Freedom of Information under attack – you’ve got until 20 November to respond
Remember the MPs’ expenses scandal? Freedom of Information exposed this misuse of taxpayers’ money. And the two year battle by School Week’s editor Laura McInerney to get the Department for Education (DfE) to release free school application forms? Wouldn’t have been possible without Freedom of Information. Freedom of Information has resulted in articles on this site. These include Emma Bishton’s campaign to discover the cost of two Suffolk free schools; Henry Stewart’s finding that sponsoring academies is not the best route to school improvement; my discovery that the DfE had received no complaints about ten of the Trojan Horse schools. And without Freedom of Information we would never have learned that the surveys used by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove to underpin his claim that UK teenagers were clueless about history came from such robust pollsters as UKTV Gold and Premier Inn. Such revelations rankle. And politicians are nervous about the public finding information politicians would rather remain private. Moves are afoot to make submitting FoI requests a little more difficult. It’s too burdensome, it’s alleged, and costs too much (never mind that it might actually save public money if inappropriate or wasteful spending is exposed). It could have a chilling effect on advice given by civil servants to ministers, claimed Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor Michael Gove (not so, said the Justice Select Committee in 2012, existing provisions in the Act can protect full and frank advice). It’s used by journalists to ‘generate stories’, complained the leader of the Commons Chris Grayling. It’s clear such story generation must be curtailed. Journalists and others must be prevented from digging the dirt. The Government has started an ‘independent’ commission about the future of the FoI Act which has called for evidence. Responses are via the Ministry of Justice whose boss has said he wants to ‘revisit’ the FoI Act. It's unclear, then, just how independent the commission will be. As Private Eye points out (number 1405, 13 November 2015), ‘the mood music is not encouraging’. The Eye notes how two ‘former cabinet ministers with little interest in the full truth emerging – Lord (Michael) Howard and Jack Straw’ have been appointed to the commission but no campaigner for more openness. Gove has admitted that Straw has ‘been very clear about the defects in the way in which the Act has operated.’ Not very ‘independent’ then. It’s important, therefore, for those who believe in transparency to respond to the commission’s call for evidence. 38 Degrees has made this easier by putting the questions into plain English and compiled them in an easy-to-complete survey. But you’ll need to hurry. Time is short. You’ve only got to the end of Friday 20 November.