcomes are.
FOI also aids transparency and can expose corruption – it is an essential component of a democratic society. If a Government wants the trust of its citizens, it is essential that it’s transparent. Despite any founded concerns Gove may have about the ability of civil servant to speak candidly, further limiting the type of information that can be accessed through the Freedom of Information Act is not conducive to a culture of openness.
The UK is also a member of the Open Government Partnership, an initiative launched in 2011 to provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens.