Blair’s failure to co-operate with the Parliamentary select committee investigating the effectiveness of the Freedom of Infomation Act (FOI) shows just how important it is and why it now needs to be strengthened and extended. What he’s afraid of is, of course, how much more it will reveal of the unsavoury background to his autocratic style and how what really happened diverges sharply from the slick spin with which it was presented.
Blair got almost all the big decisions of his premiership wrong:
- his sycophancy to Bush;
- his neocon support for US militarism;
- the war in Iraq and his deceitful presentation of the reasons for it;
- his strong support for Britain joining the Eurozone;
- his unabashed enthusiasm for neoliberal capitalist de-regulation and privatisation;
- his massive extension of PFI;
- his schmoozing with corporate Big Business;
- his visceral dislike of the trade unions;
- his corruption by spin and money; and
- (above all) the way he blew his chance to use the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with an unprecedented majority in Parliament to make any long-lasting radical reform of British society in the interests of the Labour Party which elected him
It’s not surprising he wants to keep as much under wraps as he can. Thatcher rejected freedom of information on the grounds that it would undermine Ministerial accountability to Parliament, as though that were not a constitutional fiction. Blair rejected it on grounds that it involved “information that the political system believes should be kept confidential precisely because it concerns meetings and discussions that are very sensitive” – exactly so: it involved information which he would find deeply embarrasing because it exposed actions by him and others that he could neve justify to the British people.
One example is his abrupt termination of, and suppression of any information about, the Serious Fraud Office inquiry into the massive al-Yamamah arms deal with the Saudis which would very likely have revealed the enormous bribe paid to Prince Bandar and other Saudi officials to fix the deal.
Freedom of information has been very effective, which is why the likes of Blair are so anxious to shut it down. What is really needed is that it should be extended, and made to operate quicker and better. Departments which are unco-operative or unduly slow in providing requested information should be sanctioned, like the DCLG which was recently castigated by the Freedom of information Commissioner for delays of up to 400 days in processing requests. The scope of the legislation should be broadened to cover outfits like private utilities and contractors engaged in public business. And the 30-year rule on disclosure of some public records should be scrapped since its only defence is that it might cause embarrassment to living persons or their descendants.