What’s it all for?

The Guardian ran a series of articles on the proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act recently:

The importance of our right to know
Guardian, Media, October 30, 2006
By Heather Brooke

Freedom of Information has many uses. One of the most important is that it shows where public services are broken and need fixing. A sensible government would focus on these problems and set about fixing them. A bad government would prevent people from uncovering problems in the first place, ignore problems when they come out, and persecute anyone with the gumption to talk about the problems publicly.

Bad government is ruled by secrecy and that’s what we’ve had in the UK for decades. Decisions made in secret do not lead to good value for money or good public services. A stream of disasters from the BSE crisis and the Marchioness ferry sinking to the Millennium Dome and Child Support Agency all attest to the costs of secrecy both in terms of human life and public money.

All that was meant to change with the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act. Sadly, it didn’t take long for New Labour politicians to renege on their promise to empower the citizen. The act was watered down and passage delayed for fi ve years. Nonetheless, for almost two years we have had a weak right, weakly enforced to ask questions of our public officials.

To a government obsessed with spin, however, any information not “managed” is considered dangerous. And so the Lord Chancellor has announced the results of a consultation into open government that took place in secrecy. Not surprisingly he wants to make it harder for people to ask questions. Of course, politicians can’t come out and say that, so the killer kick to democracy is couched in terms of cost, claiming it’s too expensive to answer FOI requests.

Politicians instead prefer to spend taxpayers’ money on propaganda to convince us that something that is obviously broken works perfectly. The Home Office is a good example. Or the NHS IT programme. Or costings for identity cards. If as much energy was spent solving problems as attempting to spin them away, then these problems probably wouldn’t exist.

It’s worth considering, too, that much of the cost of FOI has come from official foot-dragging and obstruction. For example, the Commons is spending thousands on a legal team to fight against greater transparency of MPs’ expenses. Computer Weekly’s Tony Collins reports that ministers are retaining lawyers to prevent documents being released from the Gateway review on ID cards. The Gateway review was funded with our taxes, and the government is spending more of our taxes to deny us the right to see the results of our largesse.

The ID card review puts the cost of introducing this intrusion into our lives at £5.4bn. Compare that figure, and the colossal amounts wasted by a myriad of bungling, spendthrift projects carried out with little public scrutiny and oversight, and it’s clear that our right to know, in order to expose and criticise this waste, is a small cost worth paying.

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