Leave FoI alone you nincompoopsPosted on February 15th, 2012 1 comment
The publication of statements yesterday relating to the consultation on the future of Freedom of Information has, I suspect, left many of us gloomy.
I have always thought the powers-that-be, when faced with the stark realisation of just what they had given birth to, would attempt to smother FoI as soon as politically possible.
Their last attempt was scuppered with help from a well organised campaign from the press and the opportune timing of the MPs expenses scandal – brought to us with the help of FoI.
Now the politicians and civil servants have risen from the dead in true local council zombie invasion style (in joke), and are coming back for a second attempt. I’m afraid I’m not optimistic that we can fight them off again.
Why the pessimism? Firstly the press has got a battle for its own survival going on, so can be forgiven for taking its eye off the ball for a while. How upsetting is it that the clowns who hacked into the phones of non-celebrities could potentially be responsible for the retreat of FoI?
Secondly we have the excuse of austerity. “When we are making people redundant and cutting essential services why should we be answering questions about how many toilet rolls we use?” On the face of it the argument seems powerful, but unravels if we look at it more closely. There is a saying that some people know the cost of everything and the value of nothing – it could have been coined for FoI.
The transparency and accountability of FoI gives these public bodies the legitimacy to govern us. Without it where will they be? They seem not to realise that FoI acts as deterrent and antidote to corruption and vested interests. I’m not saying that take FoI away and you’ll have rioting in the streets similar to Athens – but you create that risk.
Finally we have the argument that FoI has not improved Government. If ever there were an example of why Government isn’t improving, it is this piece of “research”. It was never for FoI to improve Government, it was for the people who govern us! FoI was supposed to act as the disinfectant or the light to allow the citizen to see that we were being well governed. Well we’ve had a look and we don’t like what we’ve seen, so what do the authorities suggest? A) Put their house in order or (B) turn the lights out so we can live in ignorance once again? Amazing.
So with this three pronged attack, what will happen?
In a bizarre way I’m relatively optimistic despite what I’ve already said, as I don’t think now there is a hope of squeezing the FoI genie back into the bottle.
But there will be changes and one of the changes they are looking at is introducing a fee. This is such a bad idea, both in a practical and a philosophical way, that I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what we end up with.
Why would it be so wrong?
- Any marketing expert will tell you that you can’t have a product called the Freedom of Information Act and then charge £10 for it. If Tesco said chickens were free and then charged you a tenner for them, you’d be angry, annoyed and you’d think Tescos was run by idiots.
- Any fee, be it £10 or £50, is going to be complicated to administer. When do the 20 days start? When the funds have cleared? The fee will not actually make any money for the authorities to offset the cost of FoI, but will just sit there to act as a deterrent to questions.
- If you think things are complicated now, just wait until you start charging. When people are made to pay, they will complain more, and they’ll sue. The vast majority of authorities treat FoI seriously now, but everybody will have to shift up a gear if it’s a service that’s charged for. I confidently predict that although the number of requests might plummet the number of appeals will more than make up the workload deficit.
To my shame I didn’t send in a submission to Parliament. But just so as to conform to everybody’s hatred of journalists going of FoI fishing missions, I’m sending out a request to all the Cambridge colleges today (organisations that amazingly think they should now be completely exempted from FoI) asking them how the value of their wine cellars compares with the grants they give to less well off students.
One response to “Leave FoI alone you nincompoops”
I did manage to get my submission in. FOI37
The charging structure will not be easy.
5 sub-questions to one main question, will that be one question or 6?
If they can’t answer, do you get a refund?
Costs of collecting and administering £10 fees?
Mr Mustard of Barnet ( blogger )
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