Friday, May 25, 2007

FOI good for people and good for government says Information

ICO press release 24 May 2007
"Freedom of Information is fast becoming a fixed feature of 21st century democracy and should not be seen as a battle ground between public bodies and the people, according to the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas. Speaking at the annual FOI Live conference in London on 24 May, the Information Commissioner will state that the transparency and accountability brought by Freedom of Information reinforce good government, and should not be seen as a threat. However, he will also stress that those using FOI must act responsibly.

In his keynote speech the Commissioner will remind public bodies that they serve the public and will urge them to recognise that FOI requires a positive approach to openness.

Richard Thomas says: “After nearly two and a half years Freedom of Information is delivering real benefits. It is now recognised as a key feature of our modern democracy which is changing public sector culture. There is a presumption of disclosure, unless there is a genuine reason to withhold information. This must trump any instinct of unnecessary secrecy which simply suggests a public authority has something to hide. Of course there are bound to be times when the Freedom of Information Act may be uncomfortable. But openness – even where it reveals uncertainties, disagreements or embarrassments – treats citizens as grown ups and reflects the realities of public life. People respect honesty, not cover up.

“Freedom of Information reinforces good government. Some people fear that FOI can have a ‘chilling effect’ and that nothing gets written down. On the contrary - the possibility of disclosure encourages a record of full, accurate and impartial advice from civil servants and supports the principle that officials advise and ministers decide. Greater openness will deter spin and informal decision making.”

Whilst Richard Thomas fully recognises the need for “private space” for policy- making in suitable cases, he will warn that public bodies must treat each case on its own merits. The Information Commissioner’s Office has made it clear that public interest arguments for non-disclosure must be convincing in each case.


However, he will also warn of the risks if FOI is seen as a battle ground between public bodies and individuals. He says: “Wresting information from government and other public bodies has the potential to damage trust between the state and the people. But, by the same measure, those making requests must act responsibly and with restraint.”

Read the full press release here.

The Commissioner was also interviewed on the Today Programme yesterday. You can listen to the interview here.

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