Factchecking on Freedom of Information: Has FOI really done nothing to improve accountability?
“We have a wretched Government here which has… caused the resignation of me and many others, because it was this Government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act” – Conservative MP Anthony Steen, on being exposed in the MPs’ expenses scandal.
There’s been a lot of coverage this week about a Ministry of Justice study which among other things claimed, according to the Guardian that “Civil servants do not believe the Freedom of Information Act has increased accountability”.
This suggestion seemed surprising, given the number of high-profile cases where FOI has helped expose abusive behaviour by our public officials, most notably the MPs expenses scandal. Although the damning details were ultimately made public via a leak, the writer and activist Heather Brooke had fought a long and well-publicised legal campaign to establish that Parliamentary expenses were subject to FOI, and it is widely acknowledged that the existence of FOI requests by Brooke and others helped to precipitate the news story.
This is the case even for some of those exposed in the scandal. When the Conservative MP Anthony Steen was forced to resign after it emerged that he’d spent £90,000 of public money on his country home, he specifically blamed the Freedom of Information Act, saying:
“I think I have behaved impeccably. I’ve done nothing criminal. As far as I’m concerned and as of this day, I don’t know what the fuss is about…
We have a wretched government here which has completely mucked up the system and caused the resignation of me and many others because it was this government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act, and it is this Government that insisted on the things which caught me on the wrong foot… What right does the public have to interfere with my private life? None.”
It’s difficult to think of a clearer example of FOI-induced accountability than this. So I had a look through the Ministry of Justice study. Here are some extracts:
“FOIA has resulted… in the disclosure of significant amounts of information which has enabled the public to hold public authorities to account.” (page 60)
“The Government believes that the expansion of the Act… will continue to promote openness, transparency and accountability across the public sector.” (page 66)
“% of FOI officers who agreed that the following objectives were being achieved:
– increased accountability 78%” (page 84)
“surveys of officials and stakeholders across public authorities found that the FOIA had indeed made central and local government more accountable” (page 88)
“the evidence suggests that the FOIA has had considerable success in achieving its primary objectives of greater openness and accountability… Claims that the FOIA would undermine civil service neutrality or ministerial accountability have likewise proved unfounded” (page 90)
“Conclusion: The FOI legislation set out to improve transparency and accountability, and evidence to date indicates this has been achieved…” (page 99)
Whoever told the Guardian that the study showed “civil servants do not believe the FOI act has increased accountability” appears to have been mistaken…