Secretive bureaucrats fall foul of free information ombudsman

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The Independent Online

Three government departments were criticised by the Parliamentary Ombudsdman yesterday for covering up information they should have released under a new freedom of information code.

Under the code, introduced last April, almost all public bodies and departments are obliged to answer questions from the public. They can refuse only if the information is "internal information and advice", is commercially sensitive or would interfere with "effective management and operation of the public service."

The ombudsman, William Reid, hears appeals against refusals. His report, published yesterday, criticised the Highways Agency, part of the Transport Department, for refusing to disclose its correspondence with the European Commission over an assessment of environmental damage which would be caused by a road-widening scheme.

When the Ombudsman intervened, the department said correspondence with the Commission was confidential. Mr Reid said the information was in the public domain already. He criticised a delay of 16 weeks in dealing with the request.

Mr Reid said the Department of Social Security was wrong to refuse a request from a man about his National Insurance position. The Department gave him no reasons for refusing. When the Ombudsman intervened the DSS maintained that the report on his status was "subject to legal professional privilege" because it had been supplied by a barrister. Mr Reid rejected that argument and the DSS has now apologised and for delay, and agreed to recommend to the Secretary of State that a copy of the report be released to the complainant.

In a third case the Ombudsman had to intervene to force the Scottish Environment Department to reveal the value of a contract for an airborne survey, which had been withheld under the code exemption relating to "effective management".

Official figures have shown that few people used the code in its first year, probably because it was introduced with almost no publicity.

Appeals have to be routed through an MP.