Why we need the Freedom of Information Act

Although people sometimes assume that Nuclear Information Service obtains its information about the UK's nuclear weapons from moles, spies, and insider sources, the reality is far less exciting.  One of the most important routes through which we obtain information is by asking for it directly from the Ministry of Defence and other government bodies using the powers of the Freedom of Information Act.

There's a great example of the importance of the Freedom of Information Act in today's Basingstoke Gazette.   Using the Act, local journalist Helen Morton asked the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service for a list of incidents at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) for which the fire service had been called out (available to download below).  The answer revealed that over the period from April 2000 to August 2011 the fire service was notified of well over 2000 incidents at the sites where the UK's nuclear weapons are made – more than three notifications each week on average.  Although most of the call outs were for false alarms or trivial incidents, the list also included some very serious incidents, including the discovery of unexploded ordnance and personnel being overcome by chemical fumes.

The fire service records make a vivid contrast to the information published by AWE.  The company's two page Environment, Safety, and Health reports, hidden away in an obscure corner of the AWE website, report in detail on plans to manage safety but give minimal information on performance.  At the time of writing (2 February 2012) the most recent report on the website covers the period February – April 2011.

People have a right to know about the risks they face as a result of government decisions and activities, but government bodies are rarely keen to talk frankly about such matters.  This is why we need a Freedom of Information Act – so that citizens can have access to the bare facts for themselves without any spin and so that they can know what the government would prefer not to tell them.

The Freedom of Information Act has been spectacularly successful in shining a light into some of the murkier recesses of government and although it has been embraced by the majority of government staff and organisations there is still a reluctant hard core who grudge the scrutiny of their activities that the Act provides and are happy to fuel tabloid newspaper stories and urban myths about the costs of replying to requests for information and the trivial nature of some requests.

Nearly twelve years after the Act was granted Royal Assent, Parliament has decided to review its success and the House of Commons Justice Select Committee is about to conduct an investigation into how well it has worked.  The government's case has been spearheaded by the Ministry of Justice, which has produced a detailed report on the operation of the Freedom of Information Act.  Although the report makes some important points it has been written by civil servants and, not surprisingly, takes a civil  service view of the Act and the task of administering it.

Nuclear Information Service is one of a large number of civil society organisations which have also written to the Select Committee with evidence about our experiences of using the Freedom of Information Act.  We've told the Committee about how we've used the powers in the Act, our frustrations with its slow and cumbersome appeal processes, and out disappointment at the Information Commissioner's lacklustre approach to regulating Freedom of Information legislation.  We've also highlighted some of the areas of the Act which are in need of reform and how the Act could be extended to make an even broader range of public functions more accountable.  Our conclusion: the Freedom of Information Act has been a whopping success and there are no grounds for reining in its powers.  It'll be a bleak day for public accountability in this country if the Select Committee decide otherwise.

Download Nuclear Information Service's evidence to the Justice Select Committee and the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service list of incidents at AWE here: