Keeping information free, at the Commons

DEFENDING the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) was the subject of LFB's meeting at the House of Commons on 16 April. Journalists would be among the biggest losers from the government's plans to bring in changes to the way the FoIA is applied, making it harder for facts - from the true costs of Public Finance Initiatives to "special rendition flights" - ever to see the light of day.

Already protests from journalists - particularly those by the Campaign for Freedom of Information ( and the Press Gazette petition - have led to the government delaying its plans with a second public consultation: see here for details.

Heather Brooke, author of Your Right to Know, said  "Trust in Parliament is collapsing... Secrecy benefits only two types of people: the incompetent and the corrupt." The reason the government is stuck on the cost argument is that it's the only legitimate argument it has left. "The more the public lose trust in government, the more expensive it becomes to persuade the public that the policies it proposes are in our best interest."

Richard Shepherd speaks: photo © Sara Haq
Heather Brooke, Norman Baker and (speaking) Richard Shepherd at the House of Commons on 16 April

Heather referred to the US constitution's 'We the people', which Richard Shepherd, Conservative MP for Aldridge-Brownhills, said served to remind us that "Everything that this society constructs is constructed in our name, from government to the hived-off companies that now run so many things, is - or should be - conceived in the spirit of a belief in the people."

Norman Baker, Lib Dem MP for Lewes, had himself made an FoIA application for MPs' expenses, which was bitterly resisted. "The government's proposals are not about improving the Act," Baker declared, "but about destroying it".

Mark Fisher, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, described the FoIA as "a surprisingly effective shadow" of the stronger proposals in the original Freedom of Information Bill. He said that a government that really believed in freedom of information would invest in training civil servants in the FoIA and in ensuring that people understood what their rights were. "Government have nothing to fear... If they only realised that freedom of information gives government credibility they'd likely give it more support."

"But let us not just congratulate ourselves" added Mark Fisher, "Get in touch with your MP". Respond to the new consultation (see page 1), and send them a copy.

Member Alison Macleod recalled working under the censorship régime of World War Two. Six weeks before victory in Europe, she heard some women talking about how the UK must be losing the war. If the government were lying about the V2 missiles landing on London, how could they be telling the truth about the war? Still in 2007, "we need to ask unreasonable questions," Alison.

This is a "surprisingly effectively shadow" of a much longer report, which is online.

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