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« Futurist - Josh 137 | Main | More on Conveying Truth »

The war on FOI

2040 Info Law blog reckons the empire is about to strike back.

In 2012, the already declared war on the Freedom of Information Act 2000 will begin in earnest, and you will have to decide which side you’re on. Few people have the courage to oppose FOI actively (I’d have perverse admiration for anyone who did). Instead, with the Justice Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny opening up the opportunity for attack, the phrase “I’ve always been a big supporter of FOI” is one you’re going to hear a lot as it becomes the transparency equivalent of “I’m not racist but…”.

This is one battle that I think it's going to be worth lending a hand to.

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Reader Comments (11)

When the time is right I will write to my MP. I've only written to him twice so far this year. New Year's resolution: "Must keep the pressure on my MP".

Jan 7, 2012 at 8:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Oh, the irony. Back in the day when Australia's federal bureaucracy was being dragged kicking and screaming towards the Freedom of Information Act, 1982 (which state governments slowly, and despite evident reluctance, had emulated with their own equivalent legislation between 1982 and, believe it or not, only as recently as 2009), it was overwhelmingly the political left that did the lions' share of the dragging.

Now we find it is the political left that seems to be the main standard bearers in the campaign to destroy the legislation wherever it exists. Is it mere coincidence that in 1982 the usual suspects and their claque were insisting that even hell was about to freeze over. With howlers like that on their record, there's plenty of incentive to destroy the legislation in toto, or to remove any teeth it has left, for those who wish to hide their institutional skeletons, and very little at all for people acting in good faith. Indeed, I suggest one can justifiably assume bad faith in anyone who works to destroy or neuter the legislation.

Oh, dear.

Jan 7, 2012 at 9:07 AM | Registered CommenterMique

For the matters mostly discussed here, those seeking to neuter the legislation have an uphill task because the EIRs are drawn up to implement a UNECE Convention, which the UK can not change on its own.

Jan 7, 2012 at 10:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Holland

Bish, you say:

'...the phrase "I've always been a big supporter of FOI" is one you're going to hear a lot as it becomes the transparency equivalent of "I'm not racist but…".'

To quote Swedish Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge:

'There is a saying in the political discussion in Sweden: "Anything you say before *but* in a political statement doesn't count."'

Jan 7, 2012 at 10:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterClyde Adams III

From email 0856.txt and 2274.txt Phil says:

FOI is causing us a lot of problems in CRU and even more for Dave, as he has to respond to them all. It would be good if UEA went along with any other Universities who might be lobbying to remove academic research activities from FOI. FOI is having an impact on my research productivity.

Jan 7, 2012 at 1:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterGareth

What you both highlight is the end-product of typical recent government activity.
The last thing we want is for Jones to be able to hide his work. Even putting the best possible (from their point of view) gloss on the Climategate emails we see why we need freedom of information legislation.
The second last thing we want is for Jones' research —or anybody's — or the ability of government to govern properly being hindered by what Blair describes in this quote. If every piece of confidential information or discussion between ministers and advisors or between scientists trying to get to grips with a particularly intractable problem is to be broadcast to a broadly ignorant (i.e. as in not being in a position to make a reasoned judgment) public then I can see why there might be concerns.
Where the difficulty arises is with the bureaucratic culture, in the UK possibly even more than elsewhere in the democratic world. There have been some weird examples quoted in the past even (IIRC) the fact that revealing the brand of biscuit served with afternoon tea in the War Office was a breach of the Official Secrets Act!
Section 2 (and the 'D' Notice) was used as much to save civil servants' and ministers' blushes as to prevent dissemination of information which could be of value to an enemy.
What the FoIA fails to do is to establish precisely enough at what point the public have a right to know what their employees are doing. I don't want to know all the minutiae of what is going on at UEA or in the recesses of Whitehall but I do want to know that my tax money is being properly spent and if government is making decisions that are going to cost money then I want to see the results and the advice on which it is basing those decisions.
Which means that a government White (or Green) Paper should show the advice that ministers received and preferably the sources as well and scientists who are paid from the public purse and who publish should be required to make all their data available so that we can see what they have based their conclusions on.
I see no problem with a tightening up of the Act but given that public servants appear to have lost a deal of the integrity which we could rely on half-a-century ago (not that they were perfect even then) the ability to call them to account must remain.

Jan 7, 2012 at 2:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Jackson

I find it depressing that we even have to have this discussion.

Jan 7, 2012 at 5:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterJack Savage

Phillip Bratby

When the time is right I will write to my MP. I've only written to him twice so far this year. New Year's resolution: "Must keep the pressure on my MP".

Given that today is January 7, you have been a slacker. That is one every 3.5 days. Surely you can at least double that output.

Jan 7, 2012 at 6:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra

FOI doesn't need to be tightened, it needs to be drastically loosened.

For science, barring issues like national defence, absolutely everything should be public - with any secrecy carrying a mandatory prison sentence. And much the same applies to eg the administrative structure of publicy funded institutions.

Jan 10, 2012 at 5:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterPunksta

And as regards the claim that FOI 'reduces research productivity', this could be easily overcome by legislating that all information be held on publicly accessible servers - failure to do so again carrying a mandatory prison sentence. So when anyone wants to know what their taxes are producing, they merely look it up themselves - no effort by the scientist or his managers and administrators needed.

Jan 10, 2012 at 5:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterPunksta

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