As the Labour Shadow Minister responsible for Freedom of Information and fighting the Tory attempts to water it down, I am acutely aware of both the hypocrisy and danger of the Tory position.
Labour is currently fighting the Government’s attempts to water down the Freedom of Information Act and more widely the Tories' lack of transparency and accountability. You can find out more on that Review on our dedicated page here.
Attempts to weaken the Act could have profound consequences on our ‘right to know’. Last year alone the FOI Act was used to uncover remarkable stories including details of hundreds of dangerous criminals on the run, how many times our data has been breached online, what police knew about child sexual exploitation, and details of Tory donors making millions in housing benefit. Not some fanciful, frivolous requests but stories very definitely in the public interest.
Labour, and I as the shadow minister responsible, are fighting this attempt to weaken public scrutiny and the FOI Act tooth and nail. We believe the Act was one of Labour's proudest achievements during our time in Government, shining a light on the decisions made in our name and giving people the instruments with which to challenge the powerful.
You can read more on my position in an article I wrote for the New Statesman here (http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2015/11/its-not-freedom-information-tories-dont-its-opposition).
Labour have constituted a review to look at ways in which, far from weakening the Act, we can look to strengthen and extend it. That review will take its final evidence in February and will report soon after. We will also look at ways in which the Act has been successful - something the Government have refused to even consider - and ways we can strengthen public accountability.
Since the Tories came to power, outsourcing to private companies has exploded and the taxpayer now pay out over £125bn every year for private firms to carry out public services. Despite this, because of strict commercial rules the public have no right to know how private firms are performing in caring for our elderly, running our prisons, our trains or even collecting our bins. We believe strongly there is a very definite public interest in extending FOI to free schools for instance and to the private firms in receipt of public money.
At every step we have challenged the Government's short-sighted attempt to weaken the FOI Act. Firstly challenging them on the Commission they have constituted which consists entirely of people on the record of having opposed the Act; secondly on the transparency of the Commission itself where meetings were often held in secret; and thirdly on some of the myths around the Act which is being used to justify a change in policy.
More broadly though we believe this is part of a wider move from the Government to clamp down on transparency and scrutiny. Not only have they passed the ‘Gagging Act’ which silenced charities’ criticism of government in the run-up to the election but they are now effectively clamping down on the right of trade unions to have a say and making it more difficult to defend their members. Not only that, they consider the Human Rights Act nothing more than an irritant and have introduced new rules which have revealed that hospitals have been effectively banned from declaring a ‘major incident’ even if they are so overcrowded that patient safety is at risk.
So much for this Government being ‘the most transparent government on earth’. We will continue to challenge them at every step.
Louise Haigh is the Shadow Minister for the Civil Service and Digital Reform in Labour's Cabinet Office Team