Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Laws that slip in the back door

6 Jul 2009
Labour's methods of law-making have made parliamentary debate and openness impossible, argues Philip Johnston.
Oddly enough, the one measure that has begun to redress the balance is the one that Labour dragged its heels about introducing: the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. While this by no means works perfectly – not least because it is still the devil's own job to extract information from the state or its agencies that should as a matter of course be put in the public domain – it is none the less available to the Press and public if they have the patience and wherewithal to keep pounding away. It was the diligence of journalists and campaigners seeking information about MPs' expenses under the FOI Act that finally brought Westminster's dirty secret into the light.

When the Act came into force in 2005 - five years after it was actually passed – Lord Falconer, then Lord Chancellor, hailed it as "a constitutional change of great significance… a presumption of openness… a radical and permanent change in the relationship between the citizen and government. Fears that the need-to-know culture would still triumph have not been realised."

In truth, of course, the Government had hoped it would not work quite that way and would, as Hamlet said, be more honoured in the breach than the observance. But it has allowed us, if not exactly to storm the citadels of governance, at least to peep through the keyhole to see a bit of what is going on. As Francis Bacon said, knowledge is power and a country is less free if it is all in the hands of the state. Public bodies should be legally obliged to place in the public domain every piece of physical or electronic information that they generate, unless there are overwhelming reasons of privacy or national security. That would be an easy, practical and straightforward way to underpin press freedom and the public's right to know.

Full article here.

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