TONY Blair doesn’t often criticise himself, so this passage from page 516 of his autobiography A Journey stands out
“You idiot. You naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate.
“I quake at the imbecility of it.”
Which decision moved the former Prime Minister to such harsh self-criticism?
Was it the war in Iraq, that hell disaster which has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people? Of course not.
Was Mr Blair telling himself off for wasting all that money on the Millennium Dome? Not likely.
The policy which moved Mr Blair to thrash himself in his autobiography was in fact the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act.
You may not be familiar with the FOI Act, which came into full force in 2005. It gives citizens the right to access information from 100,000 publicly funded bodies including central government departments, schools, councils and hospital trusts.
There are of course exemptions – far too many in some people’s minds – but the act was still a huge step forward for open government.
Introduced by New Labour in its first flush of reforming zeal, the act was used against the party to wheedle out embarrassing revelations.
Many of the stories you read about public sector waste and incompetence wouldn’t have made it into print without the act.
Or, as Mr Blair writes: “The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists.”
Which raises two questions: Why do “the people” need inverted commas and why do journalists not count as part of “the people”?
It is a little disappointing that – with such an embarrassment of embarrassments – Mr Blair should pick one of the very few good things he did in office as one of his very few regrets about his time in Number 10.
He is correct to say that the FOI Act is used to embarrass politicians, to expose their stupidity and their waste. But that’s sort of the whole point of open government.
Before the act, civil servants decided what could and could not be released to the public. If you didn’t like the level of transparency offered, you could do nothing about it.
The FOI Act introduced a presumption of openness which is now enshrined in law. You should receive the information you require within 20 working days, unless there’s a good reason to keep it secret.
For example, if you asked the Ministry of Defence what the nuclear codes for Trident are, you would be refused the information on national security grounds.
But if you asked the MoD how much it spent on office furniture in the last year you would probably get an answer.
And the same is true of Kirklees Council.
Last week I wrote a story about Julie Alderson – the 10K-a-month cost-cutting interim director of resources who charged taxpayers for bridge tolls, batteries, light-bulbs and food during her four-month stint at Kirklees.
I could brag that it was “all my own work” but the fact is the piece would never have seen the light of day without the FOI Act, which gives me a right to see the expenses claims of councillors and officials.
If I had asked Kirklees for such details in pre-FOI days, I imagine I would have been instructed to “go forth and multiply”. These days the council has to hand that information over, or at least find a very good excuse not to.
This means the people – or as Tony Blair would call us “the people” – can find out how our taxes are being spent and react accordingly.
It is hard to tell for sure, but it seems probable that the FOI Act puts some manners on those in power.
For every civil servant the act exposes as having frittered away public money, there is probably another bureaucrat who stepped back from a wasteful decision after thinking: “how will this look if it comes out?”
The economic efficiency of the FOI Act is impossible to measure but possible to hope for.
Perhaps the next time Kirklees brings in an interim director, some official might be kind enough to advise him or her to buy their own light-bulbs for the sake of the council’s reputation.
And I will have to look a little harder for scandal. But, with the FOI Act to help me, it shouldn’t be that difficult.