Tuesday, 16 January 2007

New Labour backtracks on right to know

Just as the Prime Minister announces his 'data sharing' plans to help the state learn more about us, the Government is doing everything it can to stop us knowing too much about them.

Two years after introducing the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), ostensibly to shine a light on the workings of government, the era of openness has proved short-lived. In a matter of weeks, the law will be all but neutered with some delicate statutory surgery.

"The need-to-know culture has been replaced by a statutory right to know," proclaimed the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer (left), in January 2005, as he invited citizens to put their questions to government and public authorities across the country.

One year later, he hailed the law's early success and projected Britain as a beacon of democratic accountability. "The culture of secrecy in Whitehall - and beyond - is creaking open," he said.

Finding its right to rule in private threatened, the Government is seeking ways to limit freedom of information by stealth. At present, information requests from the public can be refused if the cost of finding the information exceeds a notional £600, equating to many hours of official research time. As most material is readily available, this expenditure cap is rarely invoked.

However, Government consultants have worked out that this let-out provides the perfect mechanism for a retreat from open government.

Under regulations set to come in this spring, the notional £600 limit will cover not only the time needed to find the information but also the time mandarins and ministers spend 'considering' whether an exemption applies and where the public interest lies. Which virtually rules out disclosure of any controversial information.

And it gets worse. A second new rule will effectively stop campaigners and journalists, for whom information is stock in trade, asking too much. The trick the consultants have come up with is to extend the £600 limit to any individual or organisations's requests over a three-month period. For instance, a newspaper would only be allowed £600 worth of official research and 'consideration' time in any three months.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, has protested that "the Government is taking a scythe to its own Act".

Officially the changes are being made in the name of 'efficiency'. Yet even the Government admits it will save only £12m. Contrast that with the £322m spent on PR and advertising last year in Whitehall. New Labour will pay to tell the people what it thinks they should know, not what they want to know.
Full article at The First Post:

Now compare that with what is being spent at no. 10 Downing Street

Blair seeks a butler as taxpayers' bill for running No 10

The cost of running 10 Downing Street has trebled under Tony Blair, according to official figures.
The bill to taxpayers of running the Prime Minister’s office has jumped from £6 million a year under John Major to £17.8 million for the past financial year, the figures show. Inflation over the period amounts to 26 per cent.

The number of staff working for the Prime Minister has nearly doubled since Mr Blair came to power, the staff costs have nearly quadrupled, and the cost of running his press office has nearly trebled. The bill for hospitality at Downing Street and Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence, has also nearly tripled since 1997. It emerged yesterday that Downing Street has advertised for a butler on a salary of £50,000 a year. Officially termed a “house manager”, the person appointed will run the Downing Street staff and make sure visitors, including heads of state and other VIPs, feel well cared for.

Critics say that the remarkable rise in No 10’s budget reflects Mr Blair’s increasingly presidential style of government, with power concentrated in a large central office capable of controlling other government departments.

The figures were compiled by Oliver Heald, the Shadow Constitutional Affairs Secretary, who obtained the information through a series of parliamentary questions and Freedom of Information requests.

Mr Heald said: “While Gordon Brown’s NHS cuts bite deep in local maternity services and A&Es, millions of pounds are spent on bankrolling Tony Blair’s vast entourage of staff and spin doctors. Not only is such proliferate expenditure a questionable use of taxpayers’ money, but such a presidential-style office undermines collective Cabinet government and our parliamentary democracy.”

The trebling of the cost of No 10 is partly a result of the rise in staff costs, from £3.4 million a year in 1997 to £11.8 million last year. The number of staff working for the Prime Minister has risen from 121 when Mr Blair came to power, to 216 last year.

Downing Street first advertised for a butler in September. The position has yet to be filled, possibly because anyone accepting the job is likely to lose it as soon as Mr Blair shortly departs Downing Street.

The Prime Minister’s hospitality and entertainment bill has risen from £50,126 for the last year of Mr Major’s premiership, to £160,278 for 2005, the latest figures available. The bill for the Prime Minister’s press officers has risen from £597,240 in 1997-98 to £1.6 million in 2006-07.
The Times Online: