The right to know is under constant attack from government. Freedom of information (FOI) disclosures have highlighted the UK’s lack of preparedness for the Covid-19 pandemic, the dangers of ‘smart’ motorways, and guidance which could lead to people being tortured overseas. But ministers resist FOI by obstructing requests and trying to exclude new bodies from FOI altogether.
The CFOI has been fighting for the public’s right to know since 1984. It was key to getting the Freedom of Information Act passed in 2000 and have helped thousands of campaigners, journalists and ordinary citizens make FOI requests and challenge unreasonable refusals to release information.
The CFOI now urgently needs support to help make up a serious shortfall in its funding so it can continue to campaign for FOI and help people exercise their right to know.
The CFOI is a small, not-for profit organisation, specialising in FOI. It constantly scrutinises new laws which might restrict the right to know. It has have helped fight off repeated government attempts to sabotage FOI and we train people in using the Act.
During the pandemic billions of pounds of contracts were awarded to businesses in secret without proper scrutiny.
Now with three new laws (see below) going through Parliament threatening to water down your power to hold public bodies to account, the CFOI’s work has never been more important.
Why FOI is crucial
The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to ask for any recorded information held by a government department, local council, NHS trust, police force or other public body.
You can see the results in the daily stream of media reports based on FOI disclosures:
- A 2005 blueprint for responding to a hypothetical coronavirus outbreak from China proposed most of the measures which have now belatedly been adopted. The ‘lost’ plan was obtained under FOI but had not seen by scientists advising on the current pandemic. One former adviser said if acted on it could have saved ‘tens of thousands of lives’.
- The report of a confidential 2016 assessment of the UK’s plans for responding to a flu pandemic found that they were ‘not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic’.
- Emails from a friend of Matt Hancock, then the health secretary, seeking a pandemic contract show him complaining to Mr Hancock that bidders were being asked to show they had experience in making the products they were bidding for.
- The computer system used to protect motorists breaking down on ‘smart’ motorways with no hard shoulder crashed three times in four days in April 2021. The electronic signals used to close lanes with a stranded vehicles could not be operated, affecting hundreds of miles of motorway with potentially lethal consequences.
- Confidential Ministry of Defence guidance revealed that ministers could approve sharing intelligence with foreign governments even when it was likely to result in detainees being tortured. Torture is prohibited under UK and international law and the government’s published guidance said ‘we do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment for any purpose.’
Current threats include:
- The Health Service Safety Investigations Body is being set up to investigate and help prevent serious patient safety incidents but would be banned from disclosing any information under the FOI Act or passing information to a Parliamentary select committee. It would be a criminal offence for a whistleblower to disclose information about its work. Read our briefing for MPs.
- A new funding body to promote ‘high risk, high reward’ research, with a budget of £800m over four years, will be excluded from FOI altogether under the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill. Read about our campaign here.
- Home Office proposals to revise the Official Secrets Act will make it easier to convict those who disclose information without authority and substantially increase prison sentences for convicted whistleblowers or journalists. Amazingly, it says the maximum penalty for leaking should be the same as that for espionage.
CFOI is also working to:
- Close the FOI loophole that prevents the public finding out about public services delivered by contractors.
- Ensure that time limits for responding to FOI requests are rigorously enforced.
Please donate to help us carry on fighting for the right to know.
Donations can be made here.