Question time finds officials short of answers

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Indy Politics
The fate of letters sent on behalf of the Independent to test the freedom of information code suggests the response of government departments has been patchy and often inadequate, writes Stephen Ward.

Each of the public bodies covered by the code is supposed to have appointed a liaison officer to handle requests and direct them to the relevant section for an answer.

Six test letters were sent from home addresses by Independent staff members under the code, which is part of the Citizen's Charter. The letters were sent at the start of November to the "Open Government Desk" at main Whitehall addresses. Only two received a reply within the 20 days recommended. One reply came back after three months, and three more are still outstanding.

In at least one case the department, when asked about the letters, said it was possible that addressing a letter to the Open Government Desk would be sufficient information for it to reach the right person. However, it suggested that it would have been better to address it to the Secretary of State. No department asked for money to carry out the research needed, as they may under the code.

The Home Office failed to respond to a question asking whether a reporter's telephone had ever been tapped. A citizen has no right to know if his telephone is tapped legally, authorised by the Home Secretary, but is allowed by law to ask a special tribunal if it has been tapped illegally. The Home Office should have referred the questioner to this tribunal.

The same department was asked how much money police forces pay out each year in ex gratia compensation payments to victims of wrongful prosecution or arrest. A letter came back on 1 February apologising for the delay, saying: "This information is not collected centrally, and responsibility lay with the 43 police forces in England and Wales." The search for information ended there, because the police is one of the public bodies exempted from the open government code.

The Independent's experience is hard to reconcile with the official Home Office statistics in the report, in which the department claims to have handled 265 requests for information under the code up to the end of 1994, to have answered 263 within 20 days, and only refused one.

The Department of Transport failed to reply to a letter asking how many parking spaces were allocated to civil servants and what were their grades. The press office could not find any trace of the letter or say if all code requests were centrally logged. The Department of Health was asked if any patients had been infected in Britain by doctors or nurses found to be HIV positive. A holding letter came within a week, and within a month the answer from the senior officer of the Communicable Diseases Branch, Dr Susan Turnbull, said there had been no known cases.

Another prompt response came from Celeste Bramble, of the Ministry of Defence's records office, who answered a detailed question about the availability of Army records from the First World War within 10 days. In a detailed letter, she listed papers at the Public Record Office on war diaries covering the Dardanelles, East Africa and Mesopotamia. "However, you may be interested to know that a large amount of ... material was destroyed in the Second World War, when the War Office repository ... was bombed during the blitz," she wrote. These included a "card index system pertaining to military hospitals".

But the MoD failed to respond to a request to give the numbers of servicemen and women dismissed from the forces for being gay or lesbian. It said it has no record of the letter having arrived, but would be happy to provide the information.

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