A legislative proposal to exempt MPs' expenses from the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act has been hastily withdrawn, with the media reporting cross-party support dissolved in the face of mass public outcry. Although there will still be a vote today in Parliament on the matter and Government seems resistant to develop a culture of FoI, this is a significant victory for transparency. The credit goes largely to campaigners who whipped up a storm of popular protest in the few days after the proposal was recently announced, most prominently the civic-minded hackers at mySociety.
It's ironic that while politicians are singing Obama's praises for online engagement, here in the UK one of its first impacts coming from beyond the tech community has bitten politicans rather than been driven by them. The public outcry over MPs' expenses is in large part due to net-based activists using online tools like social networks and email, in addition to traditional media, to mobilise their supporters to tell more people to get involved by informing their MPs. This seems to us like a watershed-moment for net-based campaigning in the UK with, hopefully, wider implications for encouraging democratic engagement and accountability, coming straight from the grassroots.
Although FoI is not a priority campaign for the Open Rights Group, it is an important part of the digital rights agenda, and something we and the rest of civil society often depend on to get a clear picture of government activity. We have produced two consultation submissions arguing this. One made a case against tighter controls on the time that civil servants devote to requests and charging fees to release information produced with taxpayers' money (click to read in PDF).
Our other consultation response argued for expanding the scope of this legislation to more public bodies (click to read in PDF). It is disappointing to note that this latter consultation is yet to report any conclusions, despite taking almost an entire year to consider the options. Just as disappointing is the failure of four Government ministries to respond within the statutory time limit to requests we submitted last year.
We'll continue to make these arguments for a working FoI system. Like many of the innovations of the early Blair years, the Freedom of Information Act seemed a major step forward for popular engagement. It is ironic to see attempts to roll back its provisions, but from ORG's perspective, extremely heartening that net activism is helping to keep them in place.