Freedom of information is vital

Phil Parry says recent events has shown the Freedom of Information Act is more important than ever.

Freedom of information will be vital in the next general election on May 7.

It will also be an essential tool for openness in the assembly elections to the Senedd next year. It is hugely important to be able to question politicians about their proposed policies – and for them to be made aware of the potential impact, as well as the cost implications.

The Freedom of Information Act, under which ‘FoI’ requests are made by inquiring members of the public and nosey journalists like me, last month passed its 10th birthday. There are enormous problems with the act and moves are being made to reform it.

I have used FoIs many times, and there are terrible pitfalls.

Unless an inquiry is made using precise words, the public body can wriggle out of it, with one of the innumerable exemptions. It is a pale shadow of the act used in America upon which it is modeled, and where there are just nine exemptions.

The Royal Family are one of those here. As has been well-documented, Prince Andrew was accused in court documents lodged in the US of being “forced” to have sex with a woman when she was a teenager, by a registered sex-offender called Jeremy Epstein. For the moment this is all we can say about this particular scandal and the palace have categorically denied the accusation. But the key point is that this accusation came out of America, not here, and it raises serious questions about why our monarchy cannot be questioned under the Freedom of Information Act.

The former Prime Minister Tony Blair has described the act as a “pretty imbecile decision” and he was “naive and foolish” to introduce it. He was, apparently, “too busy” to give evidence to the all-party house of commons justice select committee two years ago which was investigating possible reforms and endorsed the Freedom of Information Act. But it was absolutely right to introduce it.

The act is an important tool for journalists, and a major achievement of the Labour government.

Of course there has been abuses of the system, and it can be incredibly time-consuming. Public bodies, like hospital trusts, have to employ people, sometimes whole departments, just to deal with FoI requests.

One council – not in Wales – was asked to give details of the types of animals which have been frozen since March 2012.

In another, a request was made to explain the defence system against dragon attacks.

But the act has also allowed journalists to shine a light on the workings of government and public life. The relationship between Tony Blair, and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, for example, or the controversial British involvement in the Iraq war. The enormous publicity over the scandal of expenses for MPs came as a direct result of the Freedom of Information Act. It has allowed Wales Eye to expose the growing controversy at Swansea university’s management school and the commissioning process at the BBC .

None of these things would have come to light without the Freedom of Information Act.

The appalling Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris have thrown the issue of media freedom into stark relief.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, was correct to say freedom of speech carries with it a right to offend some people. Inoffensive freedom of speech is completely meaningless.

The act has also prompted a snowball effect.

Public bodies are aware of their responsibilities and many of them take these exceedingly seriously. Some private organisations too have followed suit and given out information when a few years ago they would have been unlikely to do so.

There have, though, been hiccoughs.

Three years ago the Information Commissioner reprimanded the Welsh Government for the way it handled FoI requests. The Welsh Conservative leader in the assembly, Andrew RT Davies, said it raised serious issues of transparency.

He had posed a question about the use of management consultants in the NHS and waited seven months for a “substantive” response, with the then Welsh health minister, Edwina Hart, in the firing line.

Even so the importance of the Freedom of Information Act should not be over-looked.

One-time Home Secretary Jack Straw told the commons in 2005 it had “profoundly changed the relationship between citizens and the media on the one hand, and the Government and public authorities on the other”. Secrecy is corrosive and the Labour party were absolutely right to say:  “Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions”.

The Freedom of Information Act is needed now more than ever.

Phil Parry is Editor of the investigative website Wales Eye.

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