News 8th March 2024

Dr Ben Worthy | Is the UK More open?

by Guest

From one point of view, the UK has been through an openness revolution.

We take all this data for granted in 2024 but it’s important to remember what a difference it makes. If you wanted to find out, it was quite difficult. To take a very basic measure of democracy, if you wanted to find out about a vote in Parliament in 1995, it was almost the same as in 1885. You needed to either procure a (paper) copy of Hansard, ransack a local library or hope the results had been published in a newspaper.

And if you wanted to find out about what your government or local council was doing? You could ask of course but you had no right. In the 1990s you could even try using John Major’s Code of Access, though when I mentioned this to an official they laughed and said WHAT?

The UK’s long road to openness

The UK has been on a long road to openness. Some of this has come from laws and government reforms. You can access local government meetings since the early 1900s, and see documents from the 1970s. Other bits and pieces have opened up gradually, from medical records to privacy issues.

Access  to information was then made more systematic and wide ranging in the 1990s, mainly through the Freedom of Information (FOI) laws in the UK and Scotland, which from 2005 allowed citizens to request information from public bodies as a legal right. The UK Act covered more than 100,000 public bodies including all of local government down to the level of Parish.

FOI was then followed by a second wave of Open Data reforms from 2010 onwards, which aim to publish ‘government data in a reusable form’. A suite of initiatives were pushed by the Coalition government, from the publication of contracts to spending data. One particular world leader was around Beneficial Ownership, so we could see, at the push of a button, who really owned what company.

More recently, outside of government, there has been an explosion of sites and platforms that open up new areas. Mostly famously is mySociety’s sites TheyWorkForYou (of MPs’ voting records) or WhatDoTheyKnow (that helps with FOI requests) but there are now a whole range of others, from the new Westminster Accounts, which allows you to see MPs’ interests and donations, to (my personal favourite) this Twitter bot that tells you every time someone with a Westminster IP address changes a Wikipedia page (of which there were 5000 edits between 2003 and 2014).

Has all this openness worked?

There are plenty of signs, as FOI and openness now approaches 25 years, that it’s working. One sign is that it is being used. To take FOI, in 2022 more than 52,000 requests were made to central government departments, and you can estimate at least twice or three times as many go to local government. TheyWorkForYou has around 200,000 users per week.

Another sign is that different people find it useful. Despite the complaints of some politicians, FOI isn’t simply a ‘lazy’ tool for armchair critics. The law is being used by a wide variety of people and groups, from citizens themselves to local and national journalists and campaigners. Even a few politicians have used it – when Iain Duncan Smith became a minister in 2010, he found a set of FOI requests on his desk, waiting to be answered, from one Iain Duncan Smith.

The information is having an important democratic effect, often locally. Beyond the headlines, as I’ve said before, most requests and data are for things that matter about people’s everyday lives: potholes, planning decisions and pedestrianisation. You can see FOI stories in local newspapers about everything from council house waiting lists, to legal fees, to the 14 Liverpool councillors who had had parking fines cancelled through a ‘back door’. Probably the biggest stories are when the law is used to get local restaurant hygiene reports, which lead to the famous ‘scores on the doors’ stickers we see.

So we can see all this new transparency has opened up, exposed and shone a light on politics. We now know more about everything from nuclear convoys to MPs’ expenses. Tony Blair’s complaints in his memoirs, that he regretted creating the law and was a “nincompoop” for passing it, are maybe a sign it’s doing its job and making life uncomfortable for politicians.

Can it go further, and stop politicians and others behaving badly in the first place? This can be hard to answer, as it’s about proving something didn’t happen. But we can signs of transparency laws doing what they should do. Looking at Beneficial Ownership, one study found that it reduced companies in tax havens investing in offshore property, with a ‘sales…decline over time, leading to an effective stalling of the property market between offshore companies based in havens’.

Causes for concern…

One of the problems is that transparency can only work if politicians support it. And here is the rub.

The difficulty is that the combination of lack of money and lack of enthusiasm can have very real, negative consequences. FOI requests are delayed, data aren’t published, questions not answered. In 2005 when the FOI Act came into force you had a 75%, chance of getting a full answer for your request from central government. Now it’s around one in two – just 50%. John Edwards, the UK information commissioner, has warned that “information delayed is information denied” – and the risk is that this could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The danger is that FOI grinds to halt, and all the democratic benefits that go with it are lost.

Having strong FOI laws and data flows doesn’t stop politicians and governments from trying their best to stop it revealing things. While government-wide, systematic resistance is rare, there are examples of it, often at very high levels. There are numerous strategies that politicians can use to avoid public scrutiny. The danger is that, while FOI goes from strength to strength with the public, behind closed doors politicians will ‘hide’, ‘fight’ and ‘undermine’.


Dr Ben Worthy is a UK OGN committee member and Lecturer in Politics School at Birkbeck, University of London.