Donald Macintyre: A reminder to Mr Blair: we have a right to know what you are doing

'Nothing would do more to dissipate the Government's reputation for spin than a little more openness'
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The Independent Online

This afternoon in the House of Lords, the Government will write a shameful postscript to the three long years in which it has used every stratagem to emasculate to the point of invisibility a measure which in 1996 Tony Blair promised would be "absolutely fundamental" to the way Labour governed Britain.

Made at a time of international crisis, the announcement would not normally attract much attention. As it is, it is likely to be overshadowed today even for liberals by David Blunkett's controversial, draconian and much more topical counter-terrorism Bill. Yet whatever the flaws in Mr Blunkett's Bill, it is at least a response to the utterly altered demands on national security in the world-changing aftermath of 11 September. No such excuse, indeed no credible excuse at all, can be advanced for the decision to postpone implementation of the Freedom of Information Act for nearly four years.

For this decision, which will be reported to peers today, has absolutely nothing to do with the struggle on terrorism. For the hubristic notion of a delay was first floated within Whitehall as long ago as the beginning of the year. And in any case, blanket exemptions cover – no doubt rightly – every aspect of national security.

Instead it is the most potent indication of how far the Blair government is prepared to go to obstruct even the most mundane and harmless vestiges of an open government policy in which it once purported so passionately to believe. It means that for at least seven years after it first came into office, on a manifesto which pledged an Act and which declared correctly that "unnecessary secrecy leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions" this administration will have done notably less towards open government than did the Major regime.

The immediate cry will be that it doesn't matter, other than to chatterers or obsessives. When there is so much going on in the world, when the Government has such a grown-up job to do, how can you get exercised about something so absurdly trivial?

The answer, I think, (beside the fact that if it were such an unimportant issue the Government would not have done so much to limit its impact) concerns government credibility. And not only in the sense that today's announcement represents one of the most flagrant breaches of the spirit of its promises that New Labour has yet perpetrated.

Practical arguments about needing more time to prepare for implementation simply don't wash. For a start, not only did it take Canada and Ireland a year to implement an Act, New Zealand seven months and Australia nine months, but the Information Commissioner, the respected Elizabeth France, who will have direct responsibility for enforcement, told the Lord Chancellor last month that her optimum timetable would be to bring central government by October 2002, local government by April 2003, the NHS and the police by October 2003, and other public bodies by October 2004. Now nothing will happen until the end of 2004.

Shortly before the Act became law, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw argued in a chance meeting with Maurice Frankel, the redoubtable one-man campaigner for FOI who was lavishly praised by Mr Blair in his 1996 speech, that he was doing what he could to meet the chorus of complaints about its emasculation. "Don't push your luck," he warned. It now appears that, indefensibly, the threat implicit in that remark has been carried out.

Some officials mutter sotto voce that the "real reason" for the delay is that they fear that controversial figures will follow the example of the former Tory treasurer, Lord Ashcroft, who has enterprisingly sought under the Data Protection Act to see the Foreign Office files on his own affairs in Belize. But since those making such requests under the FOI Act will simply be told to make them under the Data Protection Act, that may (or may not) be an argument for amending the latter, not for delaying the former.

No, the real issue of credibility is this. Nothing would do more to dissipate the Government's still corrosive reputation for spin (of the sort which has dogged Stephen Byers' otherwise commendable attempts to put Railtrack on a better footing) than a willingness to be (modestly) more open about matters that don't for a moment concern security. It's often the case that government and public bodies have less to be ashamed of than we think. But they have a problem of trust. Which is one reason why the public tends to be (quite possibly unreasonably) sceptical of its claims in war and peace.

Does anybody doubt for a moment that the publication of minutes of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee – first introduced by the last government – has not added to the Bank's authority? But the same principle applies across a much broader swathe of government.

We all know the Bill was considerably watered down from the bold White Paper originally authored by Lord Irvine and the then Cabinet Minister, David Clarke. The stipulation that information would only be refused if it did "substantial harm" to the proper tasks of government – like law enforcement. Now it can be refused if ministers decide it merely "prejudices" such interests.

But it still offers at least the chance that a commuter can find out whether the recommendations of a rail inquiry report have actually been implemented. Or that never again will a top veterinary scientist have to complain – as he did in the BSE inquiry – that he was denied official information that might have prevented the catastrophe. Or that in a hundred other ways, the bodies of the state could in future be saved from themselves.

Easily the most persuasive defence ever of FOI legislation was made by Tony Blair in that 1996 speech. An Act, he said, would "signal a new relationship between government and people; a relationship which sees the public as legitimate stakeholders in the running of the country and sees election to serve the public as being given on trust".

It's that same Tony Blair who has now called for the further delay. At the expense of what would be, in the Prime Minister's own words five years ago, "not just more open government but more effective and efficient government for the future".

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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