Launch Party

The launch party for the second edition of Your Right to Know was a glamorous affair at the Art Workers’ Guild in Holborn Monday night. It was fabulous to see so many people supporting freedom of information and the new book. We even had a surprise guest who ventured over from the bowels of the Cabinet Office for a night of champagne and wine.

I made a speech at the launch and have posted the full version below:

Thank you all for coming out on this dreary January evening to support ‘Your Right to Know.’ First I’d like to thank my publisher and all those who helped bring about this second edition of YRTK. It was a big risk taking on the first book as we had no way of knowing how a book about freedom of information and citizens’ rights would sell. Few had heard of FOI back in 2003/4 and certainly fewer thought it would catch on or flourish. But it has and the existence of this second edition hopefully proves that the public are interested in politics when it is on their own terms.

When I wrote the first edition of Your Right to Know, I hoped it would inspire a culture change from obsessive secrecy to openness. The concept of ‘information sharing’ in the minds of politicians seemed to me at the time to exist entirely of a one-way process where we tell those in power everything about us, but they tell us nothing about themselves. I was surprised by how little respect the general British public received from those calling themselves public servants. Everywhere I saw signs saying ‘We will prosecute those who abuse our staff’ but nowhere did I find any awareness among this staff that the public being abused in numerous ways. Firstly, they were being forced to fork out a load of their own money for services that often didn’t work and when they tried to fix them they were told to go away. I wrote: “Novel Concept: the public pay for and elect the government. Public servants’ primary responsibility is to serve the public.” Our role should not just be to put up (the cash) and shut up. We are ‘the boss’ of government. We put up the money for public services and they are run for our benefit. We have a right to ensure they are working for our benefit.

Fortunately, I didn’t realise the immensity of the task when I first began. But here we are now at the launch of the second edition of Your Right to Know – fully updated and expanded for the year 2007. I didn’t expect politicians to embrace the book, but I did hope the public would. It’s been an interesting couple of years. When people complain that the FOI law is useless then the question must be asked ‘then why did politicians spend so much time and energy blocking it? And why are they now attempting just two years in, to kill off the law?’

The fact is that although the law is weak and enforcement weaker still – freedom of information is revolutionising the way we are governed. It reminds me of the little dog Toto in the Wizard of Oz. The law, like Toto, is not a big muscled beast designed to protect us, nevertheless, it is successfully pulling back the curtain to reveal the inner workings behind the great and powerful. And the great and powerful certainly do not like their lever-pulling exposed.

There are now as many as 20 stories a week generated by freedom of information in local and national newspapers. We now know more about the police then ever before. About the number of serious criminals that are now receiving cautions rather than the full weight of the law. About officers with criminal records, the number let off speeding fines and about crimes in our neighbourhoods and operational failures in particular forces. We are discovering the myriad flaws and failures of the Home Office whether it’s losing criminals, failing to monitor our borders, failing to track those on probation, monitor sex offenders, check criminal backgrounds or enter arrests into the national Police computer. We know more about the NHS and that at least 13 trusts are bankrupt. Citizens can discover what sort of ‘value for money’ they are getting from private finance initiatives, which used to be conducted in almost total secrecy. We are getting close at last to revealing the detailed expenses of MPs’ – something our Scottish counterparts have been forced to publish for the past year. And to those who might think FOI costs money – may I point out that since FOI, the amounts claimed by Scottish MSPs has plummeted!

In today’s Guardian, David Hencke wrote about an EU-wide initiative that will finally disclose who gets the 100billion Euros doled out in farm subsidies. This is all taxpayer money – our money. And until passage of the FOI laws, politicians refused to reveal who was receiving these payments. We now know that the recipients are not small hill farmers in Wales, but the world’s largest agribusinesses, the Royal family and rich landowners. I’m not interested in making a political statement about that – all I have to say is that without information we as a society cannot have an informed debate. Is Tate & Lyle a worthy receiver of taxpayer subsidy? That is what we as a society need to debate – but we can’t have that debate until we know the facts. Until now, the British public have not known the facts on a huge number of things.

Despite a total lack of publicity about the law, the public have found out about freedom of information. Not just journalists but campaign groups such as the Campaign Against Arms Trade, Friends of the Earth, Unison and the Taxpayers’ Alliance are all using the Act to get information. Gradually, with all these people’s efforts, the feudal attitude that Government knows best is being replaced by something more democratic and egalitarian. I hope that my recent win at the Information Tribunal against the BBC for the minutes of the Governors’ meetings after the Hutton Inquiry put to rest the outdated belief that public servants can only make good decisions in secrecy. Secrecy is the nemesis of good government. It leads to inefficiency, incompetence and corruption.

The past two years have seen changes, but mostly they are on the side of the public. Where people once assumed that secrecy was beneficial now they are realizing its costs and its harm. They are now turning the government’s argument back around and wondering if the government has nothing to fear, then it should have nothing to hide. Secrecy now makes a politician, a public service a government department or a council look bad.

As is so often the case with rights, we must use them or lose them. We must make FOI requests and challenge refusals, challenge delay and demand better enforcement by the Information Commissioner. Only with due diligence can the system be made to work for us and not those in power.

At the moment, the only changes on offer are ones that will make the law work for politicians and not the public. The line is that FOI is too expensive and used by some to make silly requests. Funny then, that the changes will ensure that only silly simplistic requests will get below the new fee limits. In the US groups working for the public interest are given fee waivers, here in the UK we are about to create a system that imposes penalties on these very same people. The cost of making government responsive to the people who fund it and in whose name it exists should not be attributable solely to FOI. But even if it is, surely that is a cost worth bearing? Making government transparent and directly accountable to the people increases the efficiency and competence of the public sector more than any set of government regulators or so-called watchdogs.

Transparent government means that we will lose a little of the childish awe we felt for those in power, but we will gain better services. I do believe that people get the government they deserve. If people are content to delegate all responsibility for the running of public services then they have no one to blame but themselves when things go wrong. We must each of us, do what little we can to improve the system.

Please support the Press Gazette’s ‘Don’t Kill FOI’ campaign by signing up to their petition. And if you have your own FOI experiences, then please make a submission to the Government in their current public consultation that ends 8th March.

I know that many people claim they are not interested in Government. You might not be interested in the government but the government is most certainly interested in you. They want to know what you earn, how you look after your children, where you drive your car, who you email, where you’re going on the tube, your health condition and where you’ve flown. The less we oppose the Government, the more power they gain over us by default. I really like the way Ian Hislop described FOI in the introduction which he kindly wrote. Sadly he couldn’t be here tonight because of a prior engagement. He wrote ‘If this is not exactly a call to arms, it is certainly a call to write a letter.”

I hope that some of you will do exactly that. And if by now the wine has loosened your wallets, you will find at the back of the book an expanded collection of sample letters to do exactly that.

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