It belongs to us

There have been many stories this week, but there are two that have dragged me to my keyboard at a time when I really haven’t felt like writing.

This post concerns the first one, the news on Thursday that the government is planning to introduce charges for FOI requests, perhaps involving a “range of tariffs”.  As our blogging friends at Save FOI explain:

Charging for FOI requests would drastically curtail the ability of ordinary people as well as charities, journalists, businesses and others to hold public bodies to account.

Save FOI goes on to say that this seems a particularly strange move for a Government whose Prime Minister has said “We want to be the most open and transparent government in the world.”  But of course, as readers of this blog have long known – and an increasing number of people up and down the country are at last starting to realise – it is impossible to trust anything most politicians say, and when it comes to David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband in particular our default position must be the justifiable assumption that they are lying through their teeth.

But there is a more fundamental point to be made here that even Save FOI appear to have missed, namely that we are required to request information to be made public in the first place.

While there are obvious exceptions where some information has to be kept out of the public domain lest it aids a potential enemy to do harm to this nation, the fact remains this is information that should be released and made public proactively.  The information is the public’s.  It is produced and exists supposedly to serve the public.  We pay for it.  Therefore it belongs to us.

That we are forced to go in search of it (and all too frequently encounter significant obstruction in getting it) is a scandal.  That we may also now be compelled to pay for that which is ours is an outrage.  This reinforces the reality of a them and us society, where on one side we have a self selecting elite operating in its own interest at our expense and on the other side we have the general public, abused and treated with contempt.

If we had genuine people power in this country via system like Referism the inverted master and servant relationship would be corrected.  Power is exercised through the  control of funds.  Under Referism the people would decide regularly where our money is spent.  Representatives would be forced to abide by the public will instead of acting as our masters.  And one outcome would be the end of the pantomime that sees us forced to crawl and beg for titbits of information from those who pretend they are a class apart.

Sign the petition opposing this move to charge for FOI by all means.  But don’t lose sight of the fact that this is our information that should be made public, without delay or hindrance, by default.  That is what we should be demanding, not going cap in hand to the likes of Cameron – whose two faced party (if you can believe the irony / hypocrisy / self delusion *del as appropriate) produced the t-shirt on the right – hoping we can cling on to scraps of information, sometimes supplied when it suits the political class, on request and under sufferance.

We should not be addressing the symptom, we should be fighting the problem.  That is why it is time for disparate voices to combine and declare our demands.  I will be there at the Old Swan in Harrogate with the other people who will be working to frame those demands and pursue them.

With that event in mind, two of my favourite bloggers make essential points that all need to burned into our collective memory.  Firstly, Raedwald who reminds us that we don’t request, rather we demand our freedom, because it’s our freedom and not for others to grant us.  Secondly, Witterings From Witney who reminds us that that the politicians are always the servants and never the masters of the people, irrespective of the fact they behave otherwise.  It is time to make both a reality.

18 Responses to “It belongs to us”


  1. 1 Joe Public 08/04/2012 at 2:02 pm

    “We want to be the most open and transparent government in the world.” 

    But it’ll cost you, to check we’re not lying.

  2. 2 Brian H 08/04/2012 at 2:06 pm

    “The politicians are the servants…” Truthfully, we all know deep down that this is mostly rhetoric. Every society has those with more power, sometimes MUCH more power, than the rest. So there are two questions: ‘How much more?’ and ‘How do they get and hold it?’

    Constitutions attempt to limit the “how much”, and elections attempt to require attention to the needs and wishes of the ruled. Neither is consistently successful. It’s a recurring fight.

    Every ruling and regulating elite attempts to expand power without limit, and turn selection/election into a charade where it has the Fix in at all times. Never doubt it.

  3. 3 Edward. 08/04/2012 at 2:42 pm

    […]..”politicians are always the servants and never the masters of the people, irrespective of the fact they behave otherwise. It is time to make both a reality.”

    Indeed.

    Referism and localism.

    Large and metropolitan councils must be broken up and power handed down to local areas, small towns and regional wards.

    Referism is good, what I want to see is MP’s have to be accountable to their constituencies – at westminster the parties take over [local ideas fly out of the window] and this must be halted, whether it means more independent MP’s and an end to Parliamentary parties whatever.

    However, Galloway’s win in Bradford has opened up a pandoran box with new ‘dangers’, if and when the minority block vote use their power, then there will be a new and major force in British politics, what chance then for more democracy? Not much I’d posit.

    I deem that the political landscape is about to change and not for the better and I for one do not like the look of the future.

    Even withdrawal from the EU may not save us.

  4. 4 WitteringsfromWitney 08/04/2012 at 5:01 pm

    Thanks for the link AM and I look forward to meeting you at Harrogate.

  5. 5 john in cheshire 08/04/2012 at 9:21 pm

    If the politicians are our servants, then I suggest it’s time we took our swagger sticks to them and gave them a good thrashing. I wish I could join you all in Harrogate. I can’t and I think that I’d be an impediment if I could. My views are more radical than any that you might want to codify. But, I wish you all well and hope that you can produce something that the rest of us will support and in our own small way work to see is implemented.

  6. 6 Andy Baxter 09/04/2012 at 7:20 am

    well said….

  7. 7 Letmethink 10/04/2012 at 9:45 am

    Check out the following two acts of the US congress (not yet law): –

    The DATA act – http://www.scribd.com/doc/57754465/The-DATA-Act

    The POI act – http://sunlightfoundation.com/policy/poia/about/

    This is exactly what we should be driving towards (the DATA act is an absolute precursor to any notion of ‘referism’)

  8. 8 Steve 10/04/2012 at 8:08 pm

    It’s strange how on the one hand people object to public inefficiencies yet on the other demand the right to force public servants to collect and provide sometimes trivial information to all and sundry, and to require all public servants (at cost of their time) to be trained in the rules (eg. my employer is liable if I inadvertently sit on a question for more than 20 days – not that I’ve ever been asked such a question).

    More positively, such charges would presumably prevent public bodies from evading disclosure if the cost of collecting the information is too much, something they can do at the moment.

  9. 9 Autonomous Mind 10/04/2012 at 8:30 pm

    Just making all the information public in the first place negates your arguments in favour of withholding information and charging the public (again) for access to what they own.

  10. 10 mikemUK 10/04/2012 at 10:38 pm

    Interestingly, there’s a piece in the online Guardian this evening about Wellcome Trust urging that all public/charity-funded scientific research results be made public in short order after papers are produced.

    David Willetts claims to be in favour on behalf of the government but whether this is simply ‘gesture’ or real intent we shall have to wait to see.

  11. 11 Letmethink 10/04/2012 at 11:08 pm

    All information that would be legitimately disclosed via a FOIA request should be made available proactively.

    End of.

  12. 12 Steve 12/04/2012 at 1:50 pm

    So AM and letmethink if such information includes enough details to identify you and your activies, should it be unthinkingly made available. Or should some “bureaucrat” first ensure the data is suitably anonymised and formatted before release (presumably he or she would be happy to do it on unpaid overtime?)

    Flippancy aside, we are where we are in a situation where not every worker’s work is logged on the same computer systems, so systems to collate and release the information to the internet in a managed way take time to develop. For example, the breaking story of night-time hospital discharges needs to be analysed more deeply because the statistics include deaths, voluntary discharges and so forth. New recording procedures may need to be agreed and set up before the information that is actually most useful (ill people being kicked out by understaffed hospitals) can be known.

    It seems to me to be far better to at least see what information people are interested in hearing about so the money spent to collate and release it can be prioritised.

  13. 13 Letmethink 13/04/2012 at 10:28 am

    @steve

    Well, fundamentally, I see no reason why somebody whose wages I pay shouldn’t let me know what they’re doing.

    I repeat that what would be legitimately disclosed under a FOIA request should be made available online. The FOIA protects against personal details being disclosed.

    You will of course also know that repeated requests under the FOIA on the same matter can be regarded as vexatious and ignored. Only proactive online disclosure would afford an appropriate level of research, scrutiny, challenge and oversight by the general public and the media in all its forms.

    And yes, this would probably require some sort of body that would co-ordinate the development of policy and standards regarding online disclosure of information but this is a price worth paying.

  14. 14 Autonomous Mind 14/04/2012 at 8:31 am

    And just as in the comment thread on the other post, along comes Steve determined to take the opposite stance, deploying an argument that is devoid of common sense and takes no account of existing limitations.

    In addition to the common sense comment made by Letmethink it is worth remembering that instead of servicing requests, current FOI staff could be spending their time proactively making public documents and information that would not be restricted.

    Transparency and accountability are not buzzwords. They are cornerstones of a genuine democracy. Presumably this is why there is so little of either demonstrated by our public ‘servants’.

  15. 16 Steve 14/04/2012 at 1:18 pm

    Interesting, AM, that I should be “determined to take the opposite stance” rather than simply disagree with you. – which I do, and which is why I enjoy many of your posts. You may be correct that the *motivation* for introducing charges is to limit access to information. We’ll have to see how the consultation goes.

    I agree with the sentiments of Letmethink’s comment which you say are “common sense”. I think the costs to the taxpayer, and the practicalities, are underestimated though and if costs are a barrier to some requests it is within the resources of many campaign organisations to force disclosure by paying the costs – or even just threatening to pay them which in a sense calls the public body’s bluff if they are using the cost argument as an excuse to withhold inconvenient information.

  16. 17 Letmethink 14/04/2012 at 7:56 pm

    @Steve

    You are right that there will be costs associated with the online disclosure of public information and you are right that this should not be underestimated (these costs should also not be overestimated) but also what should not be underestimated are the associated benefits. These benefits would be felt mostly in the increased scrutiny of the government by individual citizens, however there would also likely be a direct money benefit.
    A subset of what would be possible is illustrated by the publishing of credit card usage at Eric Pickles’ department as described at the link I posted above which reduced CC bills from about half a million to around £200k per annum.
    It can’t be beyond the wit of man to produce a cost benefit analysis of proactive online disclosure of public information even if people are unable to see its real value to the democratic process.
    A very important first step (important as it would indicate the government’s true colours) would be to publish all FOIA requests and responses online and make them freely available to all.
    This would represent a very small incremental cost and I think Steve that you would not be critical of this as a first step.

  17. 18 Brian H 15/04/2012 at 12:55 pm

    The primary “benefit” side of the c/b analysis of public disclosure is really that it provides a robust negative feedback to restrain the system and its riders from going into positive-feedback runaway, in which the data-cooks provide cover for the hyper-taxers who keep the cooks well fed — thereby driving the economic system into collapse.

    It’s much better to avoid that final and indiscriminate negative “Reality Bites” feedback loop.


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