View From Here: Peter Hennessy

I always wondered if the bloom of openness might not fade when confronted with high office

I HAVE spent a good few hours this month marking undergraduate examination answers on, among other things, progress towards more open government since the Fulton Report on the Civil Service 31 years ago told Harold Wilson and his ministers that Whitehall was burdened by an excessive weight of official secrecy.

For the past 25 years, it has been Labour Party policy that what Britain needed was not just a slimmer, less ferocious Official Secrets Act, but a positive public right to know, enshrined in a Freedom of Information Act.

John Major took a step towards this in 1993-94 when his Open Government White Paper and the code based upon it established the principle of access to official information, subject to certain exemptions. Though this fell well short of a statutory Freedom of Information (FOI) regime, the Ombudsman was invited to police the code and arbitrate disputes. For the first time, an independent figure outside Whitehall was involved in disclosure decisions.

Mr Major and his open government minister, William Waldegrave, also performed a specially important service for contemporary historians such as myself in establishing a review procedure to re-examine all files retained beyond the 30-year norm laid down by the Public Records Act 1967. Thanks to the so-called "Waldegrave Initiative", nearly 100,000 files have since been released, many of which, particularly those related to intelligence and nuclear matters, are - or were - of an especial sensitivity.

Mr Major and Mr Waldegrave deserve great credit for this - as does Douglas Hurd, just about the only senior figure in the Major cabinet who backed them.

So what of Labour? Today's Cabinet grew up with an FOI mantra. Indeed, I first met some of them when they were engaged on the committee stage as true believers in Clement Freud's Freedom of Information Bill, which fell when Parliament was dissolved after the Callaghan administration lost its vote of confidence in 1979.

I always wondered if the bloom of openness might not fade when confronted by the discreet pleasure of the Red Boxes that come with high office. In private, in the run-up to the 1997 election at seminars involving senior civil servants and others, I would unfold a kind of malign vision of New Labour suddenly discovering the attractions of closed government with the promised FOI Bill somehow slipping out of the first Queen's Speech, then the next ...

In December 1997, however, I was confounded. A White Paper, Your Right to Know, announced the Government's intention to construct just about the most liberal FOI regime in the advanced world. For many areas, a "substantial harm" test would be applied to information which, if not met in the judgement of an independent and robust Information Commissioner, would see that information released into the public domain.

Though I still didn't quite believe it, I was pleased to be shown up as a jaded old pessimist. Now my Whitehall friends wonder how I could have been so Pollyanna-like. Jack Straw grabbed the lead on FOI after last summer's reshuffle and dragged it out of the Cabinet Office into the Home Office

Equally important is that both the Prime Minister and his Cabinet secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, thought the original White Paper would not do. Their influence pervaded the Cabinet committee rooms where the gelding took place. As one of his ministers said, the two most powerful words in Whitehall are "Tony wants".

In this case, Tony most definitely did not want. Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, in the chair of the FOI Cabinet Committee (the only one I can recall in recent times that is larger than the Cabinet, so keen were departments to preserve their secret gardens) could not resist the Blair-Straw-Wilson combination.

So there it was last month, a draft Bill - a sorry, shorn thing. Gone was the "substantial harm" test. In its place was a "prejudice" test. And who will certify that information disclosed "would be likely to prejudice the policy making or decision-taking processes"? Why, ministers of course. There are even regressions in Straw's draft Bill from Mr Major's code, not least on public records. The Major document, for example, reduced to 30 the 100 year norm for Whitehall files dealing with Buckingham Palace matters. Somehow in the draft Bill this has slipped back to 75 years.

I shall never again succumb to Pollyanna-isms. We have in Mr Blair, as one of Mrs Thatcher's ministers once said of her, "a prime minister who does not believe in open government for the cabinet, let alone for people like you!"

The writer is professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London

Sport
Brazilian fans watch the match for third place between Brazil and Netherlands
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: Dutch pile on the misery in third place playoff
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
Arts and Entertainment
books The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

SEN Teacher, Permanent Role in Ashford

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: Randstad urgently seeks a qualif...

Drama Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Liverpool: We are looking for someone who can t...

**Science Teacher Urgently Required for September**

£120 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: **Science Teacher Urgently ...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?