Whitehall accused of sabotaging openness

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The Independent Online
New civil service codes of conduct for the release of public information were attacked as "too restrictive" yesterday by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The codes will make it more difficult for the Ombudsman to investigate in environmental cases, including the high charges for information relating to the BSE "mad cow" disease, and a total blanket has been thrown over information relating to MI5.

A member of the public was told he would have to pay over pounds 6,000 under John Major's Open Government proposals if he insisting in demanding information about the handling of "mad cow" disease by renderers and incinerators.

The high price of information was seen last night by the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFI) as further evidence of the way that Whitehall is breaking the spirit of the Prime Minister's drive to make Government more open.

The Ministry of Agriculture told Alan Watson, from Gower, South Wales, that the information would cost pounds 1,293. But the ministry might have to seek legal advice, which could push up the cost by pounds 5,195.

When Mr Watson, a civil engineer, complained to CFI in London, they took up his case with the ombudsman. But a new code of practice issued yesterday by Roger Freeman, the Cabinet minister with responsibility for the civil service, has made it worse.

Maurice Frankel, director of the CFI, said: "Until now, the ombudsman could ask for information covered by the code of practice and he would be able to challenge it. But under the new code, that remedy has been removed."

The Government presented the codes as a modest tidying up measure, but the CFI believes that in the small print, they have tightened up the restrictions.

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