Why pass FOI laws? The politics of freedom of information

Ben Worthy

Why are there now more than 100 freedom of information laws around the world, even though they help opponents and hinder governments? In a new book, published this month by Manchester University Press, Ben Worthy investigates. He concludes that the main reason is that as a symbolic pledge in opposition FOI laws are hard to resist. Once in power these promises are hard to back down from, though experience suggests that proposed laws are often watered down before being enacted. These findings are summarised here.

worthy-bookWhy don’t more politicians react to freedom of information (FOI) like Lyndon Johnson? Why don’t more of them run a mile when presented with the possibility of giving the public a legal right to ask for information from the government? When the idea of an FOI law was suggested to Johnson in 1966 by a fellow Democrat Congressman the US President responded, after some swearing, ‘I thought you were on my side?’ As his Press Secretary explained:

LBJ… hated the very idea of the Freedom of Information Act; hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets and opening government files; hated them challenging the official view of reality.

For any budding politician, FOI appears to be the ultimate political boomerang. It helps your opponents. It hinders you.

To make FOI laws even less appealing, there are no votes in them. Merlyn Rees, a Home Secretary who fought hard against an FOI law in the 1970s, once exclaimed that ‘the Guardian can go on for as long as it likes about open government… but I can tell you that in my own constituency of 75,000 electors I would be hard pressed to find many who would be interested’. Only in India, where the Right to information Act was part of an anti-corruption campaign, have FOI laws responded to broad public enthusiasm. So how is it that there are now more than 100 FOI laws around the world?

The question is really why would a politician support FOI in the first place? Sometimes they believe in openness and sometimes leaders who don’t believe in it have it forced upon them, as Theresa May has discovered over Brexit. Other times it is for pure advantage, because a scandal makes it hard to avoid (as in Ireland), so a politician can ensure that they get information in the future or because it has promised FOI as part of a coalition deal (as in India). It is also about context. Often FOI laws are pushed through when there is lots of other constitutional or legal change going on. Across the world, as Rick Snell points out, organised groups and enthusiastic individuals, often ‘outsiders’, push for an FOI law when other key people are distracted or looking the other way.

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Monitor 65: Testing constitutional times

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, has been published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period that has included the High Court and Supreme Court rulings in the Article 50 case, the unveiling of Theresa May’s Brexit plan and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, plus much else besides. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link

monitor-65-coverPolitics remains fast-moving. Its unexpected turns have raised fundamental questions about the constitutional order, in the UK and beyond – including the rightful place of voters, elected legislators, governments and judges in political decision-making – as well as the media’s role in questioning those decisions.

Here, Brexit remains the dominant preoccupation. The previous issue of Monitor reported how ‘ministers have repeatedly insisted that they are in charge of the Brexit negotiations and that to reveal their hand to parliament in advance would weaken their negotiating position’. A lot has changed since then.

Following rulings by the High Court on 3 November, and Supreme Court on 24 January, ministers had to accept that they require parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50; at the time of writing, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill has now passed through the Commons and awaits scrutiny in the Lords (see page 3). Even before the bill’s introduction, the government had conceded (in December) that its Brexit plan would be published prior to triggering Article 50, and (in January) that this would include a white paper – commitments necessary in order to see off potential Commons defeats. With help from the courts, parliament has rediscovered some of its teeth.

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The process of Brexit: what comes next?

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In a new report published jointly by the Constitution Unit and the UCL European Institute, Alan Renwick examines what the process of Brexit is likely to look like over the coming weeks, months, and years. Here he summarises five key lessons.

wp2_arenwick_front_coverThe phoney war around Brexit is almost over. For months, two immediate questions have dominated discussions: How can Article 50 be triggered? And what sort of deal will ministers seek? The Supreme Court’s ruling on 24 January answered the first question. We know much more now about the second through Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech and last Thursday’s white paper. The Article 50 bill is being debate in parliament. By the end of March – if the government gets its way – we will be entering a new phase in the process.

The question is: What comes next? Can the government deliver on its wish list? Can parliament provide effective scrutiny?  Will the courts intervene again? How is Brexit likely to play in the devolved nations? Is a second referendum at all likely?

In a new report, I offer answers to these and related questions. Here I summarise five key points.

1/ The UK government is very unlikely to get what it says it wants.

The government has set out highly ambitious goals. It wants not just a divorce agreement, but also a complex, deep, and bespoke deal on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, encompassing a comprehensive free trade agreement, a novel form of customs association, and ongoing cooperation in areas including policing, security, and research. Furthermore, it wants all of this to be both negotiated and ratified within two years.

Whether such a deal will emerge is impossible to say; but achieving it within two years certainly looks very unlikely. First, EU leaders (so far at least) have said they will not negotiate on these terms. Rather, they initially want a divorce deal only; once that has been negotiated, they propose a transitional period that preserves many features of EU membership while detailed negotiations on future relations are conducted. Thus, the first round of the negotiations will be a discussion of what the negotiations are actually about.

Second, even if the UK government gets its way in this opening round, the negotiations thereafter will be immensely complex and difficult. They will range across most policy areas. Not only will the UK be negotiating with the EU: in addition, there will be intense negotiations among the twenty-seven remaining member states and between the European Council, European Commission, and European Parliament. Whitehall’s resources for all of this are very tight, and experienced negotiators with relevant expertise are thin on the ground.

Third, a deal such as the Prime Minister proposes will have to be agreed by the European Parliament and ratified by every member state. As the troubles faced in the Walloon parliament by the Canadian free trade agreement show, there is no guarantee that ratification will be smooth. Indeed, in some countries ratification could be subject to a citizen-initiated referendum, as occurred in the Netherlands last April for the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement.

If no deal has been done and ratified within two years, the UK government will have three main options: press for an extension to the negotiation window (which would require unanimous agreement of the member states); accept the EU’s proposed transition phase; or decide that the UK is leaving without any deal. Ardent Brexiteers dislike the first two options. But most observers think the hard and disorderly Brexit implied by the third entirely unpalatable. A government that pursued it could well be forced from office, triggering deep political turmoil.

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The latest special adviser data release: political control trumps technocratic measures of effectiveness

benjamin_yonghamish In December the government published its latest list of special advisers, revealing a small reduction in numbers under Theresa May compared to David Cameron’s 2015 government, with the reduction falling mostly on departments rather than the centre. In this post Ben Yong and Harmish Mehta examine the new list. They argue that by reducing the number of special advisers in departments Prime Minister May has prioritised political control over technocratic measures of effectiveness.

When Theresa May first became Prime Minister there were a number of reports (including in The Times, The Telegraph and Civil Service World) that she had insisted on a cap on the salaries of special advisers (spads) – which in effect would limit both the number and quality of spads appointed. This cap, the reports said, would deter good people from entering government. How true are these claims?

Just before Christmas, the government made its annual data release, setting out the number of spads and how they are distributed across government. There are now 83 spads in government; down from 95 under Cameron’s 2015 government, according to the data release. The centre (broadly defined as No. 10 and the Cabinet Office) has ‘lost’ just one spad; the key Whitehall departments have lost eleven (most significantly from the merging of BIS and DECC into BEIS; and in the Treasury). So there has been a drop in numbers, but this has fallen mostly on departments, not the centre. There has been the usual grumble about salaries and cost, but that is standard fare.

The bigger question is what all this says about May’s government, and more generally, British government. In popular parlance, spads are regarded as a waste of money and at worst, a pernicious breed of quasi-politicians. Within Westminster and Whitehall, however, they have long been accepted as part of British government. Spads are people the minister can completely trust, in a lonely and difficult role; they provide political advice of a kind that career civil servants often cannot; they can help coordinate government. It is this latter view of spads which informs some criticisms of May’s policy on spads (see The Spectator and The Telegraph). Limiting the number of spads and the kind of spads via a salary cap means limiting government effectiveness.

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The Grimstone proposals to reform the public appointments process are a step in the wrong direction

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Earlier this year the government published Sir Gerry Grimstone’s report on public appointments, proposing a dismantling of the Nolan system of regulation that has been in place since 1995. Sir David Normington, whose term as Commissioner for Public Appointments ended shortly after the publication of the Grimstone report, has been an outspoken critic of the proposals. At a Constitution Unit seminar on 8 December he explained why he believes they represent a step in the wrong direction. This post is adapted from his speech.

Ministers make on average over 2,000 appointments each year to boards of about 300 public bodies and statutory offices. The bodies touch every aspect of our lives. They include regulators like the boards of Ofcom and Ofwat; inspectors, like the Chief Inspectors of Schools, Police, Probation and Prisons; funders like the Arts Council and the Big Lottery Fund; advisory bodies like the Committee on Climate Change; and a multitude of executive bodies, like NHS trusts, national parks, museums and galleries.

It matters who fills these roles. The boards themselves need to comprise well-functioning teams of skilled people from diverse backgrounds who can command public confidence. At the same time these are ministerial appointments and it is essential that those appointed are willing to work within, and not against, the framework of the policy that the government of the day has set down.

There is, however, a balance to be struck between ministers’ right to appoint and independent oversight and regulation. Think of it as a spectrum. At one end ministers have almost complete freedom to make appointments as they think fit. At the other, appointments are handed over to an independent body and ministers forego their powers to appoint altogether. Over nearly 30 years policy and practice has flowed to and fro across this spectrum; and so have the arguments about where to draw the line.

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The Codes of the Constitution: how the the UK constitution has been expressed in writing over the past century

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Over the past century there has been an enormous growth in the number of publicly available codes providing accounts of various constitutional rules and principles. In a new book Andrew Blick explores this phenomenon and its implications for the UK constitution. He offers an overview here.

Towards the end of this year the Cabinet Office marks its hundredth anniversary. This institution traces its origins to the secretariat David Lloyd George attached to the war cabinet he formed upon becoming Prime Minister in December 1916. Accounts of this administrative innovation tend to focus on its making possible the proper recording and circulation of the decisions of cabinet and its sub-committees. But the instigation of the war cabinet secretariat also prompted another process that has, in the intervening century, become a prominent feature of arrangements for the governance of the UK. It is the subject of my new book, The Codes of the Constitution.

9781849466813In January 1917, the Secretary to the War Cabinet, Maurice Hankey, produced a document entitled Rules of Procedure, circulating it to government ministers. Its ten paragraphs contained a series of stipulations about the operation of the War Cabinet and the implementation of the conclusions it reached. Rules of Procedure was probably the first example of a genre of official texts setting out official accounts of the principles, rules and practices of the UK governmental system. Having passed through a series of transitions Rules of Procedure remains with us today as the Ministerial Code, the latest version of which was published in October 2015. In 31 pages this informs ministers about a range of issues from their participation in cabinet, to their making of appointments, to their relations with their departments, the civil service and parliament, to their political and private business, to their media relations, and even their travel arrangements.

Since 1917, numerous other codes have appeared – so many that no one public official could possibly be familiar with the existence, let alone the content, of all of them. Such was the scale of growth that, in 2000, the Cabinet Office saw a need to codify codification itself, issuing a two-volume Directory of Civil Service Guidance, a compilation of existing texts either in full or summarised form. The Cabinet Office has been a key producer of these documents; and the Treasury has also made significant contributions, through documents such as Managing Public Money. The existence of a unified permanent civil service, which properly came into being shortly after the First World War, has also been a general driver of codification.

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Monitor 64: Brexit and the transformation of British politics

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, has been published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period of major political and constitutional upheaval following the EU referendum result on 23 June. Unsurprisingly Brexit and its implications feature prominently. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link

The months since the previous issue of Monitor was published on 9 June have been the most dramatic in post-war UK political history. The unexpected victory for Leave in the referendum on the UK’s EU membership sent shockwaves throughout the political system.

Within three weeks of that vote, David Cameron had left Downing Street and been replaced as Prime Minister by Theresa May. Three quarters of Labour MPs had voted no confidence in their leader, Jeremonitor-octobermy Corbyn – and yet he sat tight, in open defiance of the traditional norms of parliamentary democracy. UKIP and the Green Party had both also entered leadership contests. Nicola Sturgeon had declared that a second referendum on Scottish independence was now ‘highly likely’.

Much of this issue of Monitor deals with the aftermath of the Brexit vote, including its implications for Westminster (see pages 2–3), Whitehall (page 6), the devolved administrations (page 10–11) and the EU (page 13). We also explore ongoing debates regarding the conduct of the referendum itself (pages 7–8). This introduction draws out five major constitutional themes.

First, the referendum and its aftermath demonstrate that popular sovereignty, not parliamentary sovereignty, is now the central principle of the UK constitution. The doctrine that parliament is the ultimate sovereign power in the UK (or, at least, in England – Scottish nationalists discern a different heritage north of the border) was asserted by the nineteenth-century constitutional theorist A. V. Dicey. The emergence of referendums since the 1970s had eroded that principle. The referendum in June, however, was the first in which the popular vote went against the clear will of the majority in the House of Commons. That most MPs feel bound to accept that decision shows where ultimate power in UK politics actually lies. There has been great debate over the summer as to whether parliamentary approval is needed to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin formal talks on Brexit (see page 12). But this has been something of a sideshow: even if the courts deem that parliament’s consent is needed, it is all but certain to be granted.

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