Leading article: A new era of openness? Hardly

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The Independent Online

Members of Parliament should be natural champions of the Freedom of Information Act. These men and women, who are directly accountable to the electorate, ought to be active guardians of the Act's powers. But, sadly, this does not seem to be the case.

Last year, the Commons tried to resist a request, brought under the Act, that MPs should make all the details of their travel expenses public. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, ruled that there was no legitimate reason why such information should not be in the public domain. But MPs fought on, challenging Mr Thomas' ruling at a tribunal.

Although they eventually lost, MPs' resistance to the Act, in as far as it applies to them, continues. In Parliament today, a private member's Bill proposed by the former Conservative chief whip, David Maclean, comes under scrutiny. The Bill aims to prevent MPs' letters, written on behalf of constituents, from being released to the press and public under the Act.

Its supporters argue it is necessary to protect their constituents' right to privacy. But constituents' personal details are already protected under the Act. The more plausible explanation is that the Act, as it stands, has the potential to embarrass MPs by exposing their shortcomings. We shall have to wait to see how much support this Bill commands in the Commons, but evidence is mounting that a considerable number of MPs feel that the Act should not apply to them.

The Act is under threat on another flank, too. Ministers are attempting to impose a more stringent financial limit on requests, and proposing that a series of requests from the same organisation, such as a newspaper, should in future be considered as one. All this has one obvious purpose: to make it easier for public bodies to refuse information. According to the Government's figures an extra 17,000 requests would be turned down as a result of these new regulations.

The new era of openness we were promised when the Act was passed two years ago has failed to materialise. Half of all requests to central Government departments are being turned down and 10 per cent are answered late. The Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee argued last year that some public bodies are breaking the spirit of the law by tying up requests in red tape. It also found that the Information Commissioner was failing to rule on appeals quickly enough. It seems the Government has not given Mr Thomas the resources he needs to do his job properly.

It is clear that the Act needs to be strengthened considerably. The shameful reality is that our MPs and ministers seem intent on watering it down.