Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Information act shows leaders why we need more openness

Ian Paisley famously dismissed Freedom of Information as a tool used by lazy journalists. But two years on, FoI is here to stay, writes Investigations Correspondent David Gordon

It looks like we made it. It really does look like Freedom of Information is now part of the fabric of public life here.

There's no-one at Stormont these days firing warning shots about amending the legislation.

It's now almost two years since the then First Minister Ian Paisley complained in the Assembly about FoI requests being "sent in by lazy journalists, who will not do any work, but who think that we should pay them and give them the information that they want".

He added: "If, in collating evidence on how the current procedures are working, the Departments discover that reform is needed - and I think they will - it will have to take place."

That statement, made in early October 2007, turned out to be an idle threat.

There are undoubtedly still grumbles in high places about FoI.

Nevertheless, a recent press release from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minster (OFMDFM) was aptly entitled "Freedom of Information beds in".

That release concerned Stormont's newly released annual report on FoI.

In a joint foreword to this document, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness stated: "The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is now an established feature of the public landscape, and we will work with its provisions to strengthen our engagement with the citizen."

The use of the legislation by journalists still gets a mention in backstage grumbles from politicians and administrators.

But that Stormont report revealed that of the 3,015 requests made to Northern Ireland government departments in 2008, just 9% came from the media.

The vast bulk - 69% - came from members of the public.

That 3,015 total might seem high at first glance.

But it's spread over 12 months and the multi-layered structures of the province's 11 Government departments.

It is also 4.7% down on the total for 2007 and the lowest tally of any year to date. The highest came in 2006, with 3,355.

This does not suggest a populace feasting to excess on their information rights and making far-reaching requests for the fun of it.

Nevertheless, the workload that can be generated by FoI remains an irritant to public sector chiefs.

This can be countered through simple means like publishing much more information routinely online, thereby cutting back the need for individual Freedom of Information requests.

On the media front, my hunch is that journalists are more likely to go down the FoI route if they lack confidence in Press office operations to come up with full and frank responses.

In their foreword to the annual report, the First and deputy First Ministers said departments "will strive to anticipate the public's interest in certain information and publish it proactively".

This "proactive" approach is being encouraged by the Information Commissioner's office, the watchdog for the FoI act.

It remains one of the weak links of the legislation, due to its backlog of unresolved appeal cases on requests refused by public bodies.

Last year, there were 14 appeals against refusals by Stormont departments.

Not one of these has been completed so far.

Overall, it's been a good year for the cause of transparency.

The chances are that the political class would never have introduced the FoI legislation if it had known the way it would turn out.

It might yet try to water down the public's information rights at some point in the future.

However, there are grounds for optimism that politicians have learned a tough lesson from the scandal of MP expenses.

All those damaging details came out despite an ill-judged and lengthy rearguard action led by Commons Speaker Michael Martin.

As a result, politicians of every hue have belatedly admitted that the expenses system was in need of radical reform.

The case for openness was comprehensively vindicated.

Michael Martin, meanwhile, is not the Speaker any more.

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