Maurice Frankel: It's Britain, so some doors are locked

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The Independent Online

The Freedom of Information Act has begun to open doors - but is yet to be fully tested against those the Government is determined to keep locked.

The good news is that we have a functioning Act which has produced a substantial amount of previously undisclosed information. Of course, plenty of requests have been refused. But this is Britain: what did you expect? The greater surprise is what has been disclosed. We have seen the Metropolitan Police Commissioner's letter proposing to block the Independent Police Complaints Commission inquiry into the Stockwell shooting. We now know that the PowerderJect pharmaceutical firm, later owned by Labour minister Lord Drayson, failed to tell the Department of Health that it was producing substandard batches of BCG vaccine. The secret list of possible nuclear waste disposal sites drawn up in the 1980s has been revealed. Outside of central government there have been releases about food safety, parking fines, violence in schools, contract costs and other issues.

Most of this information has been released without charge. Unfortunately, fees for environmental information are being imposed by some authorities, taking advantage of weaker provisions in the parallel Environmental Information Regulations. The Act's free access cannot be taken for granted. A move to a higher charging scheme is already being discussed.

Delays have been a problem. Although the Act requires requests to be answered within 20 working days, many requests overshoot. The Treasury meets the 20-day limit in only 43 per cent of cases. Yet some departments deal with 80 per cent of requests on time.

Some FOI officials are positive about the Act. But others see FOI as an intrusion and their instinct is to slap on exemptions. The Ministry of Defence answers two-thirds of requests in full and is diligent in complying with the Act's duty to assist requesters. Yet when asked for copies of assessments of the implications of replacing Trident, the MOD refused to say if it held such material.

In some areas there is a reluctance to open up, particularly about the basis for government decisions. Whitehall guidance says the "working assumption" should be to withhold advice but to release background information. All too often everything, including background material, is withheld. The Act requires disclosure unless openness would cause more harm to the public interest than good. But the Whitehall reflex is too often to say no.

Some of these issues should be resolved by the Information Commissioner. But the commissioner has a backlog of more than 1,300 unresolved complaints. Although the commissioner has issued some 120 formal decisions, the majority involve procedural issues about delays or disputes about what information exists. Only 24 decisions deal with the substantive issues and none involveexemptions relating to policy-making, frankness of discussion or the "effective conduct of public affairs". By contrast the commissioner who enforces the Scottish FOI Act has issued 55 decisions, beginning the process of chipping away at the excessive use of exemptions.

Maurice Frankel is director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information,