'Right to know' fails to open the Government's vaults of secrets

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The Independent Online

Labour's much-trumpeted freedom of information laws have failed to open up Whitehall to public scrutiny, judging by the evidence of the first 12 months of the new order.

A year after we were first granted the "right to know", new figures show nine out of 17 government departments have failed to provide adequate answers to half of the requests they received.

Gordon Brown's Treasury was the worst offender by refusing to release information in three-quarters of all "resolvable" requests.

Further findings reveal that all but one government department has breached the FOI legislation by failing to answer requests within the 20-day time limit.

The report, published by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, confirms what many suspected - that the Government has blocked access by failing to observe the spirit of the new law in a year in which central government bodies received 36,000 requests.

While Labour has been happy to release documents embarrassing the previous Tory administration over its handling of "Black Wednesday" - Britain's forced withdrawal from the ERM - ministers have been less willing to let the public use the Act to shed light on Labour's own political controversies.

For example, ministers are still refusing to release earlier drafts of the Attorney General's advice on the legality of the war with Iraq.

At the heart of its strategy is the Orwellian-sounding Central Clearing House where all sensitive or difficult requests are sent. Set up by ministers in the run-up to the introduction of the legislation, the unit employs 12 staff to monitor the public's use of the legislation. A FOI request from The Independent reveals, in its first year, the clearing house cost the taxpayer £700,000.

The most popular target for information is the Ministry of Defence, which handled more than 2,700 requests for the disclosure of ministerial letters, memos and military reports.

Maurice Frankel, a man who for many years campaigned for Britain's own freedom of information laws, said in the first year of the Act's operation the Government had responded "cautiously" to most of the important requests and there was still no voluntary process of disclosure.

He said: "They are not taking gigantic leaps by making proactive releases. There is much more information to come out but the Government is not going to release it until it has to."

Michael Smyth, an expert on FOI and head of public policy at Clifford Chance, a law firm, said: "The clearing house is a development that will need monitoring. People making requests of bodies subject to the clearing house can be confident they will be dealt with by FOI experts but over-zealous application of the exemption regime could mean less information is released."

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, the FOI's independent watchdog, is considering a backlog of more than 1,200 appeal cases, including government refusals to release information about policies on defence and the environment.

The public also made requests for information from a further 1,000 public bodies. The new figures show those bodies have found a similar willingness to rely on the 34 statutory exemptions to refuse disclosure.

The Crown Prosecution Service has only complied with a fifth of the 229 requests for information. The Health and Safety Executive received more than 5,300 applications for disclosure of which it has answered around 60 per cent. But generally non-government bodies are granting 10 per cent more requests than Whitehall departments.

The figures do not include hundreds more requests which have become " lapsed" because the applicant has not paid a fee for any additional work the department says the request would generate.

A spokesperson for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said yesterday: "Central government performance has improved steadily throughout the year. The response has been very positive. Latest figures show 86 per cent of requests are answered within statutory deadlines and the majority of those requests (60 per cent) result in full disclosure. About 16,000 pieces of information have been given out by central government bodies."

The spokesperson added: "The Freedom of Information Act recognises the presumption of openness, but it also expressly recognises that there must be responsible limits."

The successful requests

* UFOs

Requests from The Independent led to the Ministry of Defence revealing details about UFO sightings across the country. Branded "Britain's X files", reports from senior military personnel, police officers and civil servants gave some credibility to sightings which had been previously dismissed as cases of mistaken identity. Although there was never any official recognition of visits from other planets, the documents proved that the Government still had a special unit set up to monitor the reports of UFOs.

* FARMING SUBSIDIES

Some of Britain's wealthiest landowners have received hundreds of thousands of pounds in farming subsides, including the Queen, who was given more than £750,000 over the past two years. The figures became public after a list of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies in England was published by the Rural Payment Agency, under the terms of the Freedom of Information legislation. The Queen's subsidy, paid through CAP, went to Sandringham Farms. Charles's cash went to the Duchy of Cornwall, which made a profit of almost £10m in 2003.

* PRINCESS MARGARET

Debate about the legality of the Prince of Wales' marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles was reopened when the Government released 50-year-old legal documents under the Freedom of Information Act. They showed ministers refused a civil marriage for Princess Margaret and Group-Captain Peter Townsend. Lawyers ruled that members of the Royal Family could marry in civil services. To counter the embarrassment of the release, the Government said the Human Rights Act had now superceded the law preventing royal civil weddings.

* CHEQUERS GUEST LIST

After an 18-month campaign to get Downing Street to publish names of the guests Tony Blair has invited to his country residence at Chequers, the Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb used the then-new Freedom of Information Act. We learnt that the TV presenter and part-time crooner Des O'Connor, the actress Jenny Seagrove and the former Spice Girl, Geri Halliwell were among the fêted few. But some said that the Government had released the guest-list in the "most restrictive way possible" after being forced to divulge the names.

* GORDON RAMSAY

In May a food inspectors' report revealed that Gordon Ramsay's restaurant Amaryllis had failed to meet basic hygiene and cleaning standards. When it opened in Glasgow 2001 it was widely hailed as the best restaurant in Scotland. It closed last year amid massive debts. But documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show Amaryllis fell foul of food safety and hygiene regulations in July 2003. Environmental protection officers recorded six concerns over cleaning issues and food hygiene. By then, Mr Ramsay had given tips to schoolchildren at the restaurant as part of National Food Safety Week.

... and the failures

* IRAQ

The whole truth about the formulation of the legal advice on the war with Iraq has still not come out. The Information Commissioner is still considering requests for the release of earlier drafts of the advice. Publication in the summer of the Attorney General's final draft was forced by a leak to the media. When published it confirmed that Lord Goldsmith had told Tony Blair on 7 March 2003 that a second UN resolution was the safest legal course. Ten days later Lord Goldsmith's final advice was given to the Cabinet - but included no concerns about the legality of the war. Why not?

* TRIDENT

The Ministry of Defence is refusing to release any information about the replacement of the Trident nuclear missile system. Its dismissal of requests under the Freedom of Information Act was posted in September on the MoD's website. Officials said refusal was on the grounds ofpublic interest, though they admitted that Trident replacement is a "topical issue". There was a "strong public interest" in having a "credible nuclear deterrent", but it was not in the public interest to publish its assessments about what threats a Trident replacement could deter, the Government said.

* ALASTAIR CAMPBELL

Attempts to discover the truth about Alastair Campbell's resignation as Downing Street's director of communications have failed. The Cabinet Office acknowledges that it has information that would be of public interest but refuses to release it. The Independent was told that the information is exempt because it is personal to Mr Campbell or would hamper the free and frank exchange of views or the formulation of policy. Attempts to discover the terms of his new role in government also failed.

* JUDGES

The Government may publish the names of those invited to Chequers, the Prime Minister's country retreat, but when it comes to naming and shaming judges, ministers are not so forthcoming. Last year about 250 allegations of misconduct by judges or tribunal members were investigated, of which 11 were referred for judicial investigation, and there were about 40 investigations into allegations of misconduct by magistrates. Disciplinary action followed in 68 cases. But who were they, and what did they do? The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, has said that it would not be in the public interest to name individual judges.

* BLAIR'S CHRISTMAS CARD LIST

Downing Street has refused to say who is on the list. The Independent's Pandora reported that the Prime Minister had sent 1,900 official cards, up from 1,600 in 2003, costing the taxpayer hundreds of pounds. Wondering who all the new friends may be, the paper requested the names, under the FIA. But No 10 said that the list was exempt from disclosure, because it contained "personal information" and could harm international relations.