Revenge of the Nincompoop

With his charm, TOWIE tan and beaming smile, ageing smoothie Tony Blair increasingly resembles Lewis Archer, the character Nigel Havers played in Coronation Street. Ingratiating, suave but clearly with a huge amount of dodgy business in his past, Blair sidles up to us, offering a wonderful future. Unfortunately, like his fictional cousin, Blair’s past hangs around him like a fart in a lift, and we know that he’ll let us down again. As he jets into the UK to “re-engage”, his statement to the Justice Committee on FOI, a parsimonious 570 words (HT @alistair_sloan), hardly persuades me to fall in love with him again.

I’m sure the Justice Committee were genuinely offended that Blair did not do them the courtesy of appearing before them, and his no-show was disrespectful to Parliament (even his old colleague Jack Straw acknowledged this on the Today Programme). The Justice Committee’s work on FOI has been thoughtful, thorough and ultimately very sensible – every time I watched the proceedings, I was impressed by how positive many of the Committee members were about FOI. Blair’s refusal to participate was a disgrace, and they should have empty-chaired him. Nevertheless, giving the old fox a kicking also gave the media a handy peg on which to hang their coverage of the Committee’s report. And who am I to rise above the sideshow? I’ve picked out some of my favourite moments from Blair’s musings, but all I have to show for it is bile.

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.

This is bollocks. While Chris Graham is clearly presiding over a more assertive and truculent Information Commissioner’s Office, Blair’s views on FOI were set while Richard Thomas ran the shop. Blair’s experience of FOI would therefore have been in the backlog days, when information was only disclosed after years of dithering (i.e. long after the sensitivity had passed), and when the Tribunal made many of the bold decisions (the BBC Governors minutes for example) and rarely overturned the ICO’s disclosure orders. In other words, it was the judicial process that forced information out. Blair is a lawyer by profession, so shouldn’t he respect the legal process a bit more?

So the original idea was to make available the facts behind the decisions, not the confidential policy debate around those decisions.

The Act does not reflect this original idea, and what Blair fails to acknowledge is the FOI Act reflects the will of a Parliament dominated by his party and his people. Blair wants to create the impression that a fast one has been pulled, that the original intention has been perverted by the implementation. Labour’s first stab at FOI (the one sponsored by David Clark) went further than the Bill that was originally presented, and it is not the implementation of the Act that has created the problem Blair identifies. Section 35 is a blanket exemption for government policy making, but it has a public interest test. Section 36 is a wide exemption for discussions, advice and views, but it is loaded with hurdles. Nobody made Blair push this forward – he had been Prime Minister for 3 years by the time FOI was being debated and so he must have understood what effect the legislation was going t0 have. Blair was clearly unwilling to be straight with the public by either pulling the bill or forcing his MPs to vote through more restrictive provisions.

In reality, publication now goes way beyond that with the public interest tests giving a big impulsion in the direction of publication.

In other words, Blair sets himself and his version of politics against the public interest. I still can’t quite believe he said this. It’s worse than his self-flagellation in his autobiography, because he’s explicitly saying that the convenience of politicians is more important than the public interest.

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

Only Tony could stress the value of ‘openness’ in a bid to defend secrecy. Blair failed to properly reform the House of Lords, bottled changing the electoral system, and looking at one of the few positive constitutional changes he achieved, he prefers secrecy and spin. Look at his choice of words: these are “complex political and technical issues” and “most senior politicians” feel the way he does, as he was no doubt saying to Kofi Annan and the Sultan of Brunei over the fish course at Davos. However he wants to be perceived, Blair’s statement comes across as elitist, conservative and imperious – FOI is a grubby and unwelcome intrusion that trespasses on the VIPs who run the world, and he resents the metaphorical presence of the hoi polloi at the top table. In reality, I suspect that what Blair really fears is that the Vaseline-lensed image of himself as International Man of Statesmanship will be undermined if we get confirmation of how he (and many other politicians) actually do their business.

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. 

Blair’s view of the civil service in particular and politics in general is damning. He describes a bunch of people who would rather keep inadequate records of major decisions, keep incomplete risk assessments, or withhold the best options for fear of what the public might make of them. Either he’s right, and the people running the country have a contemptuous view of the public, or he’s wrong. If Blair’s narrative is more about himself than the system, he clearly has a lot of things about the way he does business that he does not want us to know. Given his current role as jet-setting eminence grise for rich nations with ambivalent human rights records, one can only wonder what he got up to in office.

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.

It’s impressive that in such a meagre communication, Blair still has time to drop clangers that show he’s not really thinking about the substance of the issue, just whining about how it’s all so unfair. FOI provides greater access to personal data on the margins, but that is not its purpose and nobody could have thought it was, given that the Data Protection and Access to Health Records legislation had already ‘permitted’ (thanks Mr Tony Sir, so kind of you) this access in 1984, 1989 and 1998. If Blair really doesn’t know what his FOI Act did, he’s even more of a nincompoop than he claims to be. But wasn’t his statement to a Parliamentary Committee investigating what he considers to be his biggest career mistake important enough for one of his henchmen to fact-check it first?

Long term it will just result in a different way of conducting the business of Government.

Blair’s verdict on what this different way entails is less record keeping, worse decision-making. The problem is, that’s not a damning verdict on FOI or the people who use it to ask questions. It’s how he sees himself and the people he’s worked with, and how he thinks they react to increased scrutiny. Blair’s view is a relentlessly depressing critique of the political class he wants to protect. As another FOI reverse-ferret merchant said, he was the future once, and now he’s just a spokesman for political self-interest. I agree passionately with the above sentiment – FOI will result in a different way of doing business, but it doesn’t have to be the unrecorded, back-covering future that Blair cynically predicts. If politicians (some of whom I am perfectly prepared to believe are not bastards) grow up with FOI, they might actually make better, more informed decisions in the knowledge that journalists and troublemakers will catch them when they don’t. David Cameron has shown himself to be in the Blair mould, but that doesn’t constrain those who come after him.

In the meantime, one can only hope Blair stops pestering us and is eventually run out of the street, leaving only a trail of self-justification and Ambre Solaire.

The War on Freedom of Information

Years ago, I was told what I assumed was an apocryphal story that New Labour had intended to remove the commitment to Freedom of Information from the draft of the 1997 General Election Manifesto, but someone had forgotten to do so. Saddled with this albatross, the politicians lied through their teeth and pretended they were all for it. Though I never really believed it, I repeat this tale whenever possible on the basis that it seems to embody a truth about the way politics is driven by two-facedness and incompetence as often as it is by principle and skill. And after Tony Blair’s ugly, elitist repudiation of FOI in his memoirs, I think that the story is true.

In 2012, the already declared war on the Freedom of Information Act 2000 will begin in earnest, and you will have to decide which side you’re on. Few people have the courage to oppose FOI actively (I’d have perverse admiration for anyone who did). Instead, with the Justice Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny opening up the opportunity for attack, the phrase “I’ve always been a big supporter of FOI” is one you’re going to hear a lot as it becomes the transparency equivalent of “I’m not racist but…”.

Blair’s acolytes Sir Jonathan Powell and Sir Gus O’Donnell have laid the groundwork. The Local Government Association has already put the boot in, issuing a disingenuous pre-Christmas press release with the usual “Some of my best friends are FOI officers..” line. This recalls the moment I tried to convince a senior manager that FOI was a frontline service, and they laughed in my face. It cannot be a coincidence that a version of the same story has also come out of the Higher Education sector while Simon Hart MP has weighed in on behalf of the police. The Constitution Unit have even more examples here.

The case against FOI currently seems to be because of the burden, but the cited requests in the above stories would not detain a good FOI officer for more than five minutes. As a consequence of the oncoming fight, perhaps those of us who make FOI requests should try to avoid becoming part of the case for the prosecution – people who make multiple requests a day, hundreds of requests overall, or ask about masturbation or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle will be used by those who want to circumscribe the legislation, much as they did in the Republic of Ireland by introducing an FOI fee. Vexatious or frivolous requests feed a Manchurian Candidate style conspiracy to undermine FOI from the inside, and now more than ever, FOI needs to be perceived as serious and legitimate.

Nobody can expect politics to get this right by itself. Labour clearly had (and still has) FOI adherents. David Clark’s original FOI white paper was excellent, and Lord Falconer still makes a passionate and admirable case for the legislation. The same person who told me the manifesto story also said that most Labour backbenchers refused to back the Home Office’s attempts to deliver a neutered, toothless Act. But Blair’s rejection of FOI ought to be seen as a scar on the conscience of his party, and lots of current Labour MPs voted to exclude Parliament from FOI.

On the other side, Cameron set his face against FOI restrictions when leader of the opposition (as did Gordon Brown when he became PM). But despite that most sinister Little and Large tribute act Francis Maude and Eric Pickles demanding wider publication of data than the Information Commissioner has ever had the bottle to extract, Maude’s Cabinet Office have a shocking FOI record, and the DCLG’s humourless mishandling of Derek Tickles is hardly evidence of best practice. I should mention the other coalition party (if only to thank Mr Huhne for the fine material he’s given me for training courses), but did anyone involved in battle ever look up from the fray and shout “We’re saved! The Lib Dems are coming!” And for the purposes of economy, let’s just repeat that joke for the Information Commissioner and move on.

I’m biased – FOI gave me a career when I was floundering, the best 9-5 job I’ve ever had was as a Data Protection and FOI officer for a local council and now, the FOI training courses I run help me to live life without a boss. But I don’t think this stops me from making the case for FOI strongly and passionately. I believe that FOI is a vital tool for the ordinary citizen to stick his or her oar in and get involved. No matter how well you understand your audience, FOI allows your customers and service users to open a window into what interests them, rather than accepting what you give them, it holds the mighty account.

So if you’re an applicant, an FOI officer, a journalist or just a regular citizen who doesn’t like to be patronised by the establishment, in 2012 you need to stand up for FOI. We all need to lobby our MPs, the Justice Committee, the Ministry of Justice and the Cabinet Office. In 2012, we need to tweet and blog and agitate to get the message out that FOI is fundamentally a tool for democracy and openness, stopping those in power from condescending to the great unwashed, telling us only what they want us to know.

And if you really want to make an FOI request about drawing pins, it’ll keep till 2013.

UPDATE 13/2/12: 
Blogger was not behaving itself, so here is a comment from @bitsofours

I’d say the political (big and small P) appetite for FOI was always a sparce one and it’s easy to see how the transparency agenda could get brushed to one side in the current climate.  I agree, that FOI-savvy citizens from which ever side of the FOI coin need to keep information legislation on the radar.

One thing I’d note on the the issue of “good FOI officers” – I was an FOI officer for a number of years and more often than not the people actually doing the job of fulfilling an FOI request are caught between a rock and a hard place; wanting to respond within the spirit and the letter of the law but being subject to top-down, risk-averse, protectionist thinking from senior management.  In most organisations the FOI officer is not of sufficient seniority to make decisions about the release of information and are often caught between their personal desire to meet the requirements of the act and the politics of their organisation.