David Cameron also has said that the Act clogs the working of government because of the time involved in complying with requests for information and because it inhibits honest discussion in meetings. Fundamentally the issue is about fear – fear that public revelation of the truth about what happens in government will lead to embarrassment at best and scandal at worst.
I can see both sides of the argument: it can take many hours of a civil servant’s working day to produce the material called for, and often it is so innocuous it goes unused. Additionally it is good for people to feel they can express their views frankly and sometimes controversially in order to widen debate, without it being reported and misrepresented by the media. Meanwhile, the introduction of the Act by Tony Blair has not only encouraged a more formal and accountable system of government with more transparency, but it has brought to light hidden truths that it has been very much in the public interest to know to do with effectiveness of legislation and how decisions are made.
In the end it comes down to integrity and common sense on both sides. Just as a family may have a lively discussion about a child’s next school in private, so too ministers and civil servants should be able to speak to each other in confidence without any risk of subsequent disclosure; meetings involving more formal discussion and decision-making should be recorded and be available to the public, along with factual records and statistics; and journalists should be measured and considered in their requests. It is all about balance.
If everything we do and say is done with good intent and from a place of truth, there is nothing to fear. While the Freedom of Information Act may be burdensome, sometimes excessively so, the ethos underpinning it of democratic openness and accountability is important. The principle applies to all of us, where we have a right to privacy from intrusion about personal matters but should hope that whatever our speech or conduct otherwise, we would be untroubled if they became known – for what is there to be ashamed of?]]>