Letter: Culture of secrecy will not change overnight

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your editorial (2 February) says that the "the worst fears about the effectiveness of the Government's Freedom of Information Act have been confirmed".

The Freedom of Information Act, and the even more powerful Environmental Information Regulations, provide genuinely powerful ways for members of the public to access information and increase the accountability of our elected representatives and civil servants. It is an essential part of any modern constitutional settlement, and long overdue.

Undoubtedly there are problems with the legislation. Some of the loopholes are much too wide - and there are certainly too many of them - and the ministerial veto represents a serious potential threat to the effectiveness of the system. However, overall it provides unique opportunities for journalists and others to access previously unavailable information.

In the month since the legislation came into force, Friends of the Earth has had a mixed responses to its requests for information and, importantly, to our legally guaranteed rights of "advice and assistance" in seeking such information. However, the bad examples are not primarily the result of bad law, but rather of bad practice. They are the result of the continuing culture of secrecy by civil servants as well as, in many cases, basic misunderstanding of the laws.

This culture and ignorance is not going to change overnight. And it will not be changed by writing off the legislation and ignoring it. But it will change if we, journalists, professional campaigners and other citizens, make well-crafted requests and, when refused access to information, take our cases to the Information Commissioner for determination. We are no staunch defenders of this Government of its policies, but let's give this legislation time.

PHIL MICHAELS

Head of Legal Affairs

Friends of the Earth

London N1

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