As the economy recedes, the pressure for FOI should grow

A couple of weeks ago, Lord Digby Jones said the Civil Service could function on half the staff and today, a report from the Taxpayers’ Alliance has drawn attention to massive nationwide growth of the remuneration packages council middle management receive.

The TPA report, which contains figures for every council in the country, can be read in full here. It shows a 22 per cent increase in the number of staff receiving remuneration packages of over £50,000 a year. All this in the context of a recession, when taxpayers are cutting back or losing their jobs.

In her last blog post, Heather said that Brown should follow Obama’s lead on FOI policies. So he should. Relatedly, he should hear what Obama said about Washington aides: “During this period of economic emergency, families are tightening their belts and so should Washington.” That message doesn’t seem to have reached Town Halls or Civil Service Departments in this country yet.

Ultimately, as Obama knows, public sector elitism and freedom of information are part of the same debate. Full and easy disclosure, by breaking down the barriers to information, enables greater scrutiny across the private and public sectors so that there can be greater equality and efficiency of state action. In scrutiny is accountability and in accountability is better government.

Full disclosure would make it very difficult for one rule to apply to the public sector, while another one applied to everyone else. The fact that council remuneration is on the up at the same time as the private sector has been in crisis demonstrates the lack of equality that FOI must remedy.

It won’t come easily, of course. There was a story a couple of weeks ago about delayed FOI requests in the Times . I missed it because it was a very brief note in the middle of the paper. It reported that the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for enforcing the proper administration of FOIs requests, itself commonly fails to reply to them on time.

But freeing up information is a growing moral imperative as the recession looms. Even if the headlines belong to financial collapse, let’s hope that the ongoing campaign for freedom of information continues to gather momentum. With a recession looming, it is more important than ever to distribute the nation’s resources appropriately and govern wisely.

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