Move to Docklands 'an abuse'

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The Independent Online
The decision to move 2,000 Department of the Environment officials from Westminster to Docklands in east London was attacked yesterday as an abuse of power by Jack Straw, Labour's environment spokesman.

In a letter to Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr Straw protested at the secrecy of the decision-making process. Citing statements made by William Waldegrave, the Cabinet minister responsible for open government, Mr Straw said that it was government policy to disclose the background material to ministerial decisions 'unless there are pressing public interest reasons for secrecy'.

He said in his letter: 'No issues of national security are involved, there are a range of options which patently have to be considered, and the main decision - to move these officials - has already been taken . . . but far from open government illuminating the reasons . . . they have been clouded in excessive and unjustified secrecy.'

Mr Straw said that a report on the structure and condition of the department's existing Marsham Street building had been suppressed; a further report on alternative locations had been withheld; ministers had refused to identify the value-for-money criteria on which Docklands had been preferred; and had refused to answer factual questions about the costs of refurbishing Marsham Street, and about other options.

Mr Straw told a press conference at Westminster: 'This administration's rules on open government will turn out to be no more than cynical verbiage unless they are practised by all ministers, as well as occasionally preached by Mr Waldegrave. The Docklands move is a key test of Mr Waldegrave's authority as well as of the credibility of these rules.

'There's a nasty whiff around the Docklands-Department of the Environment move, made all the more pungent by this secrecy. If the Conservatives now reckon that taxpayers' money should be used to bail out overblown Docklands property development, they must do so openly. This secretive decision-making with the public's money is an abuse of power.'

Mr Straw added that he had been told by the Commons library that there was an estimated 6.5 million square feet of empty office space in Westminster, enough to accommodate 30,000 office workers. He told Mr Howard: 'Why is information on whether any of this accommodation is more suitable and cost effective than Docklands being withheld . . ?'