The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

8:35am on Wednesday, 26th January, 2005:

Guilty Information


The Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into force on January 1st. Essex University, as a public body, has to comply with the act; I've already been told twice what to do if anyone from anywhere in the world requests any information of any kind from me (basically, I should pass on the request to someone else who knows what to do with it). It sounds to me as if there's great scope for DNS attacks here, with organised groups flooding selected public bodies with requests for useless facts that nevertheless have to be supplied within 28 days of receipt. Still, I don't design laws, what do I know?

Anyway, to the body of my rant...

The whole point of freedom of information is that it's, well, free. That means two things: you can't charge money to dig it out (although you can if it's applied for under the the Data Protection Act 1998, which affects non-public bodies as well as public ones); you can't keep it captive as if it's guilty of some crime.

In the run-up to the start date of the act, civil servants were beavering away ensuring that no documents existed that contained any information the government didn't want people to know ("not a shred of evidence"). Some stuff, though, they couldn't dispose of in this way. In particular, they couldn't pretend they no longer had copies of the legal advice they were given concerning the legitimacy of the war in Iraq, because then they would look completely incompetent. Thus, as soon as the Act came into play, 18 applications went in from newspapers and news agencies asking to see this advice. Today, we learn that the requests were turned down. Apparently, the advice is protected by a lawyer/client confidentiality get-out clause. It seems that the country as a whole is not the client of the Attorney General, nor is parliament, nor is cabinet. I guess only the Prime Minister is, and perhaps The Queen.

The government must know that the moment some other party gets elected it will publish the advice in full and with great publicity. Really, they just want to delay it until after the forthcoming general election, so we have 5 years to forget about it (assuming they win).

I hope the ombudsman, to whom the 18 have appealed, doesn't let the government get away with this.

Referenced by 31 and Counting.

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).