Perhaps the greatest success of the Freedom of Information Act was in 2010 when journalists used it to uncover the MPs’ expenses scandal. Literally hundreds of these less-than honourable members were discovered to be maxing out their expenses and allowances to top up their already generous salaries and pensions. Thankfully once exposed their reputations were deservedly trashed. Many of these grasping carpet baggers were removed from the Lords or Commons and some, but we might argue not enough, were imprisoned for taking a ride too far on the Westminster gravy-train.
But it’s not just the actions of the high and mighty at Westminster which can be scrutinised through Freedom of Information rules. Here in Thanet it’s been a very useful tool to find out what our local politicians and decision makers have been doing behind our backs. Had it not been for Freedom of Information I would have been unable to uncover the TransEuropa Ferries scandal. We would never have known how senior Councillors secretly agreed to defer TransEuropa’s port fees for more than 2 years. We would never have known about the appalling mismanagement of this highly risky deal which eventually resulted in TransEuropa going bust in 2013 owing the Council £3.4 million in unpaid fees. Nor would I have been able to expose the £2.3 million compensation paid out by the Council to the live animal exporters for unlawfully suspending the trade in 2013, or to reveal the gross mismanagement by senior local politicians of the Ramsgate Pleasurama project. All this could have remained unknown to voters in Thanet without the Freedom of Information Act, although it was done in their name. I believe it is quite possible that Freedom of Information rules will have a role to play in exposing yet more high level incompetence relating to the Dreamland Project and potential criminal negligence linked to the emerging health and safety white finger scandal.
But despite, or perhaps because of, its democratic importance, the Freedom of Information Act is now under serious threat. The current Government has set up a Commission to review the Act which, rather than seeking to strengthen its effectiveness, appears to be determined to weaken it. Amongst other things the Commission is canvassing opinion on whether to charge fees for making FOI requests and appeals, whether to exempt the internal briefings and discussions of public bodies from the Act altogether, and whether to allow public bodies to impose much lower cost thresholds for rejecting FOI requests. Commentators also claim that the Commission’s membership includes several individuals known to be strongly opposed in principle to the Act. Open government campaign groups have warned that the Commission is very likely to produce a report which will emasculate our legal rights to know what our national, regional and local politicians and civil servants are doing in our name.
Accountability and transparency are the cornerstones of democracy. Without strong laws such as the Freedom of Information Act our politicians and their advisers will be free to lie, cheat, mislead and deceive us with impunity, with the accompanying danger that corruption, incompetence, secrecy and cover-up will thrive. This is very worrying for Thanet where our Council has gained a reputation for incompetence, secrecy, and dodgy dealing. This is why it’s essential to have powers like the Freedom of Information Act so that citizens are able to scrutinise TDCs ’s actions and ensure that decisions taken by elected representatives and public servants are transparent and open.