Central government 'still obstructive' over FOI

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The Independent Online

Britain's new Freedom of Information Act has failed to change Whitehall's entrenched culture of secrecy and open up government to public scrutiny, it emerged last night.

Britain's new Freedom of Information Act has failed to change Whitehall's entrenched culture of secrecy and open up government to public scrutiny, it emerged last night.

Six months after the public was first granted the right to know, almost 1,000 complaints concerning failure to disclose material are being investigated by the freedom of information watchdog, Richard Thomas.

His findings, some of which will be published next month, are expected to be critical of ministers' reliance on sharp practices to delay or avoid releasing sensitive information. Mr Thomas said yesterday that during his enquiries he had been granted access to secret government files and material deliberately held back by ministers under the exemptions set out in the act.

Many government departments are known to have lost requests or failed to comply with deadlines for answering enquiries.

And nearly five years after the legislation was first introduced by Labour, dozens of public bodies, many of them public watchdogs, have failed to appoint freedom of information officers to deal with requests.

But yesterday the government trumpeted the new law as a huge success, claiming that 10,000 pieces of new information had been released since January.

Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, told an audience at a freedom of information conference in London: "Where others talked about Freedom of Information, we have actually done it. For others, freedom of information was something that was fashionable to flirt with in opposition, but something to shy away from once in government. I believe we can say that we have delivered on our promise of a full statutory - and enforceable - right to know."

But yesterday his department was unable to say how many FOI requests had been rejected or which of the 23 statutory exemptions had proved the most popular with ministers.

It is known, because of an FOI request from The Independent, that by the end of April the Cabinet office alone had received 1,100 requests.

Nevertheless, Lord Falconer insisted yesterday that: "A presumption of openness has been created. Putting citizens on a level playing field with the institutions that serve them. Raising the quality, accuracy and completeness of public debate. Bringing government closer to the people. Greater transparency. Greater accountability. Greater engagement. A radical and lasting change in the relationship between citizen and government."

This is not an experience many people recognise. John Ashton, director of FOI Ltd, a service for businesses who wish to benefit from the legislation, said that central government was still being obstructive.

The Independent has made more than 200 requests for information since January but only two or three have been answered to reporters' full satisfaction.

Perhaps the most keenly sought information - the Attorney General's advice on war with Iraq - was only disclosed through a leak after the government had refused FOI requests from politicians, members of the public and journalists. The Information Commissioner is still investigating further requests for the disclosure of communications, guidance and other information relating to the advice.

Yesterday Lord Falconer said: "The first few months have been challenging. Volumes of requests have been high. Inevitably, not everything has run entirely to plan, but I believe that in the main they are coping well and should take considerable pride in the progress that is being made across the public sector."