The Freedom of Information Act enshrines our right to know. It gives us the right to the information that we want to know, not what the Government is prepared to let us see. It’s that information that gives us the ability to make informed decisions and to voice opinions on those decisions.
It sounds so simple but it is so important. The public right to know is a principle that transcends the political rivalries and jostling that make up the daily cut and thrust of the Westminster bubble. It is a principle that underpins our ability to shape the world we live in.
You don’t need to look too far afield to find examples of nations where citizens are denied this right, and to see the consequences for those people. When the public right to know is not upheld, government, at both a national and local level, becomes opaque and removed from the very people it is meant to serve.
These principles aren’t hard to follow or difficult to understand, in fact they are quite the opposite. That’s why I am so mystified by the politicians who apparently have such great difficulty in grasping the importance of the public right to know and the ability of the citizen to access information.
The consultation on the Freedom of Information Act, currently being undertaken by an “independent commission” appointed by the Government, is nothing short of a full frontal attack on these principles. If the politicians and civil servants behind this assault get their way, then the right of you and I to understand the workings of our democracy will be seriously damaged.
Newspaper journalism, whether local or national, has used FOI to hold the government to account on everything from MPs’ expenses to staff shortages in the NHS. It is an essential medium for making sense of the wealth of information which the Freedom of Information Act provides access to. Newspapers have the reach to communicate the information with citizens in a concise and understandable way.
They also have the expertise to navigate the obstacles that officials throw in the path of those who use the Act.
I am passionate about the causes I campaign for – a strong NHS with the ability to provide excellent healthcare to citizens is particularly close to my heart. Without a strong FoI Act, it would be much harder for me and those like me to see and understand the effects of Government policy on this vital service.
That’s why I am voicing my support for a strong FoI Act which should be extended and strengthened rather than weakened. Tony Blair has said that introducing the FoI Act was his biggest regret but for many people it is one of the finest accomplishments of his tenure as Prime Minister.