Correspondence with Rt Hon Tony Blair: Post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of information Act 2000
Letter from Rt Hon Tony Blair to Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP, Chair, Justice Committee, July 2012, Post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of information Act 2000
Letter from Rt Hon Tony Blair to Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith, Chair Justice Committee
Please accept my most sincere apologies for the delay in submitting my evidence to the Committee.
I have enclosed my submission to the Committee; if you have any further questions regarding this please do not hesitate to get in touch with my office.
Submission from Tony Blair to the Justice Committee's Post-Legislative Scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
There is a somewhat colourful explanation of my views in my biography. Let me try to say here more prosaically why I believe the FOI Act was a mistake.
1. Government requires a certain degree of confidentiality to work effectively. In principle, that sentiment has general acceptance. For that reason there were the exemptions in the Act designed to protect proper confidences on issues to do with policy. However, in practice, there is always an inherent bias in any particular situation towards publication that goes beyond the spirit and intent of the legislation. In addition, the Commissioner naturally tends towards curtailing the exemptions and especially where there is any sense of public anxiety faces a great temptation to stretch the ambit of the law. So the original idea was to make available the facts behind the decisions, not the confidential policy debate around those decisions. In reality, publication now goes way beyond that with the public interest tests giving a big impulsion in the direction of publication. The effect in the real world of the civil service and politics, is that inevitably now, both Ministers and civil servants feel hugely constrained. Even if they think that something does not fall within the ambit of FOI, they will, rightly, have little confidence that the Act will be applied in the way anticipated. Thus, the absolutely necessary committing to writing of often complex political and technical issues, is undermined. Of course, this is a subjective judgement. But I suspect it is one shared by most senior politicians. That is why I said that it was "antithetical to sensible Government".
2. The commitment to FOl was given in Opposition, by me in a speech. In that sense Jack is right, though it was a commitment agreed by most at the time. But, that was before the experience of Government.
3. I am not at all sure that the Act has really achieved its goal of greater transparency. It is essentially used by the media to try to get information that the political system believes should be kept confidential, precisely because it concerns meetings and discussions that are very sensitive. The problem is this: it may well be that those meeting notes and discussions are of great interest. But the truth is that, if people know that what they are saying is going to be published, they will be less frank and open in how they express themselves. If you believe, as I do, that such frankness and openness is essential to the proper conduct of decision-making, then again the impact of publication or even the threat of it, is counter-productive.
4. The purpose of the legislation was of course not to open such frank discussion to public view. It was to allow issues to be better debated; to permit people to access information about themselves held by Government; and to encourage the system to be more accountable. But if it results in a battle between Government and media - which is really what happens - the way the system will resolve this, is not to continue to fight, but to stop writing things in the same way. I thought the Act would benefit the public. Actually I think it has really tilted the scales on various contentious issues toward the media. Short term that may be fine. Long term it will just result in a different way of conducting the business of Government.