UK Politics

Scrap FoI Act review, says Labour's Tom Watson

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson Image copyright PA
Image caption Mr Watson said transparency was essential to reforming "flawed" public institutions

Labour has called on the government to scrap a review of the Freedom of Information Act.

In a speech on Friday, Labour deputy leader Tom Watson said the act should be extended to give people more rights to scrutinise public bodies.

The commission looking at the act has been criticised for lacking freedom of information campaigners as members.

The government has said there are concerns that "sensitive information" is being inadequately protected.

The six-person commission considering the act includes former home secretaries Jack Straw and Lord Howard.

The passing of the Freedom of Information Act in 2000 gave anyone the right to access recorded information held by government and other public sector bodies. It obliged public authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and UK-wide authorities based in Scotland, to publish certain information about their activities.

In a speech in London, Mr Watson said the Conservatives had been vocal supporters of transparency while in opposition and during the coalition but were following a "trust us, we know best" approach now they were governing on their own.

David Cameron "did not like to be challenged", he said, suggesting the publication of 36 written ministerial statements and more than 420 documents on Thursday, the last day before the Christmas recess, was further evidence of a prime minister intent on "governing from the shadows".

"The Tories, in their pursuit of secrecy, are not just attempting to blind us with massive information," he said.

"They're doing it the old-fashioned way and actually trying to turn off the lights; systematically making it harder for people to engage with policy making, retreating into a darker and more secretive place."

'Waste of money'

Mr Watson said the FOI review was an exercise in secrecy itself, claiming the government had yet to submit evidence to the inquiry and had been forced into agreeing to its sessions to be held in public.

"It doesn't have the support of the public. It is opposed by many of the organisations that are covered by FOI; it has been condemned by the Information Commissioner and slammed by a former head of the civil service.

Image copyright Thinkstock

"It's a waste of taxpayers' money and it's time it was scrapped. The Freedom of Information Act works well. Labour would strengthen and extend it."

Mr Watson said he suspected the commission was "predestined" to deliver the conclusion which the government wants and which will allow ministers to raise barriers to obtaining information.

He accused the government of seeking to "reverse the transparency Labour introduced" and to "turn off the lights, systematically making it harder for people to engage with policy making, retreating into a darker and more secretive place".

Mr Watson argued that "a more open government will be a better government, with more robust policy making".

When the review was launched in July, Cabinet Office minister Lord Bridges said: "We fully support the Freedom of Information Act but after more than a decade in operation it is time that the process is reviewed to make sure it's working effectively."

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