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Freedom of Information

Freedom of Information

One of the temptations of all government is to restrict Freedom of Information. It sometimes seems that the strongest Freedom of information legislation is always the first Act, introduced by a reformist government before it has secrets to hide. Freedom of Information is one of the most central cogs in integrity systems and should be seen as such. To fulfill this role, the rationale for restrictions should be rethought and the procedures changed to reflect that.

We see the key to reform in emphasizing that the information belongs to the public. It is not the property of the politicians. It is the property of the public they claim to represent and on behalf of whom they are governing. It would be a serious abuse of power to use powers given to them by information legislation to protect themselves from the judgment of the people. It would be an even more serious abuse of power to use legislation such an Official Secrets Act to block the release of information that reflects adversely on their performance or exposes lies that they had told in order to pursue a particular policy or to hold on to office.

This is not to say that there are not some valid reasons for withholding the release of information. However, the presumption should be in favor of release. Rather than requiring someone to apply for the release of information, most documents that get beyond a certain stage in the policy process should be posted on websites (this will incidentally save the cost of handling FOI requests) and all other documents should be available without review in a matter of days at reasonable cost. Those who want to withhold documents should have to justify this decision to an independent body. The body might permit classes of documents to be withheld subject to spot checks of what was in those documents and subject to an FOI application from citizens for particular documents that they want (as is the case now).

It would be up to the official to initiate action to withhold information rather than up to the citizen to seek it. Such an approach would not only make it much easier to get information, it would help change attitudes to documents in government. It would be more difficult to withhold rather than release information and, for once, sloth and lack of time would be on the side of virtue!

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