UK Politics

Blair criticised by Freedom of Information inquiry MPs

Tony Blair
Image caption Tony Blair introduced the FOI Act - and regretted it

Tony Blair has been criticised by MPs for failing to cooperate with their investigation into the impact of the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Blair has long been a critic of the laws, which were introduced while he was prime minister.

The Justice Select Committee said it deplored his decision not to appear before them to "defend his views".

Its report says FOI laws have been a "significant enhancement of democracy" and are not harming government.

The cross-party committee rejected criticism of FOI by ex-civil servants and ministers, saying it had heard evidence that the Act was working well, and that the legislation's benefits outweighed its burdens.

It suggested Mr Blair had every chance to give evidence to its inquiry into how FOI was working but that it received a written submission from him only when its report had been finalised.

In his letter to the committee, Mr Blair apologised for the delay in responding to their questions.

He repeated his view that he regrets introducing FOI in 2000 because it has "hugely constrained" ministers' confidence in having frank discussions with advisers.

'Little confidence'

The Freedom of Information Act enshrined a "general right of access" to information held by all public bodies, subject to certain absolute exemptions and cases where disclosure was not deemed to be in the public interest.

Mr Blair said he had believed the legislation would benefit the public but now felt it had "tilted the scales" in favour of the media and its ability to publish confidential policy discussions.

The knowledge that such details would be made public, he said, would have a profound effect on the way ministers took decisions in future and how advice they received was recorded.

"Even if they (ministers) think that something does not fall within the ambit of FOI, they will rightly have little confidence that the act will be applied in the way anticipated."

Mr Blair said his reservations about FOI were "subjective", but he believed they were were shared by most senior politicians.

Sir Alan Beith, the Lib Dem MP who chairs the committee, said the Act had made government departments and other public bodies more open, transparent and accountable and dismissed calls for organisations to be able to charge for answering requests.

"It has been a success and we do not wish to diminish its intended scope or effectiveness," he said.

"The act was never intended to prevent, limit or stop the recording of policy discussions in cabinet or at the highest levels of government."

'Safe space'

Lord O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary under Mr Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, has called for FOI laws to be reviewed to create a "safe space" for civil servants and ministers to speak to one another in confidence without fear of subsequent disclosure.

The committee said it did not believe there was a need for this, given that the legislation already gave protection to "high-level policy discussions".

But the MPs said "the realities of government" meant that ministers would have to block publication of certain information from time to time "to protect that space".

Ministers have used their power of veto sparingly in FOI cases since 2000.

Labour blocked the publication of cabinet discussions about Iraq prior to the 2003 war while the coalition government vetoed the release of the NHS "risk register" earlier this year - a decision which was not upheld by the information tribunal.

Public trust

Civil-liberties campaigners said access to information was essential to the democratic process.

"The act already protects sensitive discussions, and those seeking to restore a veil of secrecy to decision-making should not be allowed to stem the flow of information by charging or limiting the scope of the act," said Nick Pickles, from Big Brother Watch.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham also welcomed the committee's conclusions.

"The act has opened up the corridors of power to greater scrutiny, and government, at all levels, is better for it," he said.

"The act is not without its critics, but in providing a largely free and universal right of access to information, subject to legitimate exceptions, we believe the FOI regime is fit for purpose."

But one constitutional expert said the wider benefits of FOI for the democratic process had been "over-sold" by its supporters.

"It has not achieved its secondary aims of improving the quality of government decision-making or increasing public understanding of those decisions," said Professor Robert Hazell, from University College London's Constitution Unit.

"Nor has it led to an increase in public trust, or public participation in government."

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