The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 allows councils to exclude the public from meetings where 'the identity of a protected informant' could be revealed. Those reporting criminal offences, breaches of planning controls or even nuisance are to be anonymous - so that such reporting will not be discouraged. The need for social services departments to protect the identity of informants reporting suspected child abuse was recognised by the House of Lords in 1977. The Data Protection Act 1984 allows individuals to see computerised records about themselves - but exempts information about informants, as does the legislation on access to medical, housing and school records.
In 1989 the Secretary of State for Scotland successfully argued in court that the Scottish Blood Transfusion Service should not be required to identify a donor alleged to have knowingly given HIV-contaminated blood, although a patient believed he had been infected as a result. The public interest in guaranteeing anonymity, so as to safeguard the supply of blood, was held to override all other concerns.
Ministers have sometimes refused to identify organisations commenting on public consultation documents, on the grounds that to do so may discourage these shy bodies from responding in future. New regulations on access to environmental information are imminent: the Government is proposing to exempt information that polluters supply voluntarily, for fear that openness might make them less forthcoming.
The Government is acutely, sometimes absurdly, conscious of the case for protecting the flow of information to officialdom. How remarkable that it finds no merit in the same arguments when advanced by journalists seeking to protect the flow of information to the public.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information
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