Here at the Unit we’re wrapping up a project on FOI and Parliament which looked at the use of FOI by MPs and peers. We’ve been asking:
- Is FOI another tool in MPs’ arsenal?
- Is it useful, and has it become part of the cut and thrust of politics?
- Or, is it not being used?
After all, MPs already have great research tools, like Parliamentary Questions, access to the House of Commons Library and many NGOs working in the field who can provide them with information. Plus they are likely to get a more robust reply from ministerial letters than an ordinary member of the public (a reason their work for constituents is so valuable).
So why do any MPs make FOI requests? Examples from different parliamentarians provide us with some answers:
- FOI is great to follow up a hunch, and to push for information if PQs fail or are hinting at something more. Gordon Prentice didn’t trust Lord Ashcroft to rearrange his tax affairs on receipt of his peerage: FOI confirmed this suspicion.
- The struggle for information can be as much as a news story as the information itself, and resistance isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you can make a point out of it. See Tom Watson’s letter to Eric Pickles when a request to the DCLG was refused.
- Detailed policy information can help politicians develop or highlight alternatives: The Conservatives used FOI before the election to show Labour was planning cuts to the NHS.
- FOI can provide juicy political material. The costs of the Downing Street Kitchen renovation, the collusion of BAA and the DFt over Heathrow, the fact that Tony Blair spoke to Rupert Murdoch before the Iraq war, are known though FOI requests made by parliamentarians.
A key role of the parliamentarian is to hold public institutions to account, and our previous research finds that FOI helps increase accountability of institutions. Time will tell if FOI grows in popularity as an accountability tool among the elites who know how to manipulate and publicise information more than most. Our study finds that overcoming structural resourcing shortages may be the key to this. The time and resource issues of FOI, compared with ‘instant’ PQs, cannot be easily overcome. FOI requests and their subsequent analysis takes much time, something that heavily effects FOI’s use by peers in the less professional and less well resourced House of Lords in particular. In New Zealand, it was the switch to a proportional voting system and a parliament with at least five political parties represented that saw FOI use increase as parliamentary competition did. Maybe an elected House of Lords could at least provide the competitive impetuous for wider use by peers. Though a cynic may say any increase in use by MPs will coincide when the tally of requests becomes another feature of They WorkForYou statistics…