Whitehall `abuses spirit' of information law

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The Independent Online
MEMBERS OF the public accused the Government yesterday of abusing "the spirit" of the Freedom of Information Act and blocking requests they had made.

They expressed frustration with the lack of openness shown by Whitehall departments and blamed the Government for "going out of their way to avoid giving out material".

Departments across government have been rejecting requests - some of them routine - from members of the public since the Act came into force on 1 January.

John Large, a nuclear consultant, who performed the hazard assessments on the raising of the crippled Kursk submarine, has asked two questions since the Act came into force. One related to a conference that was held and another to a job that was advertised with a government quango. Mr Large was refused access to the documents on both counts, once on the ground that it would breach national security and the other that it was not in the public interest.

Mr Large said he would appeal and if necessary take it to the information commissioner.

"I put in an FOI request to them and they came back to say it was not in the national security interest to release the information," he said. "Civil servants might be acting overly cautiously. And punters might be throwing all their zeal into the Act without full understanding of its application."

David Lowry, a self-employed environmental research consultant, has asked about 10 questions, and received only one positive response. Mr Lowry was one of the 18 people to ask to see the advice of Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, on the legal basis for the Iraq war. He has appealed and plans to ask the information commissioner to adjudicate.

"They seem to be going out of their way to avoid giving out material. In some ways I am not surprised. Maybe civil servants have been trained not to give answers. They seem to be looking for ways of not responding according to the spirit of the Act," he said.

Marcus Williamson, 39, a computer expert, has put in several requests under the Act, but has been knocked back on the grounds that answering would not be in the public interest. He wanted to know more about a businessman who had taken a job with M16 who was referred to by the BBC.

"The response is not in the spirit of the Act," he said. "They are waiting until the last minute and then coming up with excuses about cost. It's a feeble interpretation of the law. Although I am a UK citizen I had a better experience applying for information in the United States."