04 April, 2007

Freedom of Information

Open Government.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into force in England on 1 January 2005. England thus joined more than 50 countries in having freedom of information legislation.

The Act is intended to promote “open government”, craved at the highest political levels. According to the manifesto of the governing Labour Party, “unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions”. The Act can be used as a tool with which public bodies will be forced to become more transparent about their day-to-day operations and functions. The desired effect is to increase the accountability of such public bodies. The Act imposes a duty on all public authorities to release information unless it is exempt. The Act thus requires a fundamental shift in the way the public sector has to operate. It is a case of moving away from the historic need-to-know to the new right-to-know.

Do not be alarmed by the suggestion that freedom of information rights might allow another person access to information personal to you such as tax records. The English Act dovetails with the Data Protection Act. The FOIA cannot be used to obtain information personal to others if the release of that information would breach data protection principles. Any local provision can be designed to ensure that it is not abused. If freedom of information is a good thing it should be set out as law rather than a policy which may, from time to time, be departed from.

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