Government attacked for `hypocritical' attitude to Freedom of Information Act

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS' PROMISES to usher in a new age of freedom of information have failed to materialise, with scores of requests to open the Government to public scrutiny being rejected.

About 4,000 requests have been received across central government since the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act on 1 January. But MPs and journalists expressed frustration at the lack of positive responses to their requests - amid claims that the Government has breached its own legislation by failing to meet the Freedom of Information Act's statutory deadline.

Scores of requests have been refused and some departments have been using stock replies to deny access to information, issuing refusal letters to different people using identical wording.

Of the 70 inquiries made by The Independent only 10 have been successful. Almost half were turned down flat; the remainder are still awaiting reply.

In two of the replies the Government conceded that it had breached its own legislation by failing to meet the deadline of 20 working days that expired yesterday. Ministers also admitted they had no idea how many of the 362 requests made on the first day the legislation came into force had been answered. Yet, in 2000, Labour postponed the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act by four years to give government departments and 100,000 public bodies more time to prepare for the new right of access.

Conservative frontbenchers have submitted 130 requests for information under the FOI Act. So far they have received only three holding replies. Julian Lewis, the shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said that, although the Ministry of Defence showed signs of genuine openness, he was discouraged by the amount of time being taken to respond to requests by other departments.

"They have gone right down to the wire, taking the full 20 days to reply. I hope the reason they are leaving it to the last minute to answer this question is because they are putting together a lot of information to give to us," he said. "I fear that the delay is just stalling for time before they give us little more than the casual evasive responses to written parliamentary questions."

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, said the Government was guilty of hypocrisy over its application of the Act. "There is a real suspicion that the Government is using the FOI Act as a deft manoeuvre to imply openness while allowing the Sir Humphreys of this world arcane reasons for not answering questions," he said. "We have yet to see any evidence at all that the Act will make any positive difference as far as the Government is concerned."

That didn't stop Labour hailing the FOI Act a success, calling it the beginning of a new era of openness. Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, said: "This is a new era in the relationship between the citizen and the state. After just one month, the Freedom of Information Act has already been seen to make a real impact ... We have sown the seeds of cultural change towards a government at all levels that is more open, transparent and accountable. But we must remember this is not a free-for- all. There will always be areas - such as national security - where it is necessary for information to be withheld to allow government to act effectively."

That has not been the experience of many members of the public who have spent the past few weeks engaged in a rather tiresome game of cat and mouse with Whitehall officials.

One Whitehall source said some civil servants were struggling to deal with the number and complexity of requests.

Of 4,000 requests received across central government, about half have been made by people identifying themselves as reporters. But campaigning organisations and members of the public have also made wide use of the new powers.

The National Archives has received the most requests, more than 600, followed by the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Requests include applications for information about artwork loaned from national collections, as well as information about cabinet ministers' offices and official residences.

OPENNESS ABROAD

UNITED STATES

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) came into effect in 1967, enabling any person or organisation, regardless of citizenship or country of origin, to ask for records held by federal government agencies. It has been amended and some exemptions apply on sensitive information, but in 2002, there were more than 2.4 million requests made to federal agencies, the highest number ever.

FRANCE

The 1978 Law on Access to Administrative Documents fulfilled a plea made at the time of the French Revolution in 1789. The 1978 law allows people to see "files, reports, studies, records, minutes, statistics, orders, instructions, ministerial circulars". Documents handed over are subject to copyright and may not be reproduced. Public bodies must respond within one month to a request.

AUSTRALIA

Under the 1982 Freedom of Information Act, Australian citizens may request access to documents held by government agencies. Exemptions which apply to issues of national security or defence are tempered by a "public interest" clause which allows for appeals against the withholding of information. In 2001-2002 there were more than 37,000 requests for information.

GERMANY

Germany is the only European country, along with Luxembourg, still without a Freedom of Information Act, although this situation is set to change once new legislation being debated in the Bundestag comes into force within the next few months. The proposed act will give everybody "a right

of access to official information" from federal bodies and institutions.

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