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The Freedom of Information Law must apply to Parliament and Cabinet as well

21 April 2015 06:51 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Earlier this month (11 April 2015), the New York Times published an article on a decade’s experience with the UK Freedom of Information Act entitled “From A to Z (Asteroids to Zombies), the British Just Want the Facts.”  As the title suggests, the article highlighted the frivolous requests that had been made under it. 


However, it also said that:
A slew of political scandals have come to light under the act. . . . [An] F.O.I. request . . . led to the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, resulting in the imprisonment of five Labour members of Parliament and two Conservative peers.
More recently, Jeremy Hunt, the current health secretary . . . , was embroiled in controversy after F.O.I. requests revealed his close relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire during News Corp’s approximately $12 billion bid for the broadcaster BSkyB. AndEric Pickles, the minister for communities and local government, landed in hot water for spending about $110,000 on tea and biscuits in a single year.



Sadly, the current (third) draft of the Freedom of Information Bill due to be enacted by our Parliament within the elastic 100 days, will not permit exposures of the type described above.  While a previous draft listed Parliament and Cabinet as “public authorities” who were obliged to respond to information requests under the law, the latest draft has removed them from the definition.
Freedom of Information (also known as Right to Information or RTI) laws are based on Principal-Agent theory.  The public (the Principal) has delegated the task of running the country to the state, comprising officials as well as political authorities (the Agents).  But the public (the Principal) cannot adequately monitor the Agents because of a radical information asymmetry.  RTI seeks to remedy this asymmetry, at least partially, by giving the public the right to obtain information on what is going on in government.  
The latest draft of the law has deviated from this basic logic and removed the public’s right to seek information from the Cabinet and the Parliament, while including within the scope even non-governmental organizations that do not receive any funds from, or act on behalf of, the government.
It is one thing to create an exception for Cabinet papers and the actual discussions in Cabinet in the interests of promoting robust discussion.  But why exclude Cabinet altogether?  Most of the allegedly corrupt mega-deals of the past decade or more were Cabinet approved.  In some cases, it was Cabinet that decided to exempt certain transactions from the normal procurement procedures.  What good is served by excluding these decisions from the public eye?  How can the public know what is going on in government if it cannot gain access to the decisions of Cabinet?
In the case of Parliament, the case for exclusion is even weaker.  The ancient tradition of publishing all that is said in the House in the Hansard is evidence enough that all of Parliament’s business should be public.  One could argue that publication in the Hansard is adequate and that RTI requests would be superfluous.  But the Hansard of the Mother of Parliaments did not reveal the above described illegal reimbursements of expenses.  They were revealed by an RTI request by a journalist.  This is proof enough that Parliament should be brought back within the scope of the Freedom of Information bill.
While we are doing revisions, it may also be useful to include language regarding frivolous requests in section 5 that sets out the grounds for denying information requests.  Our citizens are quite capable of emulating their peers in Britain, whose requests are thus described:
The requests come in to local councils with appalling regularity: “How many residents in Sutton own an ostrich?” “What procedures are in place for a zombie invasion of Cumbria?” “How many people have been banned from Birmingham Library because they smell?” In Wigan, the council was asked what plans were in place to protect the town from a dragon attack, while Worthing Borough Council had to outline its preparations for an asteroid crash.
(The writer can be contacted through rsamarajiva@yahoo.com)
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