A Campaign Worth Fighting For

How the Campaign for Freedom of Information was integral to the original enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, and continues to lead on the subject. Support it.

In the mid-1990s my understanding of the concept of Freedom of Information was limited to two points: first, that it was heavily pushed by an organisation called the Campaign for Freedom of Information, and its director, Maurice Frankel and late Chairman, James Cornford and second, that FOI was, surely, unarguably a Good Thing.

In the heady months after Labour’s 1997 election victory it was easy simply to assume that the manifesto commitment to introducing a Freedom of Information Bill would be honoured. While those with more than a passing interest in the subject noted over the following months, with concern, a major retreat from David Clark‘s White Paper Your Right to Know, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, as passed, was still a piece of progressive legislation, very much to be welcomed.

It is interesting, then, to read, in Jack Straw’s recently published, and sometimes rather mean-spirited memoirs, potentially just how little is owed to those who are now seen as the key figures in that Labour administration, and how much is owed to the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Straw describes how the manifesto commitment resulted in a White Paper to parts of which he and Tony Blair were fundamentally opposed:

Tony himself was by now getting extremely worried about the eccentric FOI policy to which his government, in a trance, had seemingly committed itself

and how

I had half a thought that the best thing might to be bin the whole bill, or kick it into the long grass with a Royal Commission

But ranked against him were “all the enthusiasts for FOI-max, ably briefed by the indefatigable Maurice Frankel”.

(Straw effectively, by his account, found himself fighting his own bill. His victory, as he sees it, was to ensure that a power for ministers ultimately to veto disclosure was included. The unsavoury picture painted is of an over-eager administration – committed by its manifesto – unwillingly enacting a progressive law, but ham-stringing it in the process. And of course, we have since had several instances where that ministerial veto has been exercised (twice by Straw himself),, most recently and worringly to prevent disclosure of lobbying correspondence by the Prince of Wales, despite an extraordinarily thorough ruling in favour of disclosure in the Upper Tribunal.)

But this blog post is not about Jack Straw, now sniping from the opposition back benches, and not about the illiberal ministerial veto. It is about what a debt we all have to the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which has continued to argue for a more robust FOI Act, while defending it against threats of diminution. Regarding the latter, it is difficult to over-emphasise the significance of a late submission by the Campaign to the Justice Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny of the Act, which demolished many of the more specious arguments made by those criticising the Act. (Let us hope that the Committee’s welcome final report is accepted by the government, and that those of us who defend the Act can breathe easily, for a time at least.)

I have no personal interest in the Campaign (although I should perhaps declare that Maurice once gifted me a very-well-used-but-broken La Pavoni espresso machine) but it needs celebrating, and cherishing, and supporting (funding will always be an issue with an organisation like this). Everyone who uses and champions FOI should recognise this.


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8 responses to “A Campaign Worth Fighting For

  1. Anthea

    Hi – love the FOI Act but find that when it, or the DPA are breached, the ICO say they do not have the resources to act. Thus they save their resources for the ‘high profile cases’. Those of us at the bottom of the food chain suffer injustice and there is no redress. Fair???

  2. Anthea

    Absolutely, but it could be EVEN BETTER if the ICO was properly resourced, otherwise the same issues go around time and time again and repeat offenders just continue – ‘business as usual’. As ever, the “little person” gets the shitty end of the stick! Does your employer take any notice of what the ICO says?

  3. Andrew

    Hi Jon,

    Thank you for this timely call for people to support the Campaign. As you say, funding will always be an issue with an organisation and subject like this.

    All I can add to your post is to say that in countries whose FOI campaigning organisations have gone out of existence after the legislation was passed, the legislation has either been weakened, or the institutions have gradually atrophied through lack of expert critical scrutiny. It may be nearly 8 years after FOI Act finally came into force, but people like Blair, Straw and O’Donnell, while condemining themselves with their own words, show why a strong civil society voice continues to be a crucial part of a healthy FOI ecosystem.

    I made a donation to the Campaign recently; I hope others will send them some money too, or enrol on one of their very reasonably priced training courses. I don’t know of any other training provider that can offer 28 years’ knowledge of the subject.

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