It has been 20 years since the Freedom of Information Act 2000 became law. During that time, the act has been the subject of both praise and criticism.
What does the act do?
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives the public a right of access to information held by public authorities. It also obliges authorities to publish certain information about their activities. The act covers any recorded information held by a public authority in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and by UK-wide public authorities based in Scotland. The Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) also provide the public with access to environmental information held by public authorities and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 covers information held by Scottish public authorities. Public authorities can withhold certain categories of records such as confidential or commercially sensitive information.
The latest national statistics published by the Cabinet Office showed that:
- 9,205 freedom of information (FOI) requests were received across all monitored bodies between April and June 2020. The average number of FOI requests received per quarter during 2019 was 12,296.
- 84% of the 9,205 requests received between April and June 2020 were responded to ‘in time’. This is lower than the 92% average of ‘in time’ requests recorded in 2019. ‘In time’ means that requests were processed within the 20-working day deadline required by the act or were subject to a permitted deadline extension.
- Of the 9,205 requests received during April and June 2020, 6,648 were ‘resolvable’. The Cabinet Office defines resolvable as those requests where it is possible to make a substantive decision on whether to release the requested information.
- Of the 6,648 resolvable requests, 37% were granted in full and 36% were withheld in full. The remaining resolvable requests were either not yet processed or were partially withheld at the time of the statistical release.
The Institute for Government states that the percentage of FOI requests granted in full has been steadily decreasing since 2005. This decrease is consistent across government departments, with many rates falling to levels below 50% from early 2016 onwards. Government departments are permitted to withhold information on various grounds, including requests that are repeated or vexatious in nature.
When asked why the proportion of FOI requests granted in full had decreased since 2005, the Government said it “lead[s] the way on transparency, and routinely publishes data beyond its obligations under the FOI Act”.
Why was the act introduced?
The act received royal assent on 30 November 2000, with full provisions brought into force on 1 January 2005.
The act formed part of the then Labour Government’s commitment to “modernise British politics” and introduce a programme of constitutional reform. The creation of the act stemmed from a white paper, Your Right to Know, published in 1997, which set out the aim of extending a legal right to information to members of the public.
During the act’s passage through Parliament in 1999, the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said it would provide legal rights for the public and “[…] help to transform the culture of government from one of secrecy to one of openness”.
How has the act been received?
Since its commencement, the act has received a mixture of support and criticism.
In 2014, the then Justice Minister, Simon Hughes, described it as a “triumph for transparency”. Mr Hughes said that the act had enabled some “ground-breaking release of data” that informed public debate and understanding about the performance of public services.
On 20 July 2015, Matt Hancock, then Minister for the Cabinet Office, announced the establishment of an independent, cross-party commission on freedom of information. It was chaired by Lord Burns (Crossbench). The purpose of the commission included reviewing the act to consider whether or not it struck an appropriate balance between ensuring transparency, accountability and protecting sensitive information. The commission published its report in March 2016. It believed that the act was “generally working well” and found no evidence that it needed to be “radically altered”. The commission provided several recommendations to assist with the overall operation of the act, including recommendations to help requestors during the FOI process.
However, the act has also been the subject of criticism. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his memoir released in 2010, spoke of his regret at his Government’s introduction of the act. Mr Blair, having been at the forefront of the act’s introduction, said:
You idiot. You naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.
In a 2010 interview with the Guardian, Mr Blair spoke of the difficulty now faced by governments when discussing issues confidentially:
If you are trying to take a difficult decision and you’re weighing up the pros and cons, you have frank conversations […] And if those conversations then are put out in a published form that afterwards are liable to be highlighted in particular ways, you are going to be very cautious. That’s why [the act is] not a sensible thing.
In 2012, the House of Commons Justice Committee published a report following its post-legislative scrutiny of the act. The committee said that whilst the act had achieved some of its objectives, it had not enhanced public confidence in the Government.
In a January 2019 report entitled Outsourcing: Oversight?, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) called for an extension to the reach of the act and the EIR. The ICO’s recommendations would have brought organisations that provide a public function within the scope of the act and EIR. This would have included services that are delivered by an external supplier under a public sector contract. The recommendations, the ICO stated, would have enabled “effective accountability and transparency” in instances where services are delivered by organisations other than public authorities.
In February 2019, following the publication of the report, the Government said that it had already introduced measures to increase transparency in public sector contracts and had no plans to legislate in this area.
Cover image by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash.