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We must fight watering down of Freedom of Information Act

By Paul Connolly

Published 10/07/2015

Letter: Sir Declan Morgan
Letter: Sir Declan Morgan

One of the tools used to great effect by Northern Ireland's citizens and journalists is the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act. It was described by Tony Blair as one of his biggest mistakes, so I guess it must be good then because Tony's reflex is towards secrecy.

The fact is that many in officialdom view FoI as a nuisance, a plague; something to be ignored, avoided, manipulated and eventually defeated.

Nationally, serious moves are now afoot to completely neuter FoI, to render it all but useless. Anyone who believes in transparency and accountability should oppose them.

The Act celebrated its 10th anniversary in January. It was designed to improve decision-making and accountability and therefore promote good Government.

Much of the UK Civil Service and political elite, however, is wedded to undue secrecy, and despises it.

In 2010 Blair said of the Act: "The truth is that the FoI Act isn't used, for the most part, by 'the people'. It's used by journalists.

"For political leaders it's like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, 'hey, try this instead', and handing them a mallet."

The problem I have with his view is that the so-called mallet happens to be the truthful information, because Government provides open information about the subject (or at least is supposed to) under the Act.

For a different view, listen to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee two years later: "The Freedom of Information Act has enhanced the UK's democratic system and made our public bodies more open, accountable and transparent.

"It has been a success and we do not wish to diminish its intended scope, or its effectiveness."

Belfast Telegraph reporters have been effective at using FoI on your behalf to uncover various aspects of Northern Ireland's governance that are not working.

But it has also uncovered the scandal of the foot-dragging, obfuscation and apparent downright refusal of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) in responding to FoI and other requests.

The litany of 'offences' is too long to catalogue here, but suffice to say the OFMDFM often refuses to answer questions and FoI requests, and in some cases does not even acknowledge them.

I often ask myself why I am surprised at this, given that the OFMDFM even failed to properly respond to a letter sent eight months earlier by Northern Ireland's top judge, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan.

So it is quite clear that there will be many in authority rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a further clampdown on freedom of information.

What might be in the offing? Well, it appears much has already been flagged up in advance, so we cannot say we were not warned.

It has been reported that the Civil Service is keen to add an even tighter cap on time spent on requests, which means that if they are viewed as taking too long, they will be immediately rejected.

Moves are said to be afoot to lower the costs cap on requests (it is feared that on occasion both cost and time estimates are exaggerated). Additionally, requests might be limited, e.g. to one per person per quarter.

Such a triple-whammy would spell not just the end of the Act as a meaningful piece of legislation, but also proper transparency in the bureaucracy as a whole.

Everyone interested in a genuinely accountable Government should oppose them.

Belfast Telegraph

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