Shining a light or keeping us in the dark?

Letting the light shine out

When it comes to FOI and Parliament, a bit of both really, though more of the latter than you’d expect: that’s the conclusion from our report on the impact of FOI on Parliament, published today. (The two year study also looked at the use parliamentarians have made of the Act, covered in a previous blog post here).

Our main findings are:

  • The focus of FOI requests has always been on the House of Commons, and on MPs (much less so on the Lords)
  • Parliament has released much corporate material about itself through FOI, in contrast to assertions that it is a secretive organisation

Freedom of Information legislation was not originally intended to cover Parliament, but the Act’s greatest impact has been on its oldest institution.

No one expected some of the most important case law around FOI and personal data would come from Parliament, but it did. MPs thought Parliament was open, and it was (and is continuing to get more open). But they didn’t see the collective blind-spot that was the Additional Costs Allowance (expenses) system. The MPs expenses scandal is a classic case of FOI searching out secrecy while the rest of an organisation is open.

So can FOI achieve its democratic goals in an institution like Parliament? MPs divided into competing teams, where officials may be subordinated, where every move covered by an increasingly vociferous press, many decisions protected by Parliamentary Privilege?

We think yes, at least regarding FOI’s main goals of increasing transparency and accountability. While most requests have focussed on individuals of Parliament, both Houses have revealed ‘corporate’ information previously not public through FOI and have had this publicised via the media. Topics include CO2 emissions of its buildings, policies relating to pest control, the costs of construction of the Visitors Centre and the use of parliamentary facilities by outside organisations. Parliamentary Privilege has protected the things that should be protected, and not protected those things that shouldn’t.

FOI has prompted organisational change too: Since last year, MPs and peers have to be domiciled for tax purposes to remain in either House, and is the only way non-bishop peers have been able to leave the House of Lords (apart from death). This is because Lord Ashcroft’s non-dom tax arrangements were revealed through FOI. MPs can’t run up large tabs at parliamentary restaurants anymore, after an FOI request revealed some owed thousands for months.

Most officials and parliamentarians we spoke to (we interviewed 46 people for this project) agreed  that FOI has made Parliament more transparent and accountable albeit for matters that some consider minor or narrow. But the influence of the media means FOI’s other goals like increasing trust or public understanding are difficult to achieve, and may even be negatively impacted. We found many negative headlines when we sampled press stories about Parliament, even when Parliament had handed over information through FOI without fuss or delay.

But the Commons has learned a ‘bunker’ mentality towards FOI isn’t the way to go. The House of Commons Commission agreed last year to begin to publish its own papers and agendas proactively, reversing decades of secrecy. The lessons from the expenses scandal are being learned, and we know more about Parliament and its people today than ever before, in part because of FOI. Its been another step in the openness process Parliament has gone through since the first publication of Hansard in the 19 century. What’s left to find out…?

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