Democracy needs informed consumers

By Mick Mc Ateer

Senior Policy Advisor - Consumersí Association


Most of the public seem to switch off when they hear the words freedom of information, and ask Ďwhatís this got to do with me?í Itís been a huge challenge for CA trying to get the public to sit up and take notice of whatís going on. Freedom of information is one of the most important consumer issues but it has been difficult to turn it in to a consumer story that we can get across in soundbites. The Freedom of Information Bill that is currently going through parliament makes a mockery of, and undermines this governmentís claim to be the consumer champion.

So, what exactly is so important about freedom of information from the consumerís perspective? Itís like this.

The last decade or so has been littered with major consumer scandals Ė weíve seen BSE, GM foods, pensions mis-selling, transport disasters, consumer rip-offs just to name but a few. The one thing all these had in common was that by the time consumers found out what was wrong, it was too late.

Take the BSE scandal. If all the facts about BSE had been made public, the government of the day would have to enforce effective controls. Instead, 43 people have died so far, the beef ban cost the taxpayer £4 billion and consumersí confidence in the food industry has been destroyed. By the time the pensions mis-selling has been finally cleared up, it will have cost consumers and the financial services industry £10 billion.

Itís as simple as this - consumers and taxpayers pay the price when decisions are made behind closed doors.

No one is claiming that this government was responsible for those scandals but you would imagine the lessons would be there for all to learn. So itís all the more surprising to see a government that believes in consumers push through a Bill that protects powerful vested interests in industry, and central and local government Ė the same interests that cause major scandals in the first place.

In December 1997, the Cabinet Office published a White Paper, called Your Right to Know which lived up to its name and was universally welcomed by Consumersí Association and other groups that fight for consumers. We hoped that it heralded a radical open approach to government that recognised the public interest was as important as the vested interests in industry and government.

But then control of the legislation passed to the Home Office, and in May last year it published the draft Freedom of Information Bill.

Itís hard to convey just how disappointed we were when we saw the draft Bill. It overturned the general principle that information held by government and public authorities should be disclosed unless it could be proven that it was against the public interest. The Home Office built in so many exemptions and get-out clauses that a government or public sector official could easily find an excuse to withhold crucial information (this applies to central and local government, and regulators). But the most galling thing is that, given all the lessons of the past, the Government has incredibly dictated that huge swathes of information and research relating to government policy and regulation of consumer affairs will, in one way or another, be exempt from public scrutiny. We wonít even have the right to know if information exists. And information that Ďprejudicesí commercial interests is exempt, which could mean anything. No one is asking the government to publish everything but there should be some way of weighing up the public interest against other interests. We need a public interest override, yet the key Information Commissioner wonít have the power to compel disclosure if itís in the public interest.

What does all this mean? Well, the net effect is that if this Bill goes through unchallenged, disclosure will remain at the discretion of those who have most to hide. There is nothing in the Bill that will help us prevent similar scandals and rip-offs from happening again. We are concerned that all the following consumer issues could fall foul of this draft Bill in some way. GM foods, safety of medicines, transport accidents and safety (including the Channel Tunnel), privatised utilities disconnecting consumers, service standards, any financial scandals, financial exclusion, financial league tables, stopping price fixing, promoting competition and making markets work, performance indicators, private/ public partnerships, Private Finance Initiative, health service league tables, NHS rationing, suppression of unfavourable government sponsored opinion polls. The list goes on.

Is there anything good to say about it? Yes, it does give people a statutory right to some information. Yes, the Government wants schools to explain more clearly how they apply admission criteria. Yes, it wants health authorities to come clean about the allocation of resources and prioritisation waiting lists.

This is OK as far as it goes. But a couple of examples of transparency donít exactly add up to freedom of information. Information on the key areas that pose a risk to consumers' safety, health and financial well-being will be kept under wraps. This Freedom of Information Bill is not good enough. Far from enjoying the transparency promised by the Government when it came to power, the public will be fed information on a need-to-know basis Ė with the Government deciding who should know what.

Consumers need information if they are to weigh up the risks and make informed decisions or choices. And consumer champions such as Consumersí Association need information to compete on a level playing field, and to take on the powerful vested interests and heavyweight industry lobbies that pressurise and influence policy makers.

Real freedom of information would be a powerful help in uncovering scandals or preventing them getting out of control. This is surely better than hushing things up and then clearing up the mess afterwards.

But the benefits of FOI donít end there. Freedom of information would also do much to deliver improvements in the quality of decision making in the public sector and civil service that the Prime Minister is so keen to see. We deserve high standards from government and public bodies. We have to rely on, and trust, public servants and our elected representatives to make the right decisions that affect the quality of our everyday lives. Itís crucial that these institutions are open to scrutiny, and are held accountable and answer to the people they serve.

In many key areas, we have no choice but to use the services of public authorities and government departments. We have to rely on and trust public servants and elected representatives to make critical decisions on our behalf. However, what is often missing from the public sector are the external factors which force the pace of change and improvement, raise standards, and secure the chain of accountability. Managers in the private sector are faced with the threat of competition and the threat of losing business from dissatisfied customers. This concentrates the mind and is a powerful incentive to improve performance and raise standards.

In contrast, when we deal with a public sector organisation or government department we cannot take our business elsewhere. So itís critical that we have some other mechanism to ensure these organisations are held accountable and answer to the people they serve. In the absence of the principle of choice, it is all the more important we strengthen the principles of redress and access to information. Putting the business of government, both central and local, under the spotlight means officials have to take responsibility for their actions. It improves the quality of decision making in public life.

It is ironic that on the day the Commons Select Committee on Public Administration began its inquiry into the draft FOI bill, the BSE inquiry entered its second stage. This was not lost on the committeeís members.

Select committees from both Houses of Parliament published reports on the Bill in July. We were pleased to see that the Committeeís position on the overall principles in the Bill, and on specific clauses, very closely matched our own. The Government has hinted that it will concede on some clauses but not on the core principles, so the Bill is likely to fall well short of a position acceptable to consumers.

Weíve written to the Prime Minister and weíre still campaigning strongly even at this late stage to urge the a rethink of the Bill and a return to the principles of the White Paper. This is too important to let got without a fight. Other countries including the USA, Ireland and Australia have powerful FOI legislation and this hasnít interfered with the business of government. Discretionary disclosure is no substitute for freedom of information legislation that enshrines the principles of openness and transparency. The UK needs a Freedom of Information Act that is worthy of its name. This is a major constitutional issue that will impact on future administrations. We must take this opportunity to get it right.

There has been a lot of talk in the political columns recently Ďan irreversible shift in the balance of power to the peopleí and the Prime Ministerís determination to put consumers at the heart of government. But this will not, cannot, happen without a radical new approach to Government. The UKís citizens and consumers deserve to be treated like adults Ė a Government that wants to change how things are done should be radical enough to allow open debate about the big issues that affect our everyday lives.

Everyoneís a winner when you have true freedom of information, except for that is the vested interests in government and industry who donít want to see their failings exposed. The Prime Minister now has the chance to do the one thing more than any other that would fundamentally tilt the balance in favour of consumers. Power to the people is the rallying cry, but in todayís world, information is power. Democracy needs informed consumers.

We did a survey recently of over 1,000 adults. Some of the results included: 94 per cent of people believe that the public has a right to know all the information that might affect their choice, their decision making or their rights; government ministers were the least trusted group of people to release information in the public interest; nearly 8 out of 10 people thought that when the government is unsure if the facts it should nonetheless publish all the information it has available. In relation to the two main failings of the Bill: 85 per cent of people thought that the publicís right to know should outweigh the commercial interests of companies or public authorities; and only 2 per cent thought that government policy should be excluded from a freedom of information regime.

We believe there is a clear mandate for a decent Freedom of Information Act, and the results of the survey support that belief. But as I mentioned at the start, it has been difficult to make that connection between this demand for decent legislation and the failings of the current bill. We believe the Government is playing on the failure of groups like CA to make this a truly populist issue.

The Prime Minister has it in his power to give consumers and citizens real freedom of information.

But there we go again. It speaks volumes for the way weíve been brought up in the UK. Even now when Iím writing this article about something so fundamental to consumersí well-being and safety I feel that I have to ask politely for basic consumer rights instead of demanding them. So for a change, why donít we all demand whatís rightfully ours. We elect the Government, it answers to us. Itís our taxes that pay for the public sector and the civil service, they should serve us. Itís our information, itís our right to know.