Freedom of Information

Ben Worthy (University College London)
4 October 2011

Summay (taken from the History SPOT Blog)

Ben Worthy explains the benefits, limitations and difficulty of the Freedom of Information Act brought in by the Blair administration in 2000.  The act would subsequently become known as one of two acts that Tony Blair would later declare as a mistake during his time in office.  At the time Blair believed that the act would make politics more transparent and help the British people trust politicians and the decisions that they make.  Instead the act proved problematic for politicians as the media took it up as an additional means for finding headlines.  The expenses scandal that began in 2009 came to light as the direct result of a freedom of information request. 
In this paper Worthy provides his listeners a whistle stop tour of the Constitution Unit’s various projects and investigations of the effect of the Act.  Through surveys, interviews, official documents and media information (such as newspapers) the Unit have analysed the expected and unexpected ramifications.  
When Blair and his government brought the act through Parliament their aims and objectives were as follows:
·         To make government more transparent
·         To make government  more accountable
·         To improve decision making
·         To enable the public to better understand decision making processes
·         To engage public participation in politics
·         To endear public trust of the workings of government
Worthy believes that whilst the first two items have been achieved successfully the other four still need more work.    Part of the problem, it would seem is that politicians (including Blair) begin their political career keen on freedom of information – it sounds like a good thing and something that they should be in support of – however, as time goes on they begin to find it annoying and come to believe that it is abused by the media.  Interest in supporting the mechanisms of freedom of information therefore decline.
One of the unexpected ramifications is the ‘chilling effect’: attempts to undermine the act through less keeping of records from meetings and discussions occurring more often away from official ‘recorded’ procedures.  The evidence gathered by the Constitution Unit suggests that this does happen (often at the level of local government) but it is not a large problem.  However, Worthy admits that it is actually quite hard to measure such activity.
The paper ends with a whirlwind tour of alternative freedom of information activities in other countries: Ireland, India, Mexico, Italy, Sweden, and China.  The conclusion there is that each country is different in how it uses freedom of information and that these differences are largely cultural.
Further Resources: 

Ben Worthy Profile 
Publication: Robert Hazell, Ben Worthy and Mark Glover, The Impact of the Freedom of Information Act on Central Government in the UK: Does FOI Work? (Palgrave Macmillan, August 2010) Publishers Website

Freedom of Information Act 2000 Document (pdf)

Geographical area: 
History type: