Freedom of Information in the UK
- Justin Foxworthy
CHRI, London Office
Maurice Frankel, Campaign
for Freedom of Information
Since the United
Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act 20001 came into effect on
1 January 2005, there have been nearly three thousand requests
for information submitted, primarily aimed at the Ministry of
Defense and the Education Department. Given that the legislation
has been in effect for such a short period, it is difficult to
measure the true impact of the legislation. While some requests
have been granted, others have been refused on the grounds that
they wouldn’t be processed within the twenty-day period stipulated
by the Act.
Among the twenty
three exemptions from the general right of access are included:
information relating to national security, information that would
prejudice international relations, commercially sensitive and
confidential information, as well as data the public authority
deems is in public interest to withhold.
So far, the most contentious debate has
revolved around the refusal of requests from
citizens, Members of Parliament and news
organisations for full disclosure of the legal advice given to Prime Minister Blair by the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith on the legality of the invasion of Iraq.
In a written statement following the refusal to make Lord Goldsmith’s advice public, Christopher Simson, the Freedom of Information officer for the Attorney General’s chambers, cited the reason for refusal as need for maintaining the confidentiality of attorney-client discussions.
He also added that the legal basis for invading Iraq had been explained on a number of occasions including a memo by the Foreign Secretary to the Foreign Affairs
Committee, the Attorney General’s written submission
to Parliament and several other parliamentary debates.
In addition to
the legal arguments, there is also a long- running political dimension
to the dispute over the refusal to disclose Lord Goldsmith’s advice.
Following the release of Lord Butler’s report, which found much
of the pre-war intelligence unreliable, questions remain over
whether the Prime Minister’s claims that Saddam Hussein posed
a threat were in fact made in good faith.
and civil groups are hoping that a public disclosure of Lord Goldsmith’s
counsel will help piece together the timeline during the run up
to war, as there have been suggestions that US plans to invade
were known to the UK army well before the actual invasion took
for potentially politically damaging information under provisions
of the Act generate reluctance to disclose but free access to
information also threatens the entrenched attitudes and practices
of government employees regarding privileged access to sensitive
According to the
Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Maurice Frankel,
“The real test of the Act is not what authorities reveal twenty
days after a request, but what they are required to do after the
Information Commissioner rules on complaints.”
While the full
weight of the legislation may not be immediately felt, the real
power of the Act will be determined by the decisions taken by
the Information Commissioner in the appeals process and the manner
in which UK governments exhibit a proactive approach to open governance
in the future.