Chills, thrills and surprises: ten years of freedom of information in the UK

By Dr Ben Worthy

This post originally appeared on Oxford University Press’s OUPblog (10 April 2016). It is reposted here with the publisher’s permission.

The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act has been in the news again, when the controversial Independent Commission, much to the surprise of many, concluded the Act was ‘generally working well’, had ‘enhanced openness and transparency… there is no evidence that the Act needs to be radically altered’.

How can this be squared with the claims of Tony Blair, who passed the Freedom of Information Act back in 2000, that the law is one of his greatest regrets? Blair spent some time in his memoirs bemoaning how terrible and counter-productive FOI was:

The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ‘the people’. It’s used as a weapon.

He’s not the only politician who has fallen out of love with transparency. David Cameron began his time in office with a ringing commitment to make his government the most transparent ever and initiate a revolution in openness. In 2012 he was a little less enthusiastic, speaking of how FOI can ‘occasionally fur up the arteries of government’ and by 2015 he was referring to it as just another ‘buggeration factor’ alongside judicial review and Health and Safety laws. The Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling also complained that FOI was being abused by journalists (though the Daily Mail pointed out that he was quite a fan of FOI in opposition).

So why do politicians dislike it so much?

In part the unhappiness is due to a politician’s natural dislike of “surprises.” FOI is the antidote to “spin,” amid a growing emphasis on “spin.” FOI can often cause embarrassments and scandal, digging up stories and delving into forgotten corners. Imagine being a politician and think of the effect of seeing stories such as MPs’ expenses, councils’ use of credit cards or an online list of which politicians supported what controversial decisions. You can also glance over this fascinating list of snooping councils, inappropriate use of social media and escaped convicts revealed by FOI. Spare a thought also for the parish of Walberwick where the council resigned on masse over a combination of cover ups and Christmas trees exposed by FOI requests.

Another claim made is that FOI stops everyone writing things down, the so-called chilling effect. Despite endless discussion and Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell’s rather creative warning that officials are ‘working on Brexit plans in their head’ to avoid FOI, we found the chilling effect to be a myth (as did a Parliamentary committee). The quality of official advice or government records is no worse and emails and “sofa government” have led to far more change than FOI. Despite this lack of evidence, it is still being talked about and the danger is it can becomes a self-confirming myth.

A final reason for their unhappiness has to do with how politicians meet FOI: senior politicians and officials only ever see a few requests, often the most sensitive or most potentially damaging, and often from journalists. They get a very narrow, and negative, view of what requests are received and are prone to view FOI as a ‘problem’ and see it as ‘abused’ by the media. Rather than Iraq, Tony Blair was upset with how FOI revealed who had visited him at chequers (and who gave him an iPod). This also plays into claims that FOI is an alleged resource burden as [some] local councils andpolice forces have claimed.

So, politicians easily go off FOI, through a mixture of unpleasant surprises, (imagined) chills, and bad memories. However, here hangs a paradox. FOI needs support from politicians to flourish and those very politicians most at risk from exposure need to get behind it or at least tolerate it. FOI will still be around in another 10 years but so will the complaints.

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The Conservatives have been the biggest borrowers over the last 70 years

By Richard Murphy

This post originally appeared on Richard Murphy’s blog Tax Research UK (13 March 2016). It is reposted here with his permission.

I was interviewed twice on the radio on Friday evening to discuss John McDonnell’s new fiscal rule, once on LBC and the other on Radio 5. In both cases the interviewers were quite explicit in stating that it was known that Labour always borrowed more than the Conservatives and that was why the electorate could not trust them with the economy. I knew that evidence I had prepared a year ago did not support that view in recent years (post 1997) but I decided to see if this claim really had any substance to it all at all. This blog is about my findings. There is a note on data sources at the end.

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David Willetts in Conversation with Tony Wright

David Willetts in Conversation with Tony Wright

By Professor Eric Kaufmann

Former Labour MP and Birkbeck Politics Professorial Fellow Tony Wright hosted a memorable evening with former Tory MP David Willetts on 11 February in the cozy confines of the Keynes Library. Willetts, known as ‘two brains’ for his intellectualism and (current) tally of ten authored books, served as Universities Minister in the Cameron government until 2015. He also served under Margaret Thatcher at her Policy Unit. Among his more influential works is his recent book on problems of intergenerational equity entitled The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back.

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The State of British Democracy

State of British DemocracyBy Dr Ben Worthy

In the past year British politics has got (even more) interesting, uncertain and unpredictable. On Wednesday 17 February staff from the Birkbeck Politics Department Joni Lovenduski, Tony Wright, Rosie Campbell and Jason Edwards joined together to discuss the state and health of British democracy in 2016. Should we congratulate ourselves or be concerned?

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Charities Regulation Under Scrutiny

By Alan Ware, Emeritus Fellow, Worcester College, Oxford & Senior Research Associate, UCL School of Public Policy

Charities Regulation Under Scrutiny

This post is a response to the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life’s event Charities Regulation Under Scrutiny, held on 16 February 2016.

Regulating charities is extraordinarily complex because unlike most regulated organisations they are so diverse. There are about 160,000 of them and they share just one feature – they opted for a particular legal status, first established in 1601.  Only those bodies that meet a statutorily defined notion of “public benefit” are entitled to the privileges charitable status provides, including not being liable to corporation tax, for example. They vary enormously in size, in whether they rely or donations or on other sources of incomes (such as contracts, fees or grants), in whether or not they make use of volunteers, and in many other ways. Perhaps the most significant respect is whether they are subject to oversight by the Charity Commission or are exempt, as are universities and private schools, for which other regulatory agencies now usually have responsibility.

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The Politics of David Bowie

As with almost everything about David Bowie, no one is sure exactly what his politics were. The Mirror claims he turned down an OBE and a knighthood in the 2000s. In 1977 he is quoted as saying ‘the more I travel and the less sure I am about exactly which political philosophies are commendable’. Nevertheless, many have seen ways in which Bowie’s career could provide lessons for how we do politics.

David Bowie

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Jeremy Hunt’s masterclass in how NOT to negotiate

Jeremy Hunt

By John Kelly, Professor of Industrial Relations, Department of Management, Birkbeck

As somebody who teaches negotiations at the London School of Economics (and whose elder daughter is a junior doctor) I have followed the junior doctors’ dispute very closely. What I have gradually discovered is that one of the key obstacles to the successful resolution of the dispute is that the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, has violated almost every basic principle of effective negotiation.

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Podcast: Fighting for a Place in Parliament

Thousands of people apply to work in MPs’ parliamentary offices every year. Why? Robert Dale, author of How to Be a Parliamentary Researcher, visited the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life on 16 November to explain.

Working in an MP’s office is an opportunity to operate at the centre of British politics. In an insightful discussion with comments from Tony Grew (Lobby journalist for The Telegraph, founder of the Parly app) and Susan McLaren (Birkbeck PhD student), Robert Dale explored how to get a job in an MP’s office, the challenges of these positions and the culture around working in parliament.

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Podcast: The Crisis in the Greater Middle East

The Crisis in the Greater Middle EastOn 12 November 2015, the Department of Politics hosted a round table discussion on war, geopolitics and the challenge of ISIL in the Middle East region.

The panel featured Ed Bacon, Matthijs van den Bos, Antoine Bousquet, Rob Singh and Barbara Zollner. Assistant Dean Alex Colás chaired the discussion.

The panel assessed the origins and dynamics of the crisis in the Middle East, considering why ISIL’s recruitment practices have been so successful in the West, possible solutions to the Syrian civil war and the ramifications of the conflict for the relationship between Washington and Moscow.

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