Right to information being kept secret

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Indy Politics
Whitehall's mandarin in charge of open government said yesterday that the Government was deliberately trying to keep down the number of requests from the public for official information because of the difficulties of coping with a large number of questions.

An open government code came into force in April last year, giving individuals and organisations the right to ask for any information from any department, but far fewer people have used the right than in other countries, probably because it is largely unknown and has not yet been advertised.

Andrew Whetnall, head of the machinery of government division of the Cabinet Office, told MPs yesterday: "I'm not surprised the Government has stopped short of urging people to use their rights."

Mr Whetnall told the Commons Select Committee for the Ombudsman, which polices the code, that in all countries which had freedom of information laws they were only used by "a fraction of 1 per cent" of the population. "If they were taken up by a much larger number, departments would get into serious difficulties," he said.

The Government spent only £51,000 across every department publicising the code, through leaflets distributed to law advice centres, local departmental offices and Citizens Advice Bureaux.

Mr Whetnall said media advertising had been considered, but it had been found that no other country had advertised, so the Government decided not to do so either.

There had been no survey to try to discover levels of awareness of the code. "I think public awareness of the code is is quite high in those circles likely to have an interest in access," he told the committee.

He said there had been less press and television coverage of the code in Britain because it was not backed by an Act of Parliament.

Asked if he thought it had been a mistake not to pass a freedom of information law in Britain, he said: "It's a defensible case that this is a viable way to proceed without going down a path which can lead to an excessively legalistic approach."

He blamed media reports focusing on high charges made by some departments for information for deterring applicants."It is early days," he said. "I hope use will build up, especially of the appeal rights."

People who are refused information have the right to an internal review of the decision, then can ask an MP to pass it to the Ombudsman to examine the decision.

James Pawsey, the Conservative chairman of the committee, told him people needed to be told routinely about their rights to appeal.