Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 creates a public "right of access" to information held by public authorities. The Act implemented a manifesto commitment of the Labour Party in the 1997 general election. The full provisions of the act came into force on 1 January 2005.Around 120,000 requests were made in the first year that the Act was in force. At the time of the passing of the Act, advocates of freedom of information legislation were critical of the bill for its complexity, limited scope and the inclusion of a ministerial veto. Lord Mackay criticised the bill in the House of Lords as "toothless" for its inclusion of provisions allowing ministers to veto applications.

In the article Freedom of Information: A sheep in wolf's clothing? Rodney Austin offers the following criticisms of the substance of the Act:

  • The range of exemptions is wider than for any other freedom of information act existing in a democratic state.

  • The obligations to establish publication schemes were diluted meaning that there is no duty to publish information of any specified type.

  • There is a ministerial veto which undermines the Act. This has been used five times: the first time to stop publication of minutes of cabinet meetings relating to the invasion of Iraq, the second and third time by successive governments to stop publication of cabinet meetings relating to discussions regarding devolution, the fourth to stop publication of a risk register on NHS overhaul in England and the fifth to stop publication of private letters Charles, Prince of Wales sent to a number of government departments.[

Facts that have been brought to light by this Act include:

  • The Government agreed to a £1.5 million bailout of one of the most troubled schools in its flagship academies programme ten days before the 2005 general election.

  • Ministers and MPs claimed thousands of pounds on taxis as part of £5.9 million in expenses for travel.

  • Foreign diplomats – who have diplomatic immunity – were accused of rapes, sexual assaults, child abuse and murders while working in Britain

Freedom of Information Act 2000 was an attempt to widen the public’s access to information that is held by a wide range of public bodies, helping in particular to ensure open government. Nevertheless, the Act has strengthened parliamentary scrutiny by giving MPs and peers easier access to government information.