Information rights blog: Access to Information in Turbulent Times

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Information rights blog: Access to Information in Turbulent Times

Colleagues from the ICO’s access to information and compliance department share their experiences and involvement in raising awareness of our regulation of access to information legislation.

Access to Information in Turbulent Times

This is the first in a series of blog posts covering our regulation of access to information legislation. The first post is by Gill Bull, ICO’s Director of Freedom of Information Complaints and Compliance, who delivered the 2019 Bond Lecture at the British Records Association on 13 November 2019.

Last week, I was delighted to present the annual Maurice Bond lecture for the British Records Association at the Paul Mellon Centre in London. Maurice Bond was Clerk of the Records for the House of Lords Record Office from 1946-1981 and he is regarded as one of the most innovative and influential archival figures of the post-war period.

I wanted to use the lecture to reflect on the many intersections between the work of archivists and access to information within the context of ‘everyday FOI’. I also wanted to take a step back and reflect on how issues of trust and trustworthiness and the current public debate about the notion of kindness in public policy, relate to access to information. 

And of course I began by challenging the view that access to information can be seen as a dry topic and one that is principally about systems. For me, this is about people. And rather than being just about the past, it is as much about the future. I spoke about the role that access to information has in creating trust and in democracy itself and quoted UNESCO’s Guy Berger who described access to information as an issue that “goes with the grain of history”.

I spoke about the ICO’s call for contractors carrying out public services to be held accountable under the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations. The law has not kept pace with the way services are provided or with public expectations. Next year, 2020 will be the fifteenth year since the legislation came into force. It is inevitable that the environment in which the legislation operates has changed.

People must be able to feel that outsourced services are trustworthy. FOI can shine a spotlight and create the conditions for where it is reasonable for us to place our trust. It stands to reason that where that spotlight is not allowed to shine, trust is less likely to follow.

I questioned whether we need to develop some new framing for access to information rights. The information we hold as organisations isn’t ours. If we’re a public authority, it’s the public’s information and while there will always be a request and receive aspect of access to information rights, I queried whether we need to start talking about a more fundamental duty to provide information. 

The full text of the lecture is available here, and it will also be published in the British Records Association journal.

Gill Bull is Director of Freedom of Information Complaints and Compliance at the Information Commissioner’s Office where she is responsible for the ICO’s Freedom of Information and Environmental Information casework and compliance.


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