Select Committee on Public Administration Memoranda


Submitted by Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, The Express

  Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, has frequently said that we will get a Freedom of Information Act over his dead body. He need have no fear; the Home Secretary is giving us neither freedom, nor information, nor any Act worth the name.

  Open government is an attitude of mind. It is clear that frontal lobotomy would be required to change the attitude of many in Whitehall to the very idea of openness. I had hoped that the Prime Minister's well-argued determination to provide open government, as a stimulus to greater efficiency and effectiveness, would win the day. In the event, we have yet another example of some Ministers attempting to change gear, and the engine not engaging. The clutch is bust.

  New Labour's promise is not borne out by the draft legislation. It is riddled with Old Labour pusillanimity. We should recognise the moment, for we have been here before.

  It is perhaps worth recalling what happened to Labour's open government commitment of October 1974. Those were the days, when Labour manifestos were packed with potent, fire-in-the-belly commitment and the betrayal came with the hangover. In the Queen's Speech debate of 1976, Jim Callaghan announced that it would be the Government's intention in future to publish as much as possible of the factual and analytical material used as the background to major policy studies.

  That was 24 November 1976. Six months later, on 6 July 1977, Sir Douglas Allen, Head of the Home Civil Service, wrote a letter to the heads of all departments advising them of changes for making more official information available to the public.

  The letter, which became known as the Croham Directive, after Sir Douglas became Lord Croham, said: "The change may seem simply to be one of degree and timing. But it is intended to mark a real change of policy, even if the initial step is modest.

  "In the past, it has normally been assumed that background material relating to policy studies and reports would not be published unless the responsible Minister or Ministers decided otherwise.

  "Henceforth, the working assumption should be that material will be published unless they decide that should not be."

  After the Commons Table Office told Jeff Rooker MP that it could not permit a Question about a document from one civil servant to other civil servants—a blanket ban on Commons Questions about the workings of government—Mr Rooker wrote to Mr Callaghan, asking for a copy of the letter. He received a copy, tabled a Question about the letter he had received from the Prime Minister, and it was eventually published in Hansard on 26 January 1978 (Cols 691-694).

  In 1992, Peter Hennessy, Professor of Modern History at London University, did a BBC Analysis programme on the Croham Directive, when the Conservative Government was thinking of dusting it down and reviving it—there is no sop like an old sop.

  Asked whether the impact of his directive had been disappointing, Lord Croham said: "Well, I think the answer is yes and no. I left the scene very shortly after the directive was announced and in my experience a number of departments were quite keen on it because they believed it would be beneficial. But other departments were not at all keen."

  It would have been helpful if we could have been told which departments were "quite keen"; for those of us begging for information at the castle gate, it was difficult to distinguish one contemptuous cuff over the ear from another. Information was there none.

  Robert Hazell, who had been a Home Office civil servant at the time, told Hennessy: "I have to say it was something of a nine days wonder. I think it worked for a period of 6 to 12 months, when it still remained in officials' consciousness and we did go through the motions of finding papers which we could disclose as background information to decisions that had been made. But it was very much going through the motions and it very quickly fell into almost total disuse."

  The subsequent code of Open Government offered little improvement. In May 1992, he had written to ask William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, about his intentions, and he said that he had no intention of reissuing Croham unamended. "We shall pay renewed attention to making sure that the information on which policy is based is made available to the public in useful and usable form." Useful to whom? Them.

  He also said: "The exercise does not necessarily imply, any more than freedom of information legislation would, access on demand to all departmental working papers. These often mix advice, collective discussion and fact, and as I indicated, a particular effort needs to be made to ensure that the factual basis of policy is made available to the public in a useful way." Useful to whom? Them.

  An example of the art-form was delivered shortly afterwards by MAFF. I had asked them, in May 1992, for unpublished factual and analytical material on BSE and the human food chain. Having been told that, "Policy decisions are based typically, on a mixture of factual and analytical material, followed by discussion" and that "discrete" background papers did not exist, I was given an aide memoire of all the published material, press release references and Hansard references. That was an example of information provided in a useful way to Whitehall; useless for a journalist.

  For those wanting a full insight into what was happening about BSE at the time, they should visit the BSE Inquiry in Hercules Road, SE1, where they have open displays of all the relevant papers, including Cabinet level documents. That is open government. This year, after I had been told that a MAFF civil servant, David North, had been commissioned, in February 1997, to write a report on everything that had happened about BSE/nvCJD, I asked for a copy under the terms of the Code of Open Government. I was told it was an internal working document, stuffed with policy advice, and would not be made available.

  I mentioned the existence of the North report to the Phillips Inquiry, they eventually got hold of it, and even more eventually, they made it available. That is raw open government at work. It was not in the interest of MAFF that I should see it, and write about it, but it certainly was in the public interest. Labour Ministers, barred access to the papers of a previous administration, were also interested.

  It is a good test to ask whether I could have got a copy of the North Report under the current terms of the Freedom of Information draft legislation. You only have to read Section 28 of the draft to realise that this legislation would better be dubbed a Restraint of Information Bill.

  Furthermore, the idea that officials think they could restrict the use or disclosure of information they deign to give me (14.6), or that they could refuse information if they think I might put two and two together to make uncomfortable reading for them (37.1) suggests that little has changed since Sir Douglas wrote his letter in July 1977.

  Twenty-two years after that pitiful directive, we now have a pitiful Bill.

June 1999

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