Thursday, 24 May 2007

Darling down on Freedom of Information

Ouch! British MPs really do have a downer on the Freedom of Information Act (FoI)

Trade Secretary Alistair Darling wants much tighter restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act, according to the BBC. He is concerned that it does not sufficiently protect advice from officials to ministers.

The Act has already taken a severe hammering from parliament including moves underway, including one to exempt MPs and another to restrict costs.

In a letter to the Lord Chancellor he argues that "incremental harm" could be done to policy development and asks for the Act to be reviewed. Mr Darling emphasises his concern that the Information Tribunal has ruled against the government in favour of openness. He is trying to claim that the demands of the FoI Act were "placing good government at risk".

He apparently feels disclosure of correspondence between MPs and ministers, even if ostensibly innocuous, will inhibit the dialogue between MPs and their constituents.

He goes on to claim, "If we are to live under constant threat of publication, this will prevent MPs from expressing their views frankly when writing to a minister. We need urgent advice on what the position is".

Maybe so, if the views and dialog are on when might be a good day to bury bad news. But, one suspects, more likely Ministers and MPs are so down on transparency because they fear being held to account.

For instance, when treasury documents released under the act in earlier this year proved officials warned the treasury that abolishing dividend tax credits (Gordon Brown’s budget in 1997) “would make a big hole in pensions scheme finances". Something denied by the treasury.

The Freedom to keep Information Secret Act?

Richard Thomas, the UK Information Commissioner, is planning to say that, the Freedom of Information Act's reputation is being jeopardised by "pointless and mischievous" requests.

He cites examples such as, a request to the Foreign Office on the amount spent on Ferrero Rocher chocolate, or one on how many eligible bachelors there were in the Hampshire police. Also how the BBC, has received over 90 enquiries from one person concerning the amount of expenses paid to senior staff.

He plans to outline new guidelines, highlighting the right of public bodies to reject "vexatious" requests and argues "A charter for responsible FoI requests will help to prevent requests which have no serious purpose or value, impose disproportionate burdens or have the effect of harassing the public body."

All couched in reasonable terms and language.

So who decides if it is “Vexatious”? If you don’t get a satisfactory answer the first, or second, time? Will you be able to ask again, or will you be branded as a loony, or a pest and thus safe to be ignored?

What next – A government database of pests to be refused under the Act?

It beats actually being put in a mental institution the way they were said to in the good old USSR I suppose…

How long before you have to justify why you want the info, make a case for it?

Probably the Ferero Rocher was a tongue in cheek request, though if someone felt strongly about querying the honesty of the adverts then the information might enable them to confirm, or refute the ambassador’s party ads.

Still, if someone has put themselves out enough to write requesting the information, even if only on the grounds of curiosity, then why should they not receive the information?

When the act was brought in it was known there would be costs, embarrassment and some inconvenience to those bound to supply the info, they can hardly complain now.

No - This looks suspiciously like the top of a slippery slope, possibly given a good shove, by the ’Right Honourable’ Gents & Ladies, wanting to keep their expenses out of the public eye and no doubt avoid too many ‘vexatious’ questions about them…