Richard Thomas on championing freedom of information

"I trailblazed freedom of information on Whitehall"


Universities UK

By Colin Marrs

28 Aug 2014

In late 2002, Richard Thomas was appointed to the role of information commissioner. Two years earlier, the Freedom of Information Act had created the role by beefing up the powers of the data commissioner: Thomas assumed responsibility for ensuring that public bodies both kept tight control over the data in their possession, and released any information requested under the provisions of the new Act.

The dual role provided Thomas with his first challenge. “There was a well-established data protection function in the office, and then we had to recruit FoI staff,” he recalls. “In some senses, it was like leading two tribes.” Thomas decided to recast the structure which had seen FoI staff tacked onto the existing teams covering central and local government, health and the private sector. “FoI wasn’t being given much breathing space,” he says.

Anxiousness surrounding the new legislation led to a slow implementation phase, with the Act coming into force in 2005. Nonetheless, says Thomas, preparation among government departments was patchy. “I visited each permanent secretary individually and had weekly meetings, but despite this a lot of people didn’t get ready until the last minute,” he says.

Once the regime went live, the Information Commissioner’s Office faced a “tsunami” of complaints against public bodies which had refused requests for information – with 11,500 such representations in the first four years. “It was a big bang approach, which made things very challenging,” says Thomas. “We had to get our heads round everything from the advice given by the attorney general [Lord Goldsmith] to the prime minister before the Iraq war, to the results of council inspections of restaurants. We had to be quick learners.”

Before leaving the job in 2009, Thomas faced down a parliamentary private members bill attempting to exempt MPs from the requirements of the Act, as well as a move to introduce fees for all requests. He says: “The experience taught me the importance of standing your ground. When you are a statutory office holder appointed by the Queen, it gives you a security of tenure that helps with this.”

"Whatever doesn't kill you..." is a new regular mini feature in Civil Service World. 

Click here for David Nicholson talking about pursuing NHS reform.

Read the most recent articles written by Colin Marrs - 'No child should go unseen again': Children's commissioner Anne Longfield


Share this page