Waldegrave promises more openness in government

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM WALDEGRAVE, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and former Foreign Office minister, yesterday promised greater access to personal records and a lasting foundation for less secretive public administration.

His White Paper on Open Government was immediately attacked by critics who insisted it did not go far enough and still left too much power to Whitehall to decide what information should be disclosed.

The long-awaited White Paper set out a new code of practice on access to information held by the Government. Mr Waldegrave told the Commons that the Government was committed to 'a clear set of principles governing what information will be available'.

The public will have a statutory right of access to personal files and health and safety information. The Government will also release, as a matter of course, the facts, analysis and reasoning that lie behind decisions. Complaints about non-disclosure will be passed via MPs to the parliamentary Ombudsman.

Other proposals are the wider use of the 'harm test' to decide whether whistle-blowers should be prosecuted. They will be penalised only if the leak caused harm or damage. In future, public records will not be closed for more than 30 years unless actual damage would be caused by their release.

Mr Waldegrave announced the review of previously unreleased records, including wartime Cabinet papers, decoded signals for Winston Churchill, now held by GCHQ and court martial reports. He accompanied the White Paper with the release at the Public Records Office of 150 files on the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

He also announced a review of the 'D Notice' procedure governing press coverage of sensitive defence matters.

In the Commons, Marjorie Mowlam, Labour's spokeswoman on Citizen's Charter issues, said the White Paper's 'big problem was that in the end it's a government minister who decides what information is made available to the public.' Nothing would be gained, she said, from complaining to the Ombudsman, who was 'slow, bureaucratic and toothless'.

Maurice Frankel, for The Campaign for Freedom of Information, also questioned the reliance on the Ombudsman. Experience in Canada, which has a freedom of information regime, had shown that he could expect to receive in the region of 1,500 complaints a year - in addition to his already heavy work-load. 'How is the system going to cope? Investigations will take so long that it will be like writing to Father Christmas,' Mr Frankel said.

White Paper details, page 7

(Photograph omitted)