Lib Dem Conference: Ludicrous examples of Labour secrecy: an MP's challenge

New government, same old secrecy: details of surgeons' charges in the 1920s, a hazardous road bridge and even an 18th-century map are among the documents still kept from public view. Fran Abrams, Political Correspondent, recounts a Liberal Democrat MP's fight for open government.
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There are limits to the Government's commitment to freedom of information, it seems. Even after promises of a new law to bring greater openness, some documents are still so sensitive they must remain secret many years on.

"Taxi drivers carrying fares without depressing flags, 1935-1952," "Dangerous driving conditions at hump-backed bridge on Beckenham Road London, 1935- 1951," "Police fees for surgeons 1926-1953." The release of these documents could lead to distress and even danger for police surgeons, taxi drivers and their descendants, the Cabinet Office minister Peter Kilfoyle has decided.

Mr Kilfoyle promised to look into the issue after Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, raised it in a Commons debate. But after investigations he has told the MP they cannot be released.

"All these files remain closed by Lord Chancellor's Instrument as they contain information which could cause substantial distress (or endangerment from a third party) to the persons affected by their disclosure or their descendants," he has said in a letter to Mr Baker.

The MP is not impressed. "Who were these taxi drivers carrying?" he asks. "MI5 agents? Even if they were, why not just block out their names?"

Mr Kilfoyle has confirmed that the files remain closed not for reasons of national security but of "personal sensitivity". Mr Baker says there is a serious lesson to be learnt from this exchange with the minister. "Here is the first test of this government's commitment to freedom of information. It is on something innocuous and yet they are blocking it," he says.

Mr Baker intends to appeal to the Lord Chancellor's committee responsible for reviewing closed documents to see if he can get the decision reversed.

The MP will also raise the issue again when he lodges a Private Member's Bill on freedom of information next January. He wants the number of years for which documents are closed reduced from 30 years to 20 but adds that the Government must also tackle a culture of secrecy which still pervades Whitehall.

Yesterday, the Lord Chancellor's department would only refer The Independent to the individual departments holding the documents. The oldest closed document held by the Department of Environment is a map of the River Dee from 1771.

A Home Office spokeswoman said the files might be less innocuous than they appeared. For example, the police surgeons' papers might contain details of medical records.