The campaign group, which was set up in 1984, played a key part in helping to persuade Tony Blair’s government to introduce the Freedom of Information Act in 2000. The act granted citizens the right to hold the government to account.
Blair later regretted allowing so much transparency, and famously called himself a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop” in his memoirs for introducing the Act.
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
For years, the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) has called for transparency legislation to be strengthened, and has helped the public challenge authorities when freedom of information (FOI) requests are rejected.
It recently urged the government to make a new £800m defence research agency subject to FOI legislation, preventing it from doing its work in secrecy. It has also raised serious concerns over the government’s substantial delays when answering FOI requests.
Speaking to openDemocracy, Maurice Frankel, director of the CFOI, warned of further threats to the right to access information.
“There are going to be more direct attacks on freedom of information, and every voice available that is capable of defending FOI needs to be there to defend it, because there’s absolutely no question that it will have to be repeatedly defended to preserve the right to access,” Frankel said.
Requests for information on COVID PPE contracts ‘are all stuck in the system’
In July, the campaign group revealed how the number of FOI complaints being referred to the UK’s information regulator had increased by 43% since the start of the pandemic.
Last November, openDemocracy found that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), had seen its FOI budget cut by 41% in real terms over the past ten years.
Frankel said that the “pandemic backlog has made everything much worse” and that requests for information on COVID personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts “are all stuck in the system”.
“It is vital the ICO does not allow its attention to decrease still further away from FOI and in favour of data protection. It’s gone to an undesirable degree already in that direction.”
The CFOI found that there were 1,748 open complaints made by requesters, with the oldest being lodged in April 2019.
It also revealed that the Cabinet Office had the most ICO complaints against it, followed by the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Justice, and the Department for Work and Pensions.
Exclusive: Government accused of ‘misusing’ vast sums after openDemocracy revealed half a million pounds was spent on legal costs to fight information releases
The Cabinet Office has been consistently criticised for the way in which it handles FOI requests, as well as how it operates its controversial Clearing House unit, which instructs other government departments on how to respond to FOI requests.
The Clearing House was at the centre of a successful legal case brought by openDemocracy, which found there was a “profound lack of transparency about the operation”.
openDemocracy’s legal win has sparked a parliamentary inquiry into the Clearing House.
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