David Cameron criticised for attacks on Freedom of Information Act
This is a discussion on David Cameron criticised for attacks on Freedom of Information Act within the RTI News & Discussion forums, part of the RTI News, Circulars and Decisions category; Reported by Rajeev Syal in Guardian.co.uk on 16 July 2012 David Cameron criticised for attacks on Freedom of Information Act | Politics | The Guardian The information commissioner has accused ...
- 07-21-2012, 09:50 PM #1
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David Cameron criticised for attacks on Freedom of Information Act
Reported by Rajeev Syal in Guardian.co.uk on 16 July 2012
David Cameron criticised for attacks on Freedom of Information Act | Politics | The Guardian
The information commissioner has accused David Cameron and other members of the political establishment of launching a damaging attack on the Freedom of Information Act which he says is encouraging civil servants to obscure the government from proper scrutiny.
Christopher Graham said public condemnation of the law from the prime minister, Tony Blair and the former cabinet secretary Lord O'Donnell was "driving bad behaviour" and possible illegal activity in Whitehall. He said the coalition may have abandoned its promise to be the most transparent ever because of the pressures of power.
His words are part of a robust defence of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which allows members of the public to request and examine records of meetings between civil servants and ministers. Critics have claimed it is restricting the way that ministers and civil servants communicate.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian, Graham also claimed that:
• His office had found evidence of the destruction of public documents in government but was powerless to prosecute because of a legal loophole;
• Private providers that are moving into previously public services such as welfare-to-work companies should also be covered by the act;
• He suspects the use of private emails in Whitehall to avoid public scrutiny is widespread.
Speaking days before the publication of a long awaited justice select committee report into freedom of information, he said: "There has been a recent and loud cri de coeur from the establishment about freedom of information, and no doubt the establishment wishes it could go back to its old ways.
"There are some very powerful voices saying it [the act] has all been a horrible mistake. Specifically, Tony Blair, Gus O'Donnell [the former head of the civil service] and the prime minister himself," he said before adding the name of Simon Jenkins, the former Times editor and Guardian columnist.
Graham claimed that their criticisms of the act were encouraging the use of unofficial, private email addresses and verbal briefings, which would in turn make government less accountable.
"So long as senior politicians and mandarins and distinguished former editors of the Times go around saying that freedom of information legislation is all terrible, they are driving bad behaviour because more junior figures in the civil service will assume that you can't write anything down and that government can only be done by word of mouth. It is the enemy of good government," he said.
Blair has said his administration's support for the act in 2000 was his biggest mistake in government, claiming it has stopped honest discussions between ministers and their close aides. O'Donnell has also voiced concerns while Cameron two months ago criticised the "endless discovery process" of responding to freedom of information (FIO) requests.
Two years ago, Cameron promised that the government would be "the most transparent ever".
Graham said that there has been a noticeable and dangerous drift away from FOIs.
"The coalition government is keen on transparency and open data but at the same time I get the sense they are much less enthusiastic about FOI than when they came in. Possibly, it's all a bit hard to live with in government," he said. "Sometimes the full story is in the background papers and minutes of meetings rather than just raw data."
Graham, who moved to the post two years ago from the Advertising Standards Authority, has been engaged in two major clashes with the coalition government – the decision to veto the release of the NHS risk register, which is an assessment of the planned changes to the health service, and the refusal of Department for Education (DfE) to concede that Michael Gove was wrong to use his wife's private email address to communicate with aides, circumventing FOI legislation.
The decision by Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, to use the ministerial veto in May was the second time coalition ministers had overruled information tribunal decision this year.
Graham, a former Liberal councillor in Liverpool, said: "That particular veto has raised a question which is still unresolved, which is what were the exceptional circumstances in this case? We need to know, if only to save the cost of these cases for the public purse."
Lansley's efforts to keep the report hidden had resulted in a bigger row than if it had been released, Graham said.
"Looking on I thought: 'Why take all this incoming [fire] in defence of what is a rather arcane principle?'" he said.
Gove, the education secretary, has admitted using the email address of his wife, the Times journalist Sarah Vine – in correspondence known as the Mrs Blurt emails – to conduct government business. Following the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt's disclosure to the Leveson inquiry that he used his Gmail account to communicate with aides, Graham says the practice was widespread.
"I would be amazed if this kind of behaviour was confined to one or two corners of government. I think that it is standard behaviour of the political class," he said. He criticised the decision of the DfE to challenge his ruling asking for the Gove emails to be disclosed.
"Maddeningly, the [DfE's] appeal won't come on until the autumn. I have absolutely no doubt that the appeal will be rejected.
"There is no case for saying that private emails on government business should not be considered to fall within the FOI Act and trying to get round that is just silly," he said.
Graham said he and staff had found evidence that civil servants had destroyed or hidden information that should or could have been released under FOI, but had not been able to prosecute because the law allowed for six months to build a case, which was not enough.
"We have encountered evidence that material wasn't on the record when it should have been and it had been gotten rid off after the request was made, which is an offence under section 77 of the act.
"But prosecution under the present law is difficult because it must be completed within six months of being brought to the commissioner. I flagged up this problem to the justice committee and will see how they respond," he said.
Private companies that are being introduced into public spheres, such as welfare-to-work companies and police agencies, need to come within the Freedom of Information Act, said Graham, to ensure public scrutiny.
"No one seems to be thinking through what the result of 'big society' initiatives are. The irony is that you may get greater efficiency but you could end up with less accountability," he said.
As the coalition reorganises public services, it is creating new agencies but is failing to leave them exposed to the act, he said.
"The new National Crime Agency will not be a public authority under FOI but it is taking on responsibilities from the Borders Agency and the National Police Improvement Agency which were covered by FOI. Accountability is escaping under the door – and I don't know if this is deliberate or unintended," he said.