Government 'using loophole to close its doors to the public'

Secrecy
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Indy Politics

The Government was accused of using a loophole to withhold information from MPs and the public last night as a new study revealed that ministers were refusing to answer more questions than the last Tory administration because of "commercial confidentiality".

The research showed that Labour's use of the exemption loophole has almost doubled since it came to power in 1997, and is now higher than the Conservatives in their last years of office.

Last night Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrats' freedom of information spokesman, accused Tony Blair of reneging on his own commitment to "attack secrecy wherever it exists, public or private sector".

Mr Baker's study found that under Labour use of the "commercial confidentiality" loophole has steadily risen. In 1997 only 81 questions, or 0.26 per cent of the total number of written questions asked by MPs, were blocked by use of the exemption, but this rose to 133 last year, or 0.4 per cent of all written questions.

Under the Tories, answers blocked by the use of commercial confidentiality went down from 0.54 per cent to 0.37 per cent in the three years after a code on open government was introduced in 1994.

Mr Baker said the report's finding showed that the Government was increasingly "closing its doors to the public".

"The increasing use of the commercial confidentiality to withhold important facts from the public is not justified," he said. "Labour's commitment to freedom of information is drowning in a rising tide of commercial confidentiality. The fact is that the public have a right to know."

The MP for Lewes accused the Prime Minister of undermining his own policy on the use of commercial confidentiality to block information, as set out in his 1997 White Paper, The Right to Know.

The paper said: "Commercial confidentiality must not be used as a cloak to deny the public's right to know."

Labour's use of exemption, which is allowed under the open government code introduced in 1994, has been repeatedly made to withhold information on the private finance initiative and arms exports. Ministers also blocked MPs' inquiries about the Ilisu Dam project in Turkey.

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