The Freedom of Information Act has been with us for almost quarter of a century. It gave citizens the right, for the first time, to access information held by almost 100,000 public bodies, from the Cabinet Office to doctor’s surgeries, and local councils to libraries.
Information is power, and what the Act means is that people have the right to ask difficult questions of those in charge, which they did not before it became law in 2000.
Freedom of information (FOI) requests are simple to use. You can ask a question to a public authority, and expect a response within 20 working days.
Not all information is available, of course, and some things are protected by privacy, commerciality or confidentiality. Nevertheless, it’s pretty robust, and there’s also an independent appeal process via the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – an independent ‘watchdog’ organisation – if things go wrong.
Shining a light on politics
There are plenty of signs, as FOI now approaches 25 years, that it’s working. One sign is that it is being used. In 2022 more than 52,000 requests were made to central government departments, and you can estimate at least twice or three times as many go to local government.
Another sign is that different people find it useful. Despite the complaints of some politicians, it isn’t simply a ‘lazy’ tool for armchair critics.
The law is being used by a wide variety of people and groups, from citizens themselves to local and national journalists and campaigners. Even a few politicians have used it – when Iain Duncan Smith became a minister in 2010, he found a set of FOI requests on his desk, waiting to be answered, from one Iain Duncan Smith.
Most importantly, the FOI Act has opened up, exposed and shone a light on politics. We now know more about everything from nuclear convoys to MPs’ expenses. Tony Blair’s complaints in his memoirs, that he regretted creating the law and was a “nincompoop” for passing it, are maybe a sign it’s doing its job and making life uncomfortable for politicians.
However, for all the national headlines, FOI is really a local matter. One study estimated that four in every five requests go to local councils.
Most requests are for things that matter about people’s everyday lives: potholes, planning decisions and pedestrianisation. You can see FOI stories in local newspapers about everything from council house waiting lists, to legal fees, to the 14 Liverpool councillors who had had parking fines cancelled through a ‘back door’. Probably the biggest stories are when the law is used to get local restaurant hygiene reports, which lead to the famous ‘scores on the doors’ stickers we see.
The worry is that FOI is facing a series of problems, and various red lights are flashing.
The first of these is, as always in recent years for local government, about money and resources. Councils have been stretched by austerity, Covid and now the cost of living crisis, and are searching for savings. Other things naturally take priority over answering FOI requests, especially with councils declaring themselves effectively bankrupt, or imposing radical budget-cutting measures.
A second problem is that austerity meant lots of councils lost staff, in particular within ‘backroom’ roles less visible to citizens. As a result, people with experience of working on the law went away, and no one replaced them.
Finally, of course, is the basic problem that not all councils are widely enthusiastic about answering difficult questions. It needs to be said that the vast majority of people in councils support the law and do their work diligently. However, a few do not – and try to resist, play for time and play games with the system, causing frustration and fuelling claims of secretive behaviour.
‘Information delayed is information denied’
You can see all of these problems happening at once in Bristol, which has been told to improve its FOI handling by the ICO. A recent internal report spoke of how performance was “significantly worse than target” – with the council often managing to respond to just six in 10 requests on time.
The report explained that this was down to “stretched resources”, a “lack of understanding” and a “culture of de-prioritisation… in certain parts of the organisation”.
Bristol is not the only council to have been reprimanded – local authorities up and down the country have apologised, and been taken to task, for poor performance.
The difficulty is that this combination of lack of money, lack of experience and lack of enthusiasm can have very real, negative consequences. Answers to requests delay and slow responses start to mean the how systems work less well.
Lack of enthusiasm is also infectious, and not unique to councils. In 2005 when the Act came into force you had a 75%, chance of getting a full answer for your request from central government. Now it’s around one in two – just 50%.
John Edwards, the UK information commissioner, has warned that “information delayed is information denied” – and the risk is that this could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Requesters will get frustrated, and become less willing to use the law, while delay becomes normalised. The danger is that FOI grinds to halt, and all the democratic benefits that go with it are lost.
So what can be done? More money will always help. But what the Freedom of Information Act needs too is plenty of enthusiasm and support. Politicians needs to remind us all of our rights, and recognise themselves that openness is the best policy.
Ben Worthy is a senior lecturer in politics at Birkbeck College, University of London and an expert in freedom of information laws.