Freedom of Bathroom Information in the UK

The UK has a new Freedom of Information Act. It used to be that you had to wait 30 years to get access to public documents, but now (or as of the beginning of the new year), in the words of Lady Ashton, the UK minister responsible for public records, “you will be able to request information and be given it as long as exemptions do not apply.” Those exemptions involve things you would expect, like national security or commercial secrets.

Now that access to public information in the UK has supposedly greatly widened, how are people taking advantage of that? The Guardian newspaper itself is pushing to get the legal advice given Tony Blair about whether Britain could join the United States in its attack on Iraq, according to international law, but indications are that request that will be blocked. And over Christmas, operatives of an opposition party, the Conservatives (these days it’s controversial whether they merit the label “the leading opposition party”), had great fun coming up with 120 “embarrassing questions” they want to pose to Tony Blair’s Labour government, i.e. to get information shedding further light on various awkward episodes in that government’s seven-year term in power such as its change-of-mind allowing a referendum on the EU Constitution when previously it had refused.

So much for questions asked. I know that it’s still early, but still, when it comes to actual answers forthcoming so far, you could say the pickings are barely worth paper they’re printed on. You can read here (in English) all the intimate details about the epic 17-year struggle (1964 until 1981) to soften British civil service attitudes . . . about the texture of the toilet paper made available in government lavatories. Yes, you can click that link and read the Guardian’s chronicle, although if you want to read the file itself it looks like you’ll just have to submit your own FOI request, or at least ring up someone you know at the Guardian:

Sprinkled with comic asides which would not have disgraced a Carry On film, it reveals a cost-conscious bureaucracy belatedly coming to terms with the modern world.

This looks like a good candidate for grabbing the film rights – has anyone thought of that yet? That could put a whole new meaning into the director’s cry “Rolling!”

And don’t forget the foreign rights – you know that EuroSavant feels awkward with entries having to do only with the British press (“Commentary on the European non-English-language press,” and all that), so I also give you the account in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung (The Other Side of the Diplomat’s Life) that first alerted me to this story. The gentlemen from Munich clearly filed their own FOI request, as their account (no individual by-line given) adds further details to what we can read in English from the Guardian. Actually, according to the Germans it really was an 18-year struggle against hygienic sandpaper, starting in 1963, which during its course involved combative unions, the royal paper suppliers, and even the School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. They also have a different version of the ultimate resolution: whereas the Guardian says that everything was solved when soft toilet paper finally became cheaper than hard, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports that resolution came when a team of epidemiologists reported that soft toilet paper is in fact more hygienic. Different conclusions to the story reflecting the two different national mentalities, perhaps?

Anyway, it looks like that’s all we’ve got so far from that new British Freedom of Information Act. Or at least it’s all that I can see is being reported. But admittedly, coming up in a Her Majesty’s Government printing office near you: World War II-era cabinet secretary notebooks.

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