Code of openness fails to catch the public imagination

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Official figures released yesterday confirmed fears that few people have used the open government code in its first year, probably because it is almost unknown.

Some big departments had remarkably few questions: the Department of the Environment has received only 24 requests, Health 26, Agriculture 12, Social Security 12 and Transport 11.

The code of conduct was introduced last April to deflect demands for a Freedom of Information Act similar to those in the United States, Canada and Australia. Any individual or organisation has the right to ask for information from the files of any department. This can range from requests for details from a personal security file, to a protest group asking for the relative costs of routes for a proposed bypass.

Whitehall sources said that only £51,000 was spent in the first year between all government departments and public bodies to produce leaflets publicising the code. These are left with Citizen's Advice Bureaux and in post offices.There are no plans to place public advertisements, as suggested last week by William Reid, the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

David Hunt, the Cabinet minister responsible for open government, said figures collated by the Cabinet Office suggested 2,600 people had used the code in its first nine months, but other countries have much higher levels of use. In Australia, which has a much smaller population, 7,000 people made requests in the first seven months, and the total there is now 30,000 a year.

According to the Cabinet Office figures, 2,493 of the 2,600 requests were answered inside 20 days. Only 89 were refused, and 21 more refused in part. The figures have not been checked for accuracy by the Cabinet Office.

Experts were sceptical that the true figure was as high as 2,600, suggesting it was probably less than 1,000 and that some departments had included other routine inquiries to inflate their figures. Maurice Frankel, director of the Freedom of Information Campaign, pointed out that 1,059 of the inquiries came from the Welsh Office, which included all requests "outside the run of information usually asked for, whether or not the applicant specifically mentions the code". The Welsh Office claims to have answered all but 10 of these within the 20 days stipulated under the code, and to have refused none.

Mr Frankel said the Scottish Office, by comparison, had received only 45 requests, and answered 38 on time. The Northern Ireland Office had received five requests. He also expressed surprise that the Employment Service had received 831 requests under the code, and had handled all but one on time, and refused none.

The Cabinet Office does not record the number of requests for which the departments charged a fee. Most give the first hour, or simple answers, free, then begin charging. Only one person has complained to the Ombudsman that the charges were unreasonably high, and the Ombudsman has still to rule.

Departments are allowed to reject requests if the information is "internal discussion and advice", or would interfere with "effective management and operation of the public service". Whitehall sources said case law would gradually build up to define the limits of these exemptions.

One category of unsuccessful request that the figures will inevitably exclude covers those which were lost in the bureaucracy of Whitehall and never reached the open government liaison desk to be logged as a request.

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