The Freedom of Information Act is something that I was vaguely aware of, but largely passed me by both in terms of its introduction and its value. However, seeking some information recently about details on the numbers of tax returns filed, and failing to find the information I wanted on the HMRC website, I decided to explore the whole process of obtaining information on such critically important(!) matters.
In the course of my research, I came across a great site called “What do they know” at www.whatdotheyknow.com which manages the whole process of asking your question and ensuring you receive answers.
Turning to the specifics, I wanted to find out the number of tax returns filed in 2008 both online and in paper form and the proportion of tax filers that used the HMRC software to do so.
I am pleased to be able to report that within a matter of a week to 10 days from posting my request, I received all the information I required.
Now on the one hand, I think this is absolutely fantastic. I have since been spending many hours trying to work out a whole host of obscure questions that I could ask that I’d like to have answered in the knowledge that unless there are good reasons as to why the information shouldn’t be provided, someone would spend the time finding the answers. However, it also occurs to me that there must be a whole number of civil servants doing nothing else other than answering stupid questions from people like me.
Like everything in the modern world, there is a balance between progress and the costs associated with it. In this particular case, I think the price is probably worthwhile. Having access to information is really what the internet should be about and governments shouldn’t be exempt from this. Let’s face it, that’s what the exposure of MPs expenses was all about.
Anyway, I am now thinking up more questions and will keep you posted as I get the answers.