'Right To Know' Fails To Open The Government's Vaults Of Secrets
31 December 2005

By Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent

Labour's much-trumpeted freedom of information laws have failed to open up Whitehall to public scrutiny, judging by the evidence of the first 12 months of the new order.

A year after we were first granted the "right to know", new figures show nine out of 17 government departments have failed to provide adequate answers to half of the requests they received.

Gordon Brown's Treasury was the worst offender by refusing to release information in three-quarters of all "resolvable" requests.

Further findings reveal that all but one government department has breached the FOI legislation by failing to answer requests within the 20-day time limit.

The report, published by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, confirms what many suspected - that the Government has blocked access by failing to observe the spirit of the new law in a year in which central government bodies received 36,000 requests.

While Labour has been happy to release documents embarrassing the previous Tory administration over its handling of "Black Wednesday" - Britain's forced withdrawal from the ERM - ministers have been less willing to let the public use the Act to shed light on Labour's own political controversies.

For example, ministers are still refusing to release earlier drafts of the Attorney General's advice on the legality of the war with Iraq.

At the heart of its strategy is the Orwellian-sounding Central Clearing House where all sensitive or difficult requests are sent. Set up by ministers in the run-up to the introduction of the legislation, the unit employs 12 staff to monitor the public's use of the legislation. A FOI request from The Independent reveals, in its first year, the clearing house cost the taxpayer 700,000.

The most popular target for information is the Ministry of Defence, which handled more than 2,700 requests for the disclosure of ministerial letters, memos and military reports.

Maurice Frankel, a man who for many years campaigned for Britain's own freedom of information laws, said in the first year of the Act's operation the Government had responded "cautiously" to most of the important requests and there was still no voluntary process of disclosure.

He said: "They are not taking gigantic leaps by making proactive releases. There is much more information to come out but the Government is not going to release it until it has to."

Michael Smyth, an expert on FOI and head of public policy at Clifford Chance, a law firm, said: "The clearing house is a development that will need monitoring. People making requests of bodies subject to the clearing house can be confident they will be dealt with by FOI experts but over-zealous application of the exemption regime could mean less information is released."

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, the FOI's independent watchdog, is considering a backlog of more than 1,200 appeal cases, including government refusals to release information about policies on defence and the environment.

The public also made requests for information from a further 1,000 public bodies. The new figures show those bodies have found a similar willingness to rely on the 34 statutory exemptions to refuse disclosure.

The Crown Prosecution Service has only complied with a fifth of the 229 requests for information. The Health and Safety Executive received more than 5,300 applications for disclosure of which it has answered around 60 per cent. But generally non- government bodies are granting 10 per cent more requests than Whitehall departments.

The figures do not include hundreds more requests which have become " lapsed" because the applicant has not paid a fee for any additional work the department says the request would generate.

A spokesperson for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said yesterday: "Central government performance has improved steadily throughout the year. The response has been very positive. Latest figures show 86 per cent of requests are answered within statutory deadlines and the majority of those requests (60 per cent) result in full disclosure. About 16,000 pieces of information have been given out by central government bodies."

The spokesperson added: "The Freedom of Information Act recognises the presumption of openness, but it also expressly recognises that there must be responsible limits."

The successful requests

* UFOs

Requests from The Independent led to the Ministry of Defence revealing details about UFO sightings across the country. Branded "Britain's X files", reports from senior military personnel, police officers and civil servants gave some credibility to sightings which had been previously dismissed as cases of mistaken identity. Although there was never any official recognition of visits from other planets, the documents proved that the Government still had a special unit set up to monitor the reports of UFOs.

source & references

The Independent - London, UK


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