Freedom of information must be more than just a phrase for ministers

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The Independent Online

The hypocrisy of this Government is sometimes breathtaking, not least because it tries so hard to persuade us that it is full of good intentions. Tony Blair and his colleagues are always preaching the virtues of decency, openness and ethical what-have-you. But their preaching and practice have often proved distant relatives, at best.

Back in the long-forgotten glory days of 1997, freedom of information campaigners were won over by New Labour official enthusiasm for glasnost. They praised the Government for its "impressive" moves, in a society where, notoriously, the cult of secrecy had ruled for so long. In the meantime, however, those good intentions have largely been forgotten. Sir Michael Buckley, the parliamentary ombudsman and official watchdog on freedom of information, talks in an interview with The Independent today of his frustration that ministers seem to regard openness as a nuisance, at best.

Sir Michael – whose knighthood came in the New Year's Honours; perhaps Downing Street vainly hopes that knights will keep their mouths shut – says he finds it "hard to understand" why the Government remains secretive even on issues where there appears to be nothing to conceal. He notes that Jack Straw, as Home Secretary, became the first minister to refuse an ombudsman's recommendation to release information. In short: glasnost, schmasnost.

Mr Straw's action is not a mere aberration. On the contrary, his loathing of openness is part and parcel of the new regime. At least one cabinet minister pressed hard for tough freedom of information legislation, from the start. But he and others like him were sidelined in the brave new Labour world, where secrecy remains entrenched. In opposition, Labour liked to boast of its commitment to freedom of information – in sharp contrast to the dastardly Conservatives, who kept trying to put public-spirited whistleblowers behind bars. Now, however, the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act has been delayed until 2005. Eight years to enact a piece of legislation is, by any measure, absurdly long. The Governnment fails entirely to understand the self-evident point that is succinctly made by Sir Michael. "Although freedom of information and openness can be rather a pain at the time, they are good for you in the long run."

The Government's neglect and apparent distrust of the Freedom of Information Bill form part of a dismal pattern. In recent weeks and months, it has shown the same shortsightedness (and dishonesty) in its shabby treatment of public servants who do their jobs more efficiently than the Government would wish them to. Thus, the Prime Minister tried to suggest that what was in effect the sacking of Elizabeth Filkin, the parliamentary standards commissioner, was in no way connected to the fact that she had upset some Labour heavyweights. (Of course not; what a shocking thought.) Then came the news that Elizabeth France, the information commissioner, had also decided not to reapply for her job; the Government's lack of support was an important reason for her decision. As Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on freedom of information, wryly noted: "The Government is making a bad habit of losing talented female watchdogs called Elizabeth."

The news is not 150 per cent bleak. The Freedom of Information Act will (presumably) be implemented one of these distant days. But the lack of enthusiasm is clear. Despite all the fine words from Tony Blair back in 1997 – "we are not the masters, we are the people's servants" – the Government seems wary, at best, of accountability and openness. That finally needs to change.