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Bill Melotti: We must never reverse Freedom of Information legislation

Picture 10 Bill Melotti is a Conservative councillor on the Vale of White Horse district council in Oxfordshire.

At this time of endless revelations about MPs' expenditure, one thing that stood out is how we have got here and greater openness that now exists in Government, in part - if not a great deal - thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.

What might have sounded like a airy/Blairy piece of legislation at the time of introduction is now proving to be a powerful tool to hold public bodies to account. Guido on his blog has rightly higlighted the excellent work done by Heather Brooke in this area. And of course it was a Blair era reform.

At the time, it was part of a civil rights agenda being set by the then Labour opposition, which included such things as the Human Right Act, and a (failed) 'Ethical Foreign Policy' and was in stark contrast to the authoritarian approach of the then Conservative Government; Michael Howard's support for ID cards and Ken Clarke using PII Cetificates in the Matrix Churchill case spring to mind. How times have changed.

Indeed this Government, especially of late, has tried to be anything but open. The arrest of Damian Green, the way in which Gordon Brown evades all questions, the total contempt with which Ministers treat Parliament in response to written or oral questions and obfuscation in details of spending. A government confident in its abilities and policies would have no problem defending what it is doing, yet the current one cannot.

However FOI is not perfect in the eyes of all Tories. David Maclean's controversial attempts to exclude certain elements of Parliament's and MPs work were supported by some of our MPs (and the Government's) and both the Government and our leadership were slow in making clear which way their support went, which was to support FOI.

We as a party would be very wrong to try to hark back to pre-FOI days whatever the reasons, genuine or not. I know there have been complaints about the cost and disruption of administering the system, but it is one of those areas where fiddling is potentially toxic, much like local taxation or income tax. Perhaps only toxic to a certain voter bloc in this case, but difficult all the same.

The Poll Tax showed the dangers of making changes to local taxation and during the 1980's Mrs Thatcher made it politically impossible for a Government to raise income tax. Indeed the very proof of that was New Labour's commitment not to do so. Effectively Brown's announcement of the new 50p rate says so much about how the clock has been wound back now and how backward looking and cornered this Government now is.

If we ever reach a point in Government where we are considering serious change to the FOI or repeal, I would say we would have reached that same point of no return, winding the clock pointlessly back. Indeed attempts to attack the process by which this current information was released to the Daily Telegraph is very counter-productive. Even if it came with the whole hearted support of FOI as a caveat, it still brings into question our position on such things as the leaks to Damian Green.

The facts are simple, if the information is correct and there is no basic reason for it not be out (e.g. commercial confidentiality, national or personal security of Government officials/MPs) people are really not going to worry about how it got out.

We should at this difficult time embrace and underpin a committment to FOI. Any attempts or appearance of wanting to try to return back does a great deal of damage to our cause; a Labour reform it may be, but a worthwhile and good one.


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