Leading article: You may ask questions - but the Government still has the freedom not to answer them

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE WORST fears about the effectiveness of the Government's Freedom of Information Act have been confirmed. This newspaper, like many others in the media and in Parliament, made requests for information to government departments immediately after the long-awaited Act came into force on 1 January. Under the terms of this legislation, unveiled with such a fanfare, the Government has to respond to requests within 20 working days. It must either hand over the information requested, or explain why not. Today, we publish the results of our requests; the results are thoroughly unsatisfactory and make a mockery of claims that the Freedom of Information Act has ushered in a new era in the relationship between the citizen and the state.

Every excuse available to the Government, under the provisions of this Act, has been deployed to turn down our requests for information. Some documents are described as "matters of national security"; others are "trade secrets". We are told that rooting out some of the documents would cost more than pounds 600 and that they will therefore continue to languish in some Whitehall archive; we have also run up against the mother of all get-out clauses - the ill-defined ban on the release of "information pertaining to the formation of policy". As we feared, this can be used to refer to virtually every official document in Whitehall.

As if this determination to frustrate legitimate requests for information is not bad enough, the Government's basic competence in administering the Act is called into question by our investigation. Of some 360 requests that were received from the public on the first working day after the implementation of the legislation, the Government is unable even to tell us how many have been answered. Government departments have had four years to prepare for this onslaught of requests, it should be noted.

Ministers will point out that anyone who is frustrated in their efforts to gain information can take their case to the independent Information Commissioner. But the commissioner's powers to command government departments to release information are strictly limited. The sad reality is that if the Government is determined a document will not be released, it will never see the light of day.

It need not be like this. We do not dispute there are documents that contain information that, if released, would imperil Britain's national security. The case for keeping such files undisclosed is not in dispute. Information that the Government holds about private individuals should, naturally, remain off the public record too. But in the vast majority of cases, there is no reason why a "presumption of disclosure" should not apply.

This legislation is so riddled with get-out clauses that it scarcely deserves to be called a Freedom of Information Act. Our investigation reveals that, despite all the grandiose claims, the onus is still firmly on the public to make the case for the disclosure of documents. We will not have a true freedom of information culture until civil servants and government ministers are forced to justify why they wish to keep a document secret, rather than why it should be released. This would be a long-overdue recognition that we are citizens of a modern state, but, sadly, we are as far away as ever from enjoying even US-style freedom of information guarantees.

The Government has missed a golden opportunity to regain the trust of the public. If it had implemented full freedom of information, it might have helped undo the damage done by almost eight years of relentless spin and secrecy in Whitehall. Releasing the advice that the Attorney General gave to the Government regarding the legality of the invasion of Iraq, for example, would have been politically courageous and demonstrated that the Act has real teeth. Now the public has no choice but to draw the opposite conclusion. Freedom of information seems no more than another broken promise by Tony Blair's government.

Comments