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
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
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would not be published unless the responsible Minister or Ministers
"Henceforth, the working assumption should
be that material will be published unless they decide that should
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 servantsa blanket ban on Commons
Questions about the workings of governmentMr 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 itthere 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.