Secretive departments to be blacklisted

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Whitehall departments that consistently reject requests to see confidential documents will be publicly "named and shamed" after the new Freedom of Information Act comes into force today.

Whitehall departments that consistently reject requests to see confidential documents will be publicly "named and shamed" after the new Freedom of Information Act comes into force today.

The number of requests for information that have been turned down by each government department will be published at least every six months in order to show which ministers are being open and which are keeping their documents secret.

In an interview with The Independent, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, said the new Act would "inevitably mean breaking the instinct of secrecy" within Whitehall. "It will certainly be public what requests have been made and what refusals have been made," he said. The Government is bracing itself for thousands of requests under the new rules, including dozens of applications to see the legal advice of the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, on the invasion of Iraq.

Lord Falconer said that he thought the Government would appeal to exemptions contained in the Act and would not release the secret papers about the war. Asked if he thought a request to see the legal advice would be agreed, he replied: "I suspect it won't be." He did say that the refusal to release contentious information such as Lord Goldsmith's advice could create a bad impression.

The Act would force ministers to operate more openly if they knew that the facts and figures behind their decisions could be seen by voters.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the new rights will be big business, which can use the powers to force public bodies to disclose information about competitors. In the US, the business community is the biggest user of freedom of information rules. Lawyers say the same could happen in the UK, as it becomes easier to get information on the activities of government, regulators and competitors.

Lord Falconer's remarks came as a senior Tory MP accused the information commissioner of being "a govern- ment lapdog and not a watchdog" and asked him to consider quitting. Julian Lewis accused Richard Thomas of "immediately rushing to the Government's defence" after The Independent revealed that hundreds of thousands of secret files had been shredded by Whitehall departments before the new laws came into force.

The attack came after Mr Thomas said there was "no hard evidence" that files were being shredded, despite a huge rise in the number of government papers destroyed across Whitehall.

Mr Lewis said: "This man appears to be more of a lapdog than a watchdog of the Government. I find his attitude as astonishing as it is disturbing. He is like a judge who is new to his job and determined to see, hear and find no evil."

Yesterday, a spokesman for the information commissioner denied he was biased towards the Government and said he would carry out investigations if he found "evidence of deliberate destruction".

HOW TO USE THE NEW LEGISLATION

By Robert Verkaik

The right to know: Everyone has the right to any recorded information held by a public body or government department. This includes letters, e-mails, memos, minutes, policy documents, police reports, school governors' reports, or any research or inquiry findings. The rightapplies retrospectively, superseding the 30-year rule on the disclosure of government information.

Making a request: For the quickest results, requests should be made in writing to a freedom of information officer. But a letter or e-mail to any of the 100,000 bodies affected by the Act can activate the legislation. Applications must be answered within 20 days.

Exemptions: About 23. but most have to be balanced against the public interest in making the disclosure.

Refusals: All subject to appeal to the Information Commissioner. A request for very sensitive material can be blocked by a ministerial veto that can be challenged only in court.

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