What freedom of information?

Ministers are accused of scuppering right-to-know legislation
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The Independent Online

Labour's flagship freedom of information laws are being blocked by ministers who are increasingly refusing to answer routine inquiries about government policy, new figures show.

Seven government departments, including the department in charge of monitoring the new powers, are identified in a Whitehall report as refusing to give answers to more than half of all requests made by the public.

The Foreign Office has the worst record by claiming exemptions for 70 per cent of all requests it has received. In total, of the 62,852 requests made to central government since 1 January 2005, 26,083 have not been granted. And of those questions the Government considers properly resolved many have not been answered to the questioner's satisfaction.

The report also shows that public requests for information have fallen to the lowest number since the laws were implemented.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has responsibility for implementing the "right to know" laws, has the second worst record, by only providing full answers to 39 per cent of all requests.

Next month the Government is to go to court to try to prevent the public using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain even innocuous information about "the formulation" of policy after the Information Commissioner, the legislation's watchdog, ruled that ministers must reveal material that does not harm policy-making. Government lawyers are to appear before the Information Tribunal in an attempt to have the commissioner's decision overturned by arguing that all policy-related information must be withheld.

The legal challenge will be followed by the introduction of regulations designed to stop the media from making full use of the new powers. These regulations represent a direct attack on the spirit of the law, once heralded by Labour as the end of the culture of Whitehall secrecy. The media and other organisations will be restricted to a handful of requests a year, while the time taken by officials and ministers to consult and consider requests will now be counted when calculating whether people should be charged for any disclosure.

Figures released by the Department for Constitutional Affairs reveal requests to central government fell to a low of 7,641 between July and September, compared with 13,603 in the first three months after the law came into force. Freedom of information campaigners warn that this might be evidence that the public have become frustrated with their failure to get answers.

Overall, the success rate for requests across all departments has fallen by 2 per cent to 60 per cent in the past six months.

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 before the introduction of the laws, the unit employs 12 staff to monitor the public's use of the legislation.

Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, says the Government's approach "strikes at the very heart" of the legislation. Michael Smyth, the head of public policy at the law firm Clifford Chance, said that while he acknowledged the Freedom of Information Act had opened up government, the regulations, due to come into force in April, will "emasculate" the media. "The Government dined out on the mantra that the FoI Act was to be motive-blind ... but these bizarre proposals will turn FoI requests into something where motive will become relevant," Mr Smyth said.

Requests, officially denied

Can you please disclose the public cost of guarding Charles and Camilla?

The Royal Family is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. It would not be in the public interest to reveal information not covered by this exemption because of the potential threat to royal security.

Would you reveal the discussions relating to the Home Office's original decision to reclassify cannabis?

We believe that disclosure would lead to reluctance on the part of officials, ministers and others to provide frank advice in future.

Can we see the documents and briefing papers for Lord Levy's meetings with American diplomats over the Middle East crisis?

It is not in the public interest to disclose any of this material. Such a revelation would also harm international relations.

Please disclose the correspondence between the Food Standards Agency and Cadbury Schweppes in respect of the chocolate bar salmonella scare earlier this year.

Disclosure of some of the information held would prejudice any possible prosecution and may prejudice the commercial interest of Cadbury's.

Can we see the report into the links between MRSA rates and bed occupancy written by the Department of Health's chief economic adviser?

This would be detrimental to the future formulation of government policy.

How about Tony Blair's Christmas card list?

Many of the addressees are foreign dignitaries. This information would be harmful to international relations.

Could you send us all the written evidence given by police forces to the Government's 2004 public consultation on prostitution?

Disclosure might harm police efforts to prevent and detect crime.

Please disclose the minutes of Margaret Thatcher's last cabinet meeting.

It is important that ministers' discussions in cabinet are full and frank. To arrive at agreed policy positions and plans for actions, discussion needs to be free and uninhibited.

Can we have a look at the correspondence and documents relating to Alastair Campbell's decision to resign as director of communications?

This is personal information given in confidence.

OK then, can we see the correspondence and documents relating to Alan Milburn's resignation?

This is also personal information given in confidence.

Please disclose any Ministry of Defence research that has not already been published.

This request is too widely framed so that it would incur disproportionate costs.

What are the highest fees paid by the BBC and who earns them?

This is privileged and personal information.

You've already published the names of the guests who attended Chequers with Tony and Cherie Blair in 2004 so can we now see the guest list for last year?

We may want to publish this information at a later date so we can't give it to you now.

Can we see all the documents, memos and e-mails supporting the Attorney General's advice on the legality of the war in Iraq?

The Government finally published the written advice earlier this year after it was leaked to the media. But some of the other documents have been withheld on the grounds of professional legal privilege which protects disclosure of advice between the Attorney General and his client, in this case the Government.

Can we see Home Office reports on the impact of its plans for compulsory ID cards?

Disclosure would harm the formulation and development of government policy.

Would you tell us a little more about the sweater given to George Bush by Tony Blair?

This information is not in the public interest.

Please disclose all papers concerning the role of the British Government in the arrest and continued detention of the UK residents in Guantanamo Bay.

These documents are covered by privilege and would be exempt because of national security and harm to international relations.

Can we see the documents relating to the policy discussions for the future funding of Britain's schools?

Although this information may be innocuous it could inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation.

Please give us information about the cases referred to the secretive unit, known as the 'clearing house', which fields tricky or potentially embarrassing questions made under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act?

Such information would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.

Robert Verkaik