Government ministers to retain 150 'secrecy laws'

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Ministers are to keep nearly 150 laws that deny the public a right to information, according to an interim report on a wide-ranging study that was intended to open up the Government and its agencies to greater scrutiny.

Freedom of information campaigners warned last night that the retention of the "secrecy laws" showed that ministers and their civil servants were still wedded to a culture of secrecy. The review is part of a Government-wide initiative to repeal laws that conflict with the new Freedom of Information Act that comes into force on 1 January 2005 and gives everyone a right to access information.

But in a report seen by The Independent ministers say they want to retain the right of non-disclosure in 147 pieces of legislation. Ministers say they have not made up their minds on whether an additional 70 pieces of legislation should also be added to the list.

Yesterday the Government's own information watchdog warned that while many of these cases for denying access to information could be justified in the public interest, a significant number could not.

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner who polices the Freedom of Information Act, said yesterday that one of the laws the Government intended keeping concerned his own powers. Under the Data Protection Act it is a criminal offence for the Commissioner or any of his staff to disclose information that he has gathered while carrying out his duties in connection with the Act. Ministers have refused Mr Thomas's request to repeal this law.

Mr Thomas, who was a senior lawyer at Clifford Chance, the London law firm, before being appointed Information Commissioner last year, said: "This has a chilling effect because it can cover any information that comes into my possession. I hope this is still part of an ongoing debate I am having with ministers and that they will change their minds before next year."

Under the current law Mr Thomas could be prevented from identifying an individual or company that has been the subject of widespread complaints relating to breaches of data protection laws.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said the Government should have repealed or amended all legislation that conflicted with the Freedom of Information Act rather than conducting a department-by-department review. Mr Frankel said: "The exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act are wide enough to prevent disclosure where it represents an invasion of privacy or is against the national interest. But some of these pieces of legislation that the Government wishes to retain are catch-all bars to disclosure."

He said he could understand why third parties should be barred from finding out about others' personal medical details, but the Government's list included examples that were "absurd or ridiculous".

The Anatomy Act 1994 included provisions that could block the disclosure of information relating to a health inspector's investigation into the retention of human organs. The Agriculture Act 1994 appeared to restrict access to information about the preparation of fertilisers.

After Alder Hey and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) scandals it is hard to justify how these statutory barriers to information can serve the public interest, Mr Frankel said. "It is clear that some Government departments are more attached to secrecy than others," added Mr Frankel.

A spokesman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said last night: "The Government has shown real commitment in rolling back the amount of legislation that prohibits the disclosure of information under the Act. There is an ongoing review to repeal or amend legislation, and the detail of this is set out in our progress report published in November. That progress report makes clear the reasons why 147 items to date have been proposed for retention: 24 protect information gathered under compulsion; 54 apply to bodies not covered by the Freedom of Information Act; 23 apply only to specified information and provide for a limited access regime; and 46 implement an international obligation."