Freedom Of Information: The right to know about history but not current affairs

Requests for politically embarrassing material have been made harmless in the slow appeals system. Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, considers cases now looking distinctly dusty
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is well known that the wheels of justice can run slowly, but the grinding process of seeking satisfaction under the right-to-know legislation is in danger of transforming requests for information about current affairs into something akin to historical research.

This week, the Information Tribunal ordered the Government to release an early draft of the dossier on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction published ahead of the Iraq war.

The tribunal ruled that ministers should publish the 32-page draft, drawn up by the former Foreign Office head of news John Williams weeks before the final dossier was published in September 2002. This information is now almost six years old and although it is still of political interest, the intervening events, and a new prime minister, mean that it is of more interest to historians than members of the public set on getting to the truth.

Of greater concern is that the matter is still no nearer being resolved. The Foreign Office may now challenge the ruling in the High Court or trump the tribunal decision by brandishing a ministerial veto, both permitted under the Freedom of Information Act.

Tony Blair's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was a hugely controversial document. It first made the now discredited claim that Saddam's armed forces could unleash weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, and caused great political harm to the Blair government. While Labour is in power, there is every reason to think that ministers will fight to the end.

There was further evidence this week of how the appeals process is being used to take the sting out of requests made in the public interest.

The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, ordered the House of Commons to release further details of some MPs' spending in 2003-04, including expenses and staff costs, on the grounds that such expenses arise from their role as public representatives and are reimbursed from the public purse.

One of the MPs named in the application is Tony Blair, who retired from the House of Commons last year. Another is Michael Howard, who no longer leads his party and is due to step down from parliamentary office at the next election. Costs incurred by Charles Kennedy, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, during 2003 are also of much less interest today than they were five years ago.

In making his decision, Mr Thomas considered whether the information requested related to individuals acting in an official rather than a private capacity. In the Information Commissioner's view, if individual MPs had not been elected to carry out their role as public representatives they would not be entitled to claim the related expenses. However, Mr Thomas said he fully accepted that MPs are entitled to expect that personal information about their private lives will be appropriately protected from disclosure.

He said that it would be unfair to disclose the specific sums paid to named staff members. Instead Mr Thomas believes that releasing the total staffing costs broken down by month for the year requested and the number of staff this pertains to each month would not be unfair.

But is the public any closer to seeing the figures? The House of Commons authorities said they were likely to seek an extension of the appeal deadline, in order to see the outcome of a similar case due to be heard next month.

r.verkaik@independent.co.uk

Comments