A Tax on Information

Government agencies are making us pay throught the nose for our right to know

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 1st October 1997.

There has been a curious omission from the Labour Party conference. Among the tens of thousands of words devoted to education, health, even, surprisingly, the environment, scarcely a breath has been spared for one of Labour’s central legislative reforms: a freedom of information act.

The optimistic interpretation of this absence is that nothing more needs be said, as freedom of information is already on its way. In December, the government will publish a White Paper. A few months later, it will draft a bill. Why debate a done deal?

There seem to me to be several good reasons. None of the fundamental questions which the impending legislation raises have yet been answered. Aside from a few chilling remarks by Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson about “necessary restrictions”, we have no idea what the scope of the White Paper will be. We don’t yet know whether or not local authorities and the remaining nationalized industries (such as British Nuclear Fuels) will be covered by the act. Will ministers still be allowed to sign public interest immunity certificates? Will the legislation be enforced by the courts or by select committee?

Perhaps most disturbingly, no one in government is talking about what, precisely, freedom means. As campaigners are beginning to discover, availability of information does not necessarily equate to accessibility. For the most extraordinary charges are now being levied for information to which we are legally entitled. They amount to what the consultant Paul Mobbs has dubbed an “information tax”: a significant, often crippling, disincentive to collect what belongs to us already.

Local authorities explain the money they demand for information as “photocopy charges”. Some of them clearly need to change their office suppliers. Carmarthenshire County Council now charges local people up to two pounds a sheet for planning applications that will tell them whether or not the new quarries disfiguring their valleys are lawful. Hertsmere District Council informs objectors that it will cost them £7 a sheet to copy pages documenting the deals it has struck with developers. Sandwell Borough Council in Birmingham has asked campaigners for £250 to copy 29 pages listing the polluting activities it claims to have banned.

As the Campaign for Freedom of Information has shown, government departments tend to employ more inventive means of pricing inconvenient information out of the market. Last year, for example, the Ministry for Amalgamating Fact and Fiction announced that 26 rendering or incineration plants were breaking the laws introduced to eliminate BSE. The campaigner Alan Watson wrote to MAFF, asking which plants these were. After three months, MAFF replied that listing the 26 names and addresses would incur an “administration charge” of £1293, while a legal opinion about whether or not it could release this information would cost a further £5195. Watson pointed out that this was rather more than the offending companies had been fined.

The most audacious shyster of all is the agency which holds the information in which there is the most pressing public interest: the Health and Safety Executive. In 1994, it told Hazards Magazine that compiling a list of its actions against premises breaking the Health and Safety at Work Act would cost £266,000. Even more astonishing than the price was the implication that the HSE did not already possess this information.

Indeed, in some cases this information tax would be better dubbed an incompetence tax: people’s requests often expose the utter disorganization of government departments, which should, in theory, simply be able to download a file or, better still, refer supplicants to a website. When Transport 2000 wanted to know how the government’s local transport budget had been spent, the Department of Transport charged it £600 for the information it needed. It later asked to see the pressure group’s analysis, as it hadn’t done one of its own.

We would be naive to assume that a Freedom of Information Act will necessarily address these impositions. Neither the Open Government Code of Practice nor the Local Government (Access to Information) Act have prevented those who regard an educated population as a dangerous one from charging us for the exercise of our rights. Other proposed rights legislation suggests that, if anything, we should expect an increase in the price of freedom. A fortnight ago, Michael Meacher, the environment minister, said landowners would be able to exact payment from people enjoying the forthcoming right to roam in the countryside. The best things in life will be charged at the going rate.

If, as we are told, the inequality of the future will develop around the gulf between the information rich and the information poor, then there can be little doubt – unless this oppressive tax is scrapped – that those already living on the wrong side of the tracks will stay there. Access to information will begin to look rather like access to the law.