We won’t let ministers destroy freedom laws
MPs and peers from all parties join forces to protect Act that ‘saves lives and saves money’
A CROSS-party alliance of peers and MPs last night vowed to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Government if it tries to ‘cripple’ Freedom of Information laws.
The Act – which has exposed a string of scandals and wasteful public spending – is currently under threat from ministers who claim it is ‘too costly’ to administer.
The findings of a Government review, conducted by critics of the legislation, are due to be released by the end of the year.
But, at the launch of a campaign to save the Act yesterday, senior Tory backbencher David Davis said any attempt to undermine the Act would be rejected by Tory rebels.
Mr Davis said the openness the Act provides ‘saves money, it saves lives and it leads to better Government’. He insisted more than a dozen Conservative MPs would oppose proposals to water down the legislation – more than enough to defeat a Government with a majority of only 12.
Mr Davis warned that ministers could attempt to bypass a full vote in the Commons by tabling a socalled statutory instrument. But he insisted peers would block any changes if MPs could not.
‘Whatever they come up with, we can find an appropriate response in one house or another,’ Mr Davis told an all-parliamentary briefing organised by the cross-party campaign to defend freedom of information.
He described the commission set up to review the act, which includes ex-Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw – a critic of the legislation – as ‘a joke’ designed to ‘cripple’ it. Mr Davis went on to say: ‘They are all people who either for one reason or another express scepticism about FOI, or have themselves been embarrassed by its operation.
‘ There is a suspicion this is designed to cripple FOI either by increasing charges or by further restricting access to policy work or other areas.’
Lib Dem peer Lord McNally, who was the minister in charge of the FOI Act in the last Parliament, said: ‘I was genuinely shocked by the setting up of this commission.’
He roundly rejected the arguments given by the Government for the review; which are that it is too expensive to administer and has a ‘chilling’ effect on the advice civil servants give to ministers, for fear it will later be made public. He added: ‘I found no evidence of this “chilling” effect ... and I would like to see critics produce any.’
Louise Haigh, Labour’s spokesman for civil service reform, described the panel as ‘lopsided’. She added: ‘It does not contain a single individual who has written a Freedom of Information request.’
The MP said that, far from tightening the Act, ministers should extend it to include private care homes and any other organisation that carries out work on behalf of the public sector.
Last month, the Mail reported that ministers are spending 50 times more on spin, propaganda and marketing than it costs to administer the Act.
It costs only £5.7million to administer – compared to a total bill of £289million for the Government Communication Service.
In total, the Government appoints an astonishing 3,650 communications staff, including armies of spin doctors. Last month, the Mail and TaxPayers’ Alliance used almost 6,000 FOI requests to expose the astonishing scale of pay and perks in the public sector.
The revelations included a hospital boss on a pay package of £1.2million and a police chief who earned £700,000.
One assistant chief constable was paid a £54,000 allowance from the public purse to move house. It took almost 6,000 requests under FOI for the Mail and the TaxPayers’ Alliance to fully uncover the extent of this taxpayer-funded excess.
Journalists and campaigners insist the law, which was introduced 15 years ago, is a crucial tool in scrutinising the conduct and performance of those who govern in the public’s name.
FOI helped to expose the MPs’ expenses scandal and many examples of public- sector negligence and malpractice.
The Act is not only used by journalists but also by members of the public and charities as well as campaign groups.
Comment – Page 16
Promise: MP David Davis