Code of openness tells few secrets

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Indy Politics

Legal Affairs Correspondent

Tests of the Government's new code of open government by the Freedom of Information Campaign have revealed flaws and delays in procedures for revealing Whitehall secrets, MPs heard yesterday.

After the code was introduced a year ago in an attempt by the Government to defuse calls for an information act as in other countries, the pressure group sent a series of questions to various government departments to test the restrictions.

Maurice Frankel, campaign director, told the Commons Select Committee on the Ombudsman yesterday that although most questions were answered in the required 20 working days, the time was "substantially exceeded in a number of cases", even though the campaign's headed paper was used.

Mr Frankel's experience reinforces the patchy responses to questions posed by the Independent under the code, where half received no response at all.

He said a straightforward request to the Department for Education took 34 working days. The Department of the Environment took 35 working days to say it did not have the information to answer questions. The Cabinet Office and the Department of Trade and Industry took 36 days each not to answer, the Treasury 41 days.

When he asked for decisions to be reviewed, delays were even longer. The final appeal is to the Ombudsman via an MP, and Mr Frankel said the public should be able to appeal direct.

James Pawsey, the committee chairman, said when MPs were asked if they always referred complaints to the Ombudsman only 53 per cent said "yes"; 43 per cent said "no".

The Ombudsman, William Reid, and official figures, have noted that only a small number of people have used the appeal process, because few people are aware of its existence.