Secret spin unit 'was set up to protect the Government'

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A secret "spin department" has been set up inside Whitehall to deal with questions brought under the Freedom of Information Act that threaten to damage or embarrass the Government.

A secret "spin department" has been set up inside Whitehall to deal with questions brought under the Freedom of Information Act that threaten to damage or embarrass the Government.

The unit was consulted over the release of the resignation letter of Elizabeth Wilmshurst and agreed with the censoring of the paragraph revealing that the Attorney General changed his mind on the legality of war.

Whitehall departments have been ordered to send "difficult" requests to the "clearing house" before they can be approved. Internal documents obtained by The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act show this includes all requests for information relating to the Prime Minister.

The Foreign Office confirmed last night that the clearing house was consulted about whether to release the resignation letter of Ms Wilmshurst and that it had agreed with other departments to score out the paragraph relating to the Attorney General's change of mind. A Foreign Office spokesman said the decision to excise it was because it related to professional legal advice, which can be exempted from release under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, told The Independent yesterday that he was encouraged by the amount of information being released since the Act came into force, but he confirmed that he would be reviewing the Government's decision not to release the legal advice.

MPs yesterday accused the Government of trying to manipulate the Act to save it from embarrassment. Adam Price, the Plaid Cymru MP, said that the establishment of the clearing house was "very sinister" and "a ploy to make everything as unclear as possible. This is the kind of dark art one expects from a party machine, not from the government information service."

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, said he planned to table questions about the function of the department and why MPs' questions relating to Mr Blair were now referred to it. "Only New Labour could institute a Freedom of Information Act and then create a secret spin department to thwart requests for information," he said.

The unit is known to have advised that requests be refused and provided grounds for doing so, although on other occasions it has also urged departments to be more open.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: "The danger is that a department may want to disclose information and now will be prevented by Downing Street's anxieties."

The Government last night denied the unit was trying to stop information being released. "The public deserves clarity and clearly some of these things cross between departments," a spokesman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said. "The objective is to ensure there is clarity of response."

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