Parliament and Politics / Open Government?: Minister for open government leads block on press

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WILLIAM WALDEGRAVE, the Cabinet minister responsible for open government, has helped Whitehall departments block requests to provide more information about policy decisions.

When the Independent asked him for the factual and analytical material relating to his own areas of responsibility, the Citizen's Charter and open government, he was unable or unwilling to comply. His explanation was: 'You may not always find 'background' papers in the form envisaged by Croham,' - a reference to a previous government directive that as much information as possible should be made available about policy formation.

The Ministry of Defence, Department of Education, Ministry of Agriculture, and the departments of Trade and Industry, Transport and Health, have all subsequently drawn on Mr Waldegrave's response to block disclosure of background papers to the Independent.

Employment and Environment have not even bothered to reply to specific requests for disclosure of factual and analytical material.

Having told BBC television's On the Record programme that it was his job 'to pull on the end of the string for openness', he said in a 24 May interview: 'Much more information should be given about the factual basis that lies behind various different kinds of (policy) options.'

Mr Waldegrave also said that a Whitehall directive on such disclosure still existed, and that he was 'the minister in charge of seeing that it works'.

That directive, issued by Sir Douglas Allen as head of the Home Civil Service on 6 July, 1977, became known as the Croham directive following Sir Douglas's elevation to the House of Lords as Lord Croham in 1978.

In his directive, Sir Douglas followed up the Queen's Speech pledge of James Callaghan on 24 November, 1976. The Labour Prime Minister said: 'When the Government make major policy studies, it will be our policy in future to publish as much as possible of the factual and analytical material which is used as the background to these studies.'

Mr Waldegrave conceded during the On the Record interview that the Croham directive had made little difference, and he said that the civil service 'should be willing to publish rather more of the factual background to decision-taking than they have in the past.'

Asked to advise Mr Waldegrave on how to tackle Whitehall's problem, Lord Croham told BBC radio's Analysis on 25 June: 'I think it's fairly easy to work . . . you have to have a programme laying down which things should be looked at first, because you have to start with having, in departments, policy analysis and review. If they're not doing that, then there's nothing to work on.

'To the extent that any government wants to look at the options genuinely and take a rational view of the possibilities, it's a natural thing to start with a good analysis.

'And, in my view, it helps the Government if that analysis is public so that the public can react to it and the Government can then use the public reaction when they are considering the policy options.'

Mr Waldegrave said Lord Croham's advice should be taken seriously. 'It would be easy to get round the present drive for more openness by saying, 'Well, your criteria, Minister, are sensible for what should be published. Unfortunately, nothing that we actually have in our department fits your criteria so we can't publish anything'.'

Yet Mr Waldegrave had already delivered that classic Yes, Minister response to the Independent, and when his office circulated it to other Whitehall departments, they replied in similarly obstructive terms.

However, Mr Waldegrave went on to tell Analysis that he was planning a White Paper 'which will both set out some practical steps and procedures and may reaffirm the doctrines (of openness)'.

He said in his On the Record interview that he was not sure that a public right to know would help. But he added: 'The biggest right of all is the right of good government, so what I believe is that if you have more information you're likely to get better government . . .

'What I want to get people interested in is actually the day-to- day practical useable information about how people are governed, about the decisions that are taken.'

The next stage in the struggle for openness will come with Mr Waldegrave's White Paper, which he told Analysis would be issued 'sometime in the relatively near future'. His office disclosed last week that the key word was 'relatively'. It is not expected until the end of the year, at the earliest.