Whitehall fights shy of openness

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A CONSERVATIVE promise to repeal dozens of secrecy clauses in Acts of Parliament is floundering after concerted Whitehall resistance.

Officials have identified around 250 laws that give powers of secrecy, but government departments have fought a fierce rearguard action to retain powers that allow them to conceal information from the public.

William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Cabinet minister responsible for the Office of Public Services and Science, launched his drive for open government in May. It was expected to take two months. He intended to force departments to release information unless there were compelling grounds for not doing so. Health and safety reports and the findings of pharmaceutical inspectors were thought likely to be made public through the exercise.

But next year, instead of listing dozens of clauses to be repealed, his department will publish a White Paper citing all legislation with secrecy provisions and discussing 'solutions', possibly including guidance on using discretionary powers to release information.

Mr Waldegrave's allies conceded last week that the process has proved 'longer and more complex' than expected. The minister still believes that some clauses will eventually be repealed, but last week his office was not willing to specify any. It said that there were good reasons for many areas of secrecy.

If the White Paper fails to advocate the repeal of many secrecy clauses, it could undermine his argument that a Freedom of Information Act is unnecessary.

Some Cabinet ministers, notably Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, have backed the open government policy, but their contributions have chiefly involved the early release of historical documents.

The surrender of secrecy powers has been much more difficult. The Department of the Environment said last week: 'We are looking very carefully across the range of subjects and it is too soon to say what the outcome will be.' But privately the department is arguing that it already observes an open government policy and is delivering objectives specified under European directives on environmental data. No progress appears to have been made in the Department of Employment, which is responsible for the Health and Safety at Work 1976 Act. Officials in several departments had not even heard of Mr Waldegrave's initiative.

Mr Waldegrave is also facing resistance to tentative proposals to create a government science service to co-ordinate all scientific research conducted for Whitehall departments. Ministers at the Office of Public Services and Science, which would take charge of the new body, argue that it would achieve savings by negotiating contracts on a larger scale.

But departments such as Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture are reluctant to surrender the work to another department.