Gareth Iacobucci: FOI reprieve is welcome but expect the pushback to continue

gareth_iacobucci2This week, privacy campaigners breathed a sigh of relief after a review commissioned by the UK government decided not to change the law to introduce greater restrictions on the release of public data under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

The independent commission was set up to establish whether the Act currently allowed ministers sufficient “safe space” to consider policy development, and whether the law should be changed to add new restrictions including charging people to access routine public information.

Transparency campaigners were relieved when it ruled that the Act was “generally working well” and would not be altered. But whilst there will be no wholesale changes to FOI, it undoubtedly remains on the watch list of some politicians and civil servants who want to curtail its power to embarrass.

The Act was introduced in 2000 under then Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair to allow the public a right to access information held by public bodies (including government and the NHS). The new law compelled public authorities across the UK to publish information about their activities and to respond to requests from members of the public, campaigners, and journalists.

As a mechanism for transparency it has been transformative—stories such as the MPs’ expenses scandal and Prince Charles’s lobbying letters to ministers would not have made it into the public domain without FOI.

As a journalist working at The BMJ, the Act has helped me to reveal new details about the rationing of access to clinical treatment, the private sector’s growing role in providing NHS services, and CCG conflicts of interest among others.

Without it, key information would have been obscured from public view and debates about important issues would not have been allowed to happen.

Perhaps for this reason, some officials have come to resent FOI, with Blair himself describing it in hindsight as one of his biggest mistakes in office.

But whilst some people in the corridors of power may regret the legislation in hindsight, those who have used it to hold public bodies to account are reassured that it remains intact.

Many feared the worst when the current Tory government set up the commission to review the Act. The fact that Blair’s former home secretary and fellow FOI sceptic Jack Straw was appointed to the commission did little to quell speculation that a watering down was in the offing.

Thankfully this did not transpire. FOI has proved to be a vital instrument in democracy—and any government that is as serious about transparency as this one claims to be must protect it.

But whilst the commission’s decision to leave FOI intact is welcome, an article published by Vice this week offers a timely reminder of what is at stake, with claims the Department of Health is trying to obscure details of meetings between ministers and private healthcare companies who want a piece of the NHS pie.

Campaigners are clearly conscious of this, with the trade magazine Press Gazette, which led the petition urging the government not to change the FOI law, subsequently announcing a public event to discuss the implications of the Act’s reprieve and how to strengthen it in the future.

The battle may be won for now, but as long as policy makers are wary of making unpopular decisions, the pushback against FOI is unlikely to subside.

Gareth Iacobucci is a news reporter, The BMJ.