Double blow to freedom of information

The government today delivered a double blow to freedom information. The 4 year delay in implementing the Freedom of Information Act, which the Lord Chancellor announced today was condemned as “totally unjustifiable” by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The Campaign was also deeply critical of ministers’ decision to refuse to comply with an open government ruling by the Parliamentary Ombudsman, also announced today – the first time this has ever happened since the code’s introduction in 1994.

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said “Labour has spent 25 years promising freedom of information – but are now showing how little those promises meant. They are obstructing the Act’s implementation – while flouting the existing openness code. Ministers promised that the public would have the right to know, but what they are giving us is their own right to say no.”

The government had intended to phase-in the Freedom of Information Act, starting with central government departments in summer 2002, with other authorities following at intervals. The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth France, who will enforce the Act, has said she believes it would be ‘realistic’ for central government to comply with the right of access from October 2002, with other authorities following at 6 monthly intervals. But the Lord Chancellor has now announced that the right of access will come into force for all public authorities at once, in January 2005 – an enormous delay of more than four years from the Act’s passage in November 2000.

The Campaign pointed out that Canada’s FOI law was implemented 12 months after it was passed, as was Ireland’s. Australia’s law came into effect after 9 months and New Zealand’s after 7 months. More than 30 countries have introduced and implemented FOI laws, none of them taking as long as the UK. “There is no possible justification for a four year delay. Even former Soviet bloc countries like Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Bosnia and Hertzegovina have now overtaken the UK by bringing their FOI laws into force” the Campaign said.

Also today, the Parliamentary Ombudsman revealed that the former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, had refused to comply with one of his rulings under the open government code, introduced by John Major in 1994. The then Home Secretary had been asked by a Conservative MP how many times ministers in his department had declared a private interest which might affect their public functions. The Home Secretary refused citing exemptions in the code which protect the frankness of internal discussions and personal privacy. The Ombudsman found that neither exemption applied, since what had been requested was purely statistical information and would not identify any individual minister or incident. But Ministers overruled him and have refused to disclose the information. [See the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s press release 58/01 of 13/11/01]. Mr Frankel said “no Conservative minister ever refused to comply with an Ombudsman’s ruling, and until now no Labour minister has either. For the government to start now shows how determined ministers are to insist on their right to keep secrets.”

(Note: In his announcement today the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, told peers that the provisions of the FOI Act dealing with publication schemes would be phased in starting in November 2002. Under the Act every authority must produce a publication scheme describing the information which it publishes or intends to publish, and these must be approved by the Information Commissioner. This is a relatively minor aspect of the Act, and is separate from the individual right of access, which will not come into force until January 2005.)

Further information

Maurice Frankel: 020 7490 3958

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