Labour has cranked up the pressure on David Cameron to shelve his review of freedom of information laws after accusing the Prime Minister of trying to “govern from the shadows.,”
Earlier this week, The Sun reported that the government was set to abandon its plans to water-down the FoI Act, revealing that it had not submitted any evidence to the commission it set up to review the legislation.
But there has as yet been no such announcement from minsters and Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson has now sought to turn up the heat on the government over the issue.
In a speech in London, he promised that a Labour government would extend, not scrap FoI, giving citizens access to policy-making processes “at every level.”
Mr Watson said: “I am calling on David Cameron today to abandon the review. It doesn’t have the support of the public. It is opposed by many of the organisations that are covered by FoI. It has been condemned by the Information Commissioner and slammed by a former head of the civil service. It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.
“The Freedom of Information Act works well. Labour would strengthen and extend it. A future Labour government must provide citizens access to, and influence on, policy-making processes at every level.”
Mr Cameron was heading a “fundamentally illiberal” Government which had abused its power “as none has ever done before”, Mr Watson said.
He cited Government moves to limit unions’ powers to call strikes, slash state funding for opposition parties, strip the House of Lords of the power to block secondary legislation, give security agencies snooping powers without judicial oversight and re-write the Ministerial Code to remove references to international law and treaty obligations.
The Government’s efforts to avoid scrutiny were highlighted yesterday, when more than 400 official documents were released almost simultaneously as the House of Commons broke up for the Christmas recess in what he described as “David Cameron’s ‘take out the trash’ day”, he said.
Mr Watson added: “By publishing 36 written ministerial statements and 424 government documents in one day, they hoped that hard-pressed lobby journalists would miss the revelation that three-quarters of those affected by bedroom tax have cut back on food, according to the Department for Work and Pensions, that there has been a 45pc rise in the number of homeless families living in emergency B&Bs, and that the Government has lost contact with 10,000 asylum seekers.”
He accused Mr Cameron of “the arrogance of power” and said Conservatives were actively trying to limit accountability “wherever they can”.
“At every turn, they shrink from the light of transparency and retreat into the shadows,” he said.
Former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake last week dismissed claims that the FoI Act had a “chilling effect” on civil servants, insisting that the greater challenge to Whitehall’s operations was the “routine” leaking of information by special advisers and ministers.
The Commission, set up by Mr Cameron to review the FoI Act’s operation – its members include former home secretaries Jack Straw and Lord Howard – has come under fire for not having any freedom of information campaigners among its number.
In his speech Mr Watson said he was initially “quite excited” by Mr Cameron’s promise of a “new age of transparency” in 2010, but added that “they have kind of put that into reverse gear” since taking office.
The Labour deputy leader said there was a culture of secrecy in some areas of governance, including in local councils.
“Some of the best councillors I know, some of whom are cabinet members of local authorities, actually use the Freedom of Information Act to find out what’s going on in their own authorities,” he said.
“It does say something about the culture in local authorities when elected representatives feel they have to use the Freedom of Information Act to find out what’s going on.”