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Ministers determined to limit freedom of information

Michael WillsLord Michael Wills is a Labour Peer and former Justice and Home Office Minister

Everyone agrees more transparency in politics and Government is a good idea. It’s in the Coalition Agreement.

‘We will extend transparency to every area of public life’

David Cameron and Nick Clegg pledge in the foreword. In the section headed ‘Civil Liberties’ they promise to –

‘...extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency’.

In the months ahead, we’re about to find out just how much the public cares about all the transparency that was promised them in that Agreement because, far from increasing it as they promised, the Government are weakening it.

The Government’s flagship Localism Act 2011 is going to restrict access to information to which the public currently have a right to gain access. This is because when public services currently delivered by local authorities and other public bodies are contracted out to the private sector, as increasingly they will be, they will be removed from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. 

When I put down amendments to both the then Localism Bill and the Protection of Freedoms Bill to restore the current position by extending the Freedom of Information provisions to such contracting out, I thought Ministers might accept them. The amendments aimed to deliver what the Coalition Agreement promised. They were limited and proportionate, ensuring, for example, that small businesses would not be caught. And, after all, the Freedom of Information Act and regulations already contain exemptions to protect legitimate interests of business, such as trade secrets or information likely to prejudice commercial interests.

I was wrong. Time after time these amendments to increase transparency were rejected by Ministers. They said lots of warm words about their commitment to transparency while sticking with legislation that weakened it.

They want to wait, they said, for post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act. But they didn’t wait for the results of such scrutiny before removing swathes of local authority from the Act’s scope.
And, even assuming that the Government will decide that it does after all want to restore transparency to the delivery of these public services, this means it’s likely to take years before an appropriate legislative vehicle can be found to do it.

In the meantime, Ministers must believe that voters won’t care all that much about losing their rights to information about all these public services delivered for the public and funded by the public.  Let’s see.