THE BLOG

Many Happy Returns Freedom of Information

22/01/2015 09:48 GMT | Updated 23/03/2015 09:59 GMT

The next twelve months is packed full of major political anniversaries and celebrations. Magna Carta reaches 800 and its 750 years since Simon de Montford's Parliament first met. We'll also be commemorating 50 years since Sir Winston Churchill's death and 70 years since VE Day.

One other milestone this year is the tenth anniversary of the UK's first ever legal right to access government information and data. It is a decade since the Labour Government's Freedom of Information Act came into force.

It seems odd to think that it's not that long ago the people of this country were denied the right to know how their taxes were being spent. Governments controlled data and information, and decided what was and wasn't published. It was difficult to get to the bottom of waste, errors and wrongdoing.

We owe a debt of gratitude to many tireless campaigners without whom we'd never have freedom of information laws. The Campaign for Freedom of Information - led first by Des Wilson and then later by the indefatigable Maurice Frankel. The massed ranks of Charter 88 who placed freedom of information in their list of constitutional reform demands. And those politicians in the 1997 Labour Government, led by Jack Straw, who did the necessary heavy lifting to get the law changed in parliament.

Democracy isn't just about voting. Yes, elections are crucial in holding to account those in positions of power. But other tools give people an active role at all times and not just on polling day. Freedom of information is one of these, as is judicial review and the protections offered by our human rights legislation.

There are many instances over the last decade whereby information has come to light that might not have done so without freedom of information. The Campaign for Freedom of Information keep a handy list of some of the most important on their website. There's a wide range of areas from the NHS, to the environment, to general government expenditure, to crime and justice where the legislation has been used to bring crucial data into the open, sometimes exposing major scandals or even political embarrassments.

Having been a minister myself, I'll admit that freedom of information can be a nuisance. Just as the constant threat of being judicially reviewed is a thorn in the side of ministers. But that's precisely the point, and I'd never want to clamp down on either. Those who protest at the awkwardness of freedom of information, or of judicial review, or of someone bringing a human rights case prove their importance. Transparency and openness do, I believe, lead to better policy making, better governments and better delivery of public services.

However, it's crucial that the law keeps pace with the changing nature of how governments operate and how taxpayers' money is spent. One important area where the law just hasn't kept pace is in the use of private companies to deliver public services.

Since parliament first legislated back in 2000 the scale of private sector involvement has expanded enormously. Companies such as G4S, Serco, Sodexo and Capita run increasing amounts of public services in health, education, welfare and local government. Yet, there is a veil of secrecy around what they do with the public's money. Unlike similar services in the public sector, people don't have the same powers to know how efficient a particular public service is, the impact of a specific policy nor the consequences of decisions taken by ministers.

Some degree of commercial sensitivity is always going to be important, but many of the basic facts should be available to the average person walking down the street. It currently isn't, and this is unacceptable. What's more, I'm convinced that some of the recent cases of fraud involving private companies delivering public services could have been avoided if proper scrutiny of their activities had been possible. The taxpayer would get better value for money.

It was David Cameron himself who once argued that sunlight is the best disinfectant. The light shone by freedom of information is part and parcel of this. Yet, this Government's actions haven't matched the Prime Minister's words. Their assault on judicial review and legal aid, the daily attacks on the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, and their gagging of campaigners and charities are a roll call of shame.

Labour is not content to allow big companies to hide behind a veil of secrecy and make big profits from the taxpayer. That's why I've committed the next Labour Government to end this anomaly. We'll update freedom of information laws so that the British people have the same legal rights to data on their public services regardless of who's running them. This will be a fitting and appropriate way to celebrate a decade of freedom of information.