Of the many revelations which have emerged from Tony Bliar Blair’s newly memoirs the one which I found most interesting in my professional day job capacity was his apparent opposition to the Freedom of Information Act which his government passed in 2000.
It seems as if the Act was an inconvenience to Blair and many other poiticians regardless of party in the wake of the illegal invasion of Iraq and the MPs’ expensesd scandal. Blair apparently described the FOI Act as not practical for good government. Conveniently for himself it looks like the cabinet papers on the decision to go into Iraq (whose disclosure was actually approved under FOI by the Information Commissioner, but later blocked at ministerial level) won’t be made public any time soon.
And guess whose speech this extract is taken from?
Our commitment to a Freedom of Information Act is clear, and I reaffirm it here tonight. We want to end the obsessive and unnecessary secrecy which surrounds government activity and make government information available to the public unless there are good reasons not to do so. So the presumption is that information should be, rather than should not be, released. In fact, we want to open up the quango state and the appointed bodies, which will of course exist under any government, but which should operate in a manner which exposes their actions to proper public scrutiny.
Freedom of information legislation exists in many other countries, including the United States and Canada and Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and France. The countries have sensible exemptions which the public here would understand and support. Information relating to national security, to law enforcement, to commercial confidentiality, to personal privacy, should of course be subject to exemption, as should the policy advice given by civil servants to ministers. But even with these kinds of exemption, there would still be vast swathes of government activity which would be exposed to public examination and to public debate.
And the Act would also be of practical use to individuals. In recent years we have finally been allowed to have access to our medical records, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Why should we stop there? Why should what is held on other personal files not also be available for us to see? At present we have a mish-mash of rules which allows us to see some files and not others, partly dependent on whether they are held on computer or held manually. But I believe there is a strong case for taking a consistent approach to giving people access to what is held on file about them subject of course to those obvious exemptions.
Yes, it’s Bliar’s speech at the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s annual awards ceremony in 1996 just over a year before he came to power .