FOI Man calls for anyone who uses FOI, benefits from it, or is interested in transparency to support the Campaign for Freedom of Information
I’ve been a bit quiet blog-wise over the last month, for which I apologise. The reason for this is that thanks to the success of this blog, I have been lucky enough to be offered freelance training work, been invited to speak at conferences, to write for journals, and to join panels at academic events. And May has been flush with all of these opportunities. Together with the day job, this leaves little time for blogging. Things look quieter in June, so you’ll be hearing much more from me this month. I heard that groan from the back and it won’t stop me, I tell you.
But there’s another reason that I’ve been lucky enough to be offered these opportunities. Since 1984 the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) has been campaigning for FOI – first of all calling for an FOI Act in the first place, and since 2000 keeping an eye on and calling out the Government whenever it has looked like going back on the promise of transparency that FOI made to us. Most recently the Campaign has been drawing attention to the Government’s plans to make it easier for public authorities to refuse requests.
It is at least arguable that we would never have had a Freedom of Information Act under the last government without CFOI. It is certainly the case that the Act was stronger when passed than the Labour Government had intended because of the pressure that CFOI brought to bear on parliamentarians on all sides of both Houses (for evidence of this, look no further than the memoirs of the Minister responsible for the FOI Bill, Jack Straw). Others have pointed out that the conclusion of last year’s post-legislative scrutiny might well have been more negative if it hadn’t been for CFOI Director Maurice Frankel’s forensic dismantling of arguments made by FOI’s many critics.
Dr Evan Harris, former Liberal Democrat MP and Hacked Off campaigner, has written that CFOI is now struggling for funds. As with all campaign groups and charities, the Campaign is entirely dependent on the goodwill of those who support its aims. Without donations and volunteers it would not be able to do its good work. The trouble is that when there are so many good causes, it is difficult to stand out from the crowd. But there are many of us who owe CFOI our support.
Dr Harris draws attention to the use journalists and newspapers have made of FOI in stories as diverse as MPs’ expenses and the basis of Michael Gove’s more questionable utterances. But in addition to the media, there are many of us who have benefited from CFOI’s work over the last 30 years. I wouldn’t be in the job I’m in, be writing a blog about FOI, or have the opportunities I wrote of above. Many FOI Officers and records managers owe their employment to FOI’s continued existence. Training companies and legal firms make money from FOI. Charities are able to sharpen their campaigns using information obtained through FOI. Businesses use FOI to gain valuable intelligence on public sector contracts. And that’s ignoring the wider benefit to the public of the greater transparency that FOI has brought. And it probably isn’t going too far to argue that none of this would be the case without the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
Last year I worked with fellow FOI Officers and information law experts to establish the Save FOI campaign because I believed that FOI was under threat. The truth is that one of the best ways to save FOI and to keep it strong is to ensure that the dedicated and well informed team at CFOI are able to continue their efforts for years to come. If you’ve ever made an FOI request, been interested in a news story that was based on an FOI request, or just believe that FOI is a good thing, please consider making a donation – however small or large – to the Campaign.
It is easy to do. Earlier today I set up a standing order from my bank account to the Campaign for FOI, so that they will receive a regular monthly donation from me. The Campaign’s bank account details can be found in this form, and you can use these to set up a standing order using your online banking service. Other ways to donate or support the Campaign can be found on their website.
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You also have the Official Secrets Act here. In 1911 it was adopted in one hour in this great Parliament without a great deal of consideration by Parliament. That Act is an aberration and that is an extra problem that you have. I sometimes think that people think that just getting rid of that Act will get you freedom of information. It won’t. But certainly we did not have that problem of needing to repeal an Act of that nature. As I say, what we have had is a certain all-party support and public support which has been strong. Many newspapers supported the campaign to the hilt.