- but then, as observed by some, the media have seen the Act as a nice 'source of stories':
Futures Forum: The Freedom of Information Act > and 'generating stories'
But the media is not going to give up, with more and more angry pieces appearing regionally:
Freedom of Information: Join our campaign to safeguard your absolute right to know (From Oxford Mail)
Oxford Mail devotes 15 pages to campaign to save FoI - Journalism News from HoldtheFrontPage
Back the Telegraph & Argus' fight for your right to know (From Bradford Telegraph and Argus)
Grant Woodward: We’ll no longer know the stuff they don’t want us to know - Yorkshire Evening Post
Why we need the Freedom of Information Act | East Devon Watch
The media nationally are concerned:
Press Association says FoI charge would ‘severely damage democracy’PA says FoI charge would 'severely damage democracy' - Journalism News from HoldtheFrontPage
This is from today's Mail:
Sir Cover-up: Our expose of public-sector fat cats would have been impossible without the Freedom of Information Act. No wonder Whitehall's most cynical mandarin wants to get rid of it
- Mail used Freedom of Information Act to uncover taxpayer-funded excess
- Has allowed the media to shine a light into the murkiest areas of public life
- But Sir Jeremy Heywood, Britain's top civil servant, wants to limit the Act
The Mail's devastating investigation this week into public-sector fat cats would never have been revealed without the Freedom of Information Act.
It took more than 5,000 requests under the Freedom of Information (FoI) rules for the Mail and the TaxPayers' Alliance to uncover the extent of taxpayer-funded excess, from the hospital chief pocketing £1.26 million while facing a budget crisis, to the NHS boss paid £850,000 in one year (yet still claiming £1.40 expenses for a bus ticket).
Despite this, only last month Tory Cabinet minister Chris Grayling joined Whitehall officials in trying to muzzle our right to know, accusing reporters and campaigners of using FoI laws to find news stories in a way that 'isn't acceptable'.
The Leader of the Commons was rightly accused of 'staggering hypocrisy', as it emerged he had regularly praised stories uncovered by FoI requests while in Opposition, using them to embarrass the previous Labour government.
This depressing episode perfectly illustrates how, instead of working to rebuild public trust, the Establishment is trying to make its activities still more opaque.
It is Sir Jeremy Heywood, Britain's top civil servant, who wants to limit our Freedom of Information Act, though his plans have been greeted with incredulity and derision even within government.
Sir Jeremy, Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service claims officials are 'less candid' with ministers in their advice for fear their views may be made public as result of the legislation; legislation designed to help expose government waste, incompetence and threats to public safety.
Since it became law in 2000, the Act has allowed the media to shine a light into some of the murkiest areas of public life, to the embarrassment and discomfort of governments and the civil service.
But now Sir Jeremy has set up a commission composed of former ministers and civil servants to review the Act. They are supposedly 'independent', but, as a long-time observer of the workings of government, I can tell you the panel is compromised from the start.
Indeed, one of our most senior former mandarins says: 'I laughed out loud when I saw who they were. They're all excellent people, of course, but they don't exactly come without baggage, do they? It's a case of once you see who's on the panel, you know what its conclusions will be.'
For what is plain is that the panel has been hand-picked by Sir Jeremy to recommend that there should be curbs on the public's right to know. Although all are eminent individuals, there is more than a suspicion that they are perfect Establishment stooges who prefer secrecy to openness.
Among them are commission chairman Lord Burns, a former top Treasury official, former Tory leader Michael Howard and ex-Labour Cabinet minister Jack Straw. It is Mr Straw's inclusion that gives the game away. As a Cabinet minister, he fought tooth and nail to water down the original Freedom of Information Act. He even wanted to leave it to Ministers to decide whether or not disclosure would be in the public interest.
As Lord Wills, who was Information Minister in the last Labour government, told me: 'I'll eat my hat if this panel concludes that Freedom of Information is working well and needs no changes.
The Government has deliberately chosen a panel that includes not a single advocate of greater transparency.' So why is Sir Jeremy trying to limit our freedom laws and are his concerns justified? The truth is that the Freedom of Information Act has been crucial in revealing a range of scandals, notably MPs' abuse of Commons expenses and a host of other shocking cases such as senior public sector figures being paid off and then re-hired at even more generous salaries. It has exposed many scandals about the NHS, such as the fact that the chances of having a limb amputated because of diabetes are twice as high in Somerset as in London.
Unsurprisingly, then, such a vital tool for open democracy has been opposed not only by many top civil servants and Mr Straw, but his then boss, Tony Blair, lamented in his memoirs that he had been a 'naive, foolish, irresponsible, nincompoop' for allowing the Act to be passed under his government.
How very wrong he is. The fact is politics needs openness, honesty and genuine accountability — not more secrecy. But Sir Jeremy seems to agree with Blair, arguing confidentiality is more important when it comes to policy-making.
Admittedly, such confidentiality is crucial when it concerns areas such as the intelligence services and matters of national security but these are exempt from FoI.
Also, the law is deliberately flexible and offers Whitehall officials and ministers a 'safe space' in which to debate domestic policy plans. Only if the public interest in disclosure outweighs the need for confidentiality are details of discussions revealed — and then only after a policy has been decided and publicly announced.
In any case, Sir Jeremy's claim that officials will be too scared of disclosure to give ministers honest advice suggests that we now have a civil service where the wimps have taken over.
No, I believe the real reason some politicians and officials want to curb FoI is simply to cover their backs.
They want to stop the public knowing when there are disagreements between ministers, or between ministers and officials. They also want to stop the public knowing about any risks and potential downsides from policy decisions. Their fear is that these might be exploited by opposition politicians and the media.
But as any insider will tell you, the most embarrassing details about policy discussions are more likely to emerge thanks to leaks from politicians rather than through FoI disclosures.
As that great fictional mandarin, Sir Humphrey Appleby, of Yes Minister fame, once observed: 'The ship of state always leaks from the top.'
Worryingly, it appears that Sir Jeremy has gone to some trouble to launch his counter-attack. Until July, FoI laws were the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice but that has now been transferred to the Cabinet Office, where Sir Jeremy can keep control. I'm told that behind the scenes there were concerns that Dominic Raab, the fair-minded junior minister in charge of FoI, might take an even-handed view!
In public, of course, the Cabinet Office is keen to stress that it favours open government. In July, it announced: 'We are committed to being the most transparent government in the world.'
It said it was making available to the public a record 20,000 pieces of data. It also claimed: 'The World Wide Web Foundation's Open Data Barometer and Open Knowledge's Global Open Data Index ranked the UK as the world's leading country on open government.'
Except that is not true. The foundation, set up by Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the internet), issued a statement saying this claim was 'misleading the public', and added: 'The prospect of restricting citizens' right to information following the commission's review [into FoI] sends the wrong signal to developing and young democracies.'
Of course, it is good that the Government is making more data available but as the foundation points out, sets of facts and figures are not the same as transparency when it comes to government.
Indeed, in the second quarter of this year, the Cabinet Office granted in full only 17 per cent of requests for information under the Act. The same Cabinet Office has also consistently had the highest rate of 'fully withheld' responses to FoI requests.
So what is behind Sir Jeremy's thinking, which critics fear will curb democracy?
He is thought to have three aims: to have all advice to ministers given a total exemption from FoI; to make it easier for the authorities to turn down FoI requests, perhaps by introducing charges, including for the media; and to give the Government much stronger powers to veto FoI requests, without tribunals or the courts being able to over-rule ministers. No wonder the review commission has its critics. I have been told that Harriet Harman, who was acting Labour leader at the time of the appointments, did not want Jack Straw to be a member.
What is certain is that Labour is insisting Mr Straw will be acting in his personal capacity only. A party spokesman said: 'The Commission's terms of reference clearly invite a change in the terms of the Act. Our FoI laws are a crucial check on the power of the executive and the Government should not attempt to restrict them by the back door.'
With such opposition, the Government will have a hard time getting FoI changes through the Commons and even greater difficulties with the Lords.
Yet this is an issue that is much more important than merely one of parliamentary arithmetic.
As Lord Wills says: 'At a time when there is such public disillusion with Whitehall and Westminster, the Government should be seeking to improve transparency instead of butchering the one piece of legislation that seeks to increase it.'
By opening up government and bringing to light some of the genuine difficulties in reaching decisions instead of indulging in the yah-boo-sucks exchanges that the public hates, our rulers could start to redeem themselves in the eyes of voters.
Sir Jeremy Heywood is rightly admired in Whitehall as a strong Cabinet Secretary, but he has a deeply worrying blind spot when it comes to openness in government.
THE SCANDALS THAT WOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN EXPOSED
- Sue Cameron is author of The Cheating Classes: The Disempowerment Of The British People.
Sir Jeremy Heywood wants to limit our Freedom of Information Act | Daily Mail Online