Letter: Definition of the public interest

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The Independent Online
From Mr Maurice Frankel

Sir: In its response to the Nolan committee, the Government has proposed ("Protest over new conduct code for ministers", 19 July) to amend "Questions of Procedure for Ministers" to allow ministers to withhold information from the public and Parliament in "the public interest". This would be a worrying step.

Disclosure to the public is now governed by the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. This requires information to be released on request, unless it falls within a number of broad exempt categories. But none is defined so vaguely as to allow information to be withheld "in the public interest".

Instead, information can be withheld if disclosure would be harmful to specified interests, such as defence, security, international relations, public order, the frankness of internal discussions, the management of the economy, a department's competitive position or efficiency. The full list is far more extensive and remarkable, for example protecting information about immigration cases and even information already discussed at a public inquiry.

However, one of the code's better features is that it allows the Parliamentary Ombudsman, who supervises the scheme, to recommend that exempt information should be disclosed if "the public interest in making information available" outweighs any possible harm. The "public interest" is therefore a factor that may override other arguments for secrecy. In the proposed revision of ministerial guidance it is used in precisely the opposite sense.

In Parliament, ministers do not normally cite "the public interest" as their reason for declining to answer MPs' questions, though plenty of other justifications are available. It would be a matter of concern if a new catch-all refusal were to be introduced.

If the revised guidance creates a new heading under which information can be withheld it will be a damaging development which should be resisted. If, on the other hand, it is merely a shorthand attempt to describe the status quo, then the redrafting is a source of confusion that urgently requires clarification.

Yours sincerely,

Maurice Frankel

Director

Campaign for

Freedom of Information

London, EC1

20 July

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