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Freedom of Information

Houses of Parliament in Westminster
Law In Action
Tuesday 20 October 2009
BBC Radio 4 1600 BST

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 finally came into force on 1st January 2005.

Soon to celebrate its fifth birthday the Act is regarded by many as a crucial tool in bringing transparency and accountability to government.

MP's, however, may reflect ruefully on the Act's birthday celebrations.

Although revelations about their expenses came about through an old-fashioned leak, that was only after Parliament had failed to prevent disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Act was supposed to usher in a new age of governmental openness and transparency. The inner workings of all public bodies, from the Prime Minister's office to your local council, would now be required by law to disclose information held by them to anyone who asked.

The duck island Sir Peter Viggers MP included in his expenses
Sir Peter Viggers MP was revealed to have charged a duck island to his expenses earlier this year.

Anything relating to decision-making processes, policies, data held, letters, emails, minutes of meetings, even expenses.

Wide-ranging uses

So how has the Act been used over the past five years?

Richard Thomas was the Information Commissioner from 2002 until June this year. He dealt with complaints from those who were refused information from public bodies.

"We dealt with arms sales to the Middle East…with the sinking of the Belgrano in 1982, matters of great public controversy, we dealt with abortion statistics."

"Some of these hit the headlines, some didn't, but there was an astonishing range of subject matter."

Waiting games

Many success stories, but the major criticism of the freedom of information (FOI) regime is delay.

Snail racing
Waiting for information requests can take a long time

The new Information Commissioner accepts that time delays are unacceptable and that the system needs to be more efficient.

"The whole process is very cumbersome. We've got a very complicated stately dance with many partners."

"It's a question of really, in the words of Lewis Carroll, will you walk a little faster said the whiting to the snail?"

Is it working?

So to what extent has FOI been effective?

Professor Robert Hazell, Director of the Constitution Unit at University College London, has been carrying out detailed research project on FOI.

He has found that it has delivered on its primary objectives, namely increased transparency and accountability. But crucially it has failed to promote greater understanding of and participation in government, and to increase trust in the executive.

Negative press

Professor Hazell blames the media.

"99.9% of the public do not make FOI requests. They simply learn about FOI and what's disclosed under FOI through the media, and on the whole what they learn is pretty overwhelmingly negative."

Christopher Graham is the new Information Commissioner for the UK.

Freedom of Information
In future the FOI Act could apply to more organisations such as housing associations.

He suggests that the tentacles of FOI might spread from public bodies into private companies who carry out work on their behalf.

"There is a question of whether the Act should apply more widely to more public authorities."

"With more and more activities being contracted out to services delivered by commercial organisations, housing associations and so on, perhaps there are some organisations that should be brought within the ambit of the Act."

"It's a bit odd if the council housing that's run by the local authority is covered by FOI, but the housing associations aren't."

Contact the programme

If you have thoughts on any of the topics we have covered, or any other legal issues, you can contact us by email at, or by post at Law In Action, BBC White City, Wood Lane, London W12 7TS.

BBC Radio 4's Law In Action is broadcast on Tuesday 20 October 2009 at 1600 BST and repeated on Thursday 22 October at 2002 BST.

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