John Picton: Quiet revolution of the freedom of information law

The Freedom of Information Act is something to be proud of but there is still more to come, writes the law lecturer

John Picton
John Picton

Tony Blair famously regretted the Freedom of Information Act 2000, chastising himself in his memoirs as "naive". But he should be proud. Freedom of information has done much to alter the balance of power between government and the public. It permits an army of citizens, journalists and charities to hold power to account.

The Blair government did limit the reach of the act. Freedom of information currently applies only to public authorities, leaving publicly funded charities outside its scope. That was a missed opportunity: a key function of the legislation is to shine a searchlight on public money, and government-funded charities are foundational planks of the welfare state.

The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information put forward a very weak reform, proposing that charities with cumulative public contracts worth more than £5m should be publicly accountable for their performance and delivery. That does not go far enough, leaving charities with smaller contracts outside its scope and excluding citizen enquiry into the ethos of an organisation. It might bring some scrutiny of the largest contractors, but many enquiries would bounce back.

Freedom of information has been a quiet revolution, which might be why Blair regretted it. But the process of change is not yet over. Freedom of information has become a key part of our shared relationship with the state, and it does not begin and end with public authorities. It extends to wherever public money is being spent, so that all bodies entrusted with our cash should expect to respond honestly to our enquiries.

Dr John Picton is a lecturer in law and a member of the Charity Law and Policy Unit at Liverpool University

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