Posts Tagged ‘‘Need-to-know’’

Fabian View of the Need for Freedom of Information in Government and for the People

April 20, 2014

Fabian Book Pic

Peter Archer, in his paper on ‘The Constitution’ in Fabian Essays in Socialist Thought ed. Ben Pimlott (London: Heninemann 1984) 117-131 also strongly recommends the ending of information given only on a ‘right to know’ basis to ministers in government, the removal of part of the Official Secrets Act and the passage of a Freedom of Information Act.

But this has given rise to two problems which Dicey [19th century constitutional theorist] scarcely envisaged. One relates to freedom of information. Those who are entitled, and indeed expected, to make informed judgements, need the information on which to make them. And this is true not only of electors, but of those within government itself. The circulation of documents on a ‘need-to-know’ basis sometimes denies even to Cabinet ministers information on matters which are essential if they are to be more than departmental administrators.

For the general public, the inhibitions are even greater. The time is long overdue for a repeal of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, which in a single sentence, bursting with alternatives and disjunctions, creates over 2000 separate offences, and would render liable to prosecution anyone who passes on information about the cost of a military uniform. Even the Society of Conservative Lawyers, in evidence to the Franks Committee in 1971, did not ‘consider it appropriate, in a free society, for journalists or other interested persons to face the prospect of criminal penalties merely because their investigations in the sphere of government activity proved to successful for the comfort of the governors’. But open government requires more than freedom to disseminate information. It requires an obligation upon government to make the facts available, except where there are specific reasons for concealing them. In 1982, the Fabian contributors to Making Government Work proposed a Freedom of Information Act, providing for a Director of Open Information. There would be ‘a presumption that all information of a factual and analytical nature available to government would be disclosed’. and where it was necessary to apply a criterion, it would be decided (subject in certain cases to a final government right of refusal) by the Director.

I don’t know whether documents are still circulated amongst ministers at Westminster on a need-to-know basis. However, I got the distinct impression that under the increasingly presidential system of British politics, the independence of Cabinet ministers is still severely circumscribed and they are pretty much departmental administrators, expected to do the wishes of the Prime Minister.

As for the Freedom of Information Act, this has indeed been passed, complete with an Information Director. However, this is another pillar of open government, which the government is reforming in order to curtail the public’s right to examine the operations of government and its decisions. As for ‘the presumption that all information of a factual and analytical nature available to government would be disclosed’, the government has consistently denied this view. Researchers asking for information on the government’s Workfare programme have been refused it on the grounds that it would generate opposition, make the policy unpopular, and stop it from working. Mike over at Vox Political and other bloggers, who have requested information on the number of people, who have died after having been assessed by Atos have had their requests refused, and then been denounced as ‘vexatious’ for daring to ask them. Mike is due to have his case heard by the Information Tribunal later. We wish him the best of luck. However, the operation of the Freedom of Information Act needs to be reformed so that there is a positive presumption in favour of releasing the information, regardless of whether or not such information will make the people’s governors uncomfortable.