Dirty politics and the perversion of a new freedom

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The Independent Online

The law on freedom of information came into force less than six weeks ago, but it has already stirred up a veritable hornets' nest of controversy. And the arguments, all too predictably, have been less about what has been released than about what has not been released - or released only tardily, such as the papers relating to Britain's ignominious exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on "Black Wednesday".

The law on freedom of information came into force less than six weeks ago, but it has already stirred up a veritable hornets' nest of controversy. And the arguments, all too predictably, have been less about what has been released than about what has not been released - or released only tardily, such as the papers relating to Britain's ignominious exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on "Black Wednesday".

These were finally published in full yesterday. But they might well not have been, had an exchange of letters between civil servants not found its way to the BBC. This showed that those blocking full release were not, as had been scurrilously put about last weekend, the prime minister and chancellor of the day, but those with a more immediate interest in their non-appearance.

This thoroughly dishonourable saga followed hard on the heels of reports that Labour supporters had been encouraged to request information that could be used to discredit the Tories in the coming election campaign. Information can, of course, be used by opponents of the Government, too. The list of guests entertained by Mr Blair at taxpayers' expense at Chequers may be a case in point. Equally political is ministers' - apparently successful - resistance to releasing details of their diary engagements, even though the identity of those they meet professionally is indisputably a matter of public interest. This may have to be fought in the courts.

What we are seeing here is information being requested, and then released, withheld or used, for purposes that are nakedly political. This is nothing less than a perversion of what the legislation was intended for. The fact that it came into force at the start of a year which is likely to see a hard-fought election may not have been foreseen when the date of implementation was set. But the consequences of this timing are dire.

It is early days, of course. But the misrepresentation and excuses that preceded the release of the Black Wednesday documents suggest that there will be little in the way of genuine freedom of information until after the election - if then.

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