Why We Need Real Freedom of Information

The place to wonder and muse

Today we hear that the government has come up with a brilliant new scheme: charge drivers for driving on the roads.

Not clearly, the same as charging people to own a car, and thereby defraying the cost of maintaining the British road network. No, this way actual usage of the roads would be chargeable, which must be a good, climate-aware concept.

Many years ago my brother took a job in the US. He must have had a terrible time: enjoying hotter summers, colder winters, making good money, living in a house that was, apparently, lovely (I couldn’t afford to visit him) and generally making the best of a different culture and way of life.

That's him, there

That's him, there. Behind the map.

One thing in particular delighted him, though: the whole concept of freedom of information.

Over in the UK, we have a Freedom of Information bill, and it works really well – in some cases. Provided the government hasn’t declared the matter to be a matter of national security, or something that is commercially confidential, many things can be learned.

Ah, but that’s not how it is in the US.

While my brother was wandering the streets looking for clients for his services managing pension funds, he learned of some US government pensions he should learn about. So he called and enquired about them: how much they cost, who managed them, anything he could in order to get a handle on the accounts and see whether he could win them for his own business.

The clerk on the other end of the line agreed to his requests, and then asked if he wanted to see past tender documents, too.

He said, yes, that would be helpful and sat back to wait for the documents to arrive. And when they did, he felt his heart sing. Because all the tender responses were in there, as promised.

But not old ones, from years ago, these were the up-to-date responses from the most recent process, including the most recent winner.

How much would this road cost to maintain?

Why shouldn't we know how much it costs to maintain this road?

In America, if you want to submit a tender to the government, Federal or State, you are accepting that the people who are buying your services have a right to see how much you’re charging. There is no “commercial in confidence” clause. The whole lot is out there.

Naturally, most firms won’t deal with the government.

No, actually they’re all happy to. Because the government in the US spends a lot of money. As does the British government.

But in Britain, we have to keep officially secret all those tenders which are in place. We don’t know how much road builders charge for each mile of motorway, how much firms demand to run a school, nor how much different companies look to make in profit from taking on NHS services.

In America all these are transparent. And you know what? In an open market, when firms have to admit what they’re charging, their competitors will often drive their prices down by competing on a level playing field.

It is time that the UK learned from America. We need to stop this daft concept of protecting individual companies from disclosing how much they are charging us all for services we need. What can they have to hide?

Any organisation seeking to make profits from UK government should be forced to accept that every aspect of the deal can and will be disclosed to any interested parties.

Oh, and the idea of toll-fees?

Why not come clean, and admit that all these new taxes, especially those to do with climate change, are actually designed to be money-earners for central government? Fewer people can afford to own a car, so they drive less. So you have to increase the cost of driving to bring in more cash.

2 Responses to “Why We Need Real Freedom of Information”
  1. Ralph Spurrier says:

    Totally agree on open tendering. The recent media excitement about the billions it was going to mend the potholes prompted me to wonder just which companies were tendering for the job and whether there was just a touch of “its local government contracts so let’s load the estimates for any work” attitude from companies that know a golden goose when they see one.


    • What gets me is that many US companies come here and scream about commercial confidentiality when they have no such defence in the US itself. They’re making fortunes from UK taxpayers.


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