Select Committee on Public Administration Memoranda


MEMORANDUM 12

Submitted by David Hencke, Westminster Correspondent, The Guardian

  Lobby journalists normally receive information from two major sources. The main source available is the public domain—either reports, debates, Parliamentary answers or from press briefings or conferences. The second major source is unofficial—either off-the-record briefings from Ministers, MPs, civil servants or occasionally, leaked documents. The creation of a new Freedom of Information Act should create a third major source to obtain public information—particularly for journalists undertaking longer term inquiries requiring large numbers of facts. I am by no means certain it will.

  For the last 18 months I have attempted to use the present open government code—the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information introduced by John Major in 1994—to obtain the release of information so I can test the Government's resolve in this area. I was encouraged to do so by David Clark, then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who thought journalists ought to make more use of the Code to extract information from Whitehall. The results have been mixed. Aware of the limitations of the Code, I have concentrated on finding out the cost to the taxpayer of various government decisions—something that is completely within the scope of the Code.

  The first few inquiries produced good results. I asked on 5 January 1998 for the release of background papers including any cost benefit analysis of the move of Ministry of Agriculture headquarters from Whitehall Place to Nobel House. This followed some disquiet about the bills being run up by Jack Cunningham, then Minister of Agriculture. Within a month I got a decent summary of all the costs and Jack Cunningham himself agreed that I could visit and see the place for myself. Unfortunately for him it produced a critical article—and relations have soured since. But the Ministry responded commendably.

  On the 16 February I put in a request to the Cabinet Office to find how much money the taxpayer was spending on funding Nick Brown, then the Chief Whip, over a legal case being brought by a friend of Bob Wareing, MP after he said he had been libelled by the Chief Whip. The initial response—well within 20 working days—was a refusal. But on appeal, the Cabinet Office, released the cost and the reasons why public funds were being used to fund him.

  On March 5, I decided to test the openess of the Committee on Standards in Public Life—which had recently embarked on a series of foriegn trips to look at political funding. I asked for a wide range of financial information as well as attendance records, itineries plus the registration of business interests by its members. The Committee was then not covered by the Code—but again responded in detail and on time.

 SPECIAL ADVISERS CASE

  I started again putting requests last December where the response has been remarkably different. After arguments about the salaries of special advisers I decided to put in a formal request to find out about their pay and conditions. I applied to Alastair Campbell on 7 December. I got a reply a week later from Alastair saying it would be handled by the Cabinet Office.

  That was the last I heard about it.

  Three months later I was told privately that the Downing Street Policy Unit had decided to ignore the request—after a row between the Cabinet Office and the Unit about what information should be released. "We are not giving that bastard anything" was said to be their attitude. So I got in touch with the Parliamentary Ombudsman's Office where I was told to my total amazement that when the Office of Public Service was abolished last July, the Government had stripped the Ombudsman of any jurisdiction over Cabinet Office requests under the Code so he could not take up my case over the delay.

  As a result I wrote to Sir Richard Wilson and complained. Miraculously both his reply and the Cabinet Office's response to my request came on the same day.


  But the reply was totally unsatisfactory with the Cabinet Office pleading that to release information about salaries "would constitute an acceptable breach of individual privacy." I have since appealed the decision. I also took up the issue under the code on why the Government took away the Ombudsman's rights—and received a rather unconvincing explanation.

MINISTERS' TRIPS

  Following the controversy over a number of Ministers' trips in February. I wrote to every Cabinet Minister and the Leader of the Opposition asking for travel costs since the election. The aim was to get a comprehensive picture of spending. I took as a precedent the information released by the Royal Household when the Queen and the Royal Family decided to release details of all trips met from public funds over £500.

  After three weeks Downing Street intervened and took over a responsibility for replying to me. I heard nothing more until I noticed that a Parliamentary answer released on June 17 looked suspiciously similar to the information I had sought. On Friday I had it confirmed from Downing Street that indeed it was—even though I had received no reply to my request. They kindly faxed an unsigned copy of the letter—saying the real copy was in the post. I later learnt that Downing Street had flagged up the reply on Thursday at the 4 pm lobby—but only as a table showing that Labour Ministers spend less than the Tories.

MOHAMMED AL -FAYED'S PASSPORT

  The citizenship application from Mr al Fayed is one of the most controversial decision to be made by Jack Straw. I decided on 1 April to make an application under the Code seeking a summary of the people and their arguments both in favour of and against Mr al Fayed who had lobbied Jack Straw over this case. I asked for the information to be released after or when he made his decision. Having received no reply I took the opportunity of the launch of the draft Freedom of Information Bill to press him about it—it was obvious when he saw a copy of my request that this appeared to be a revelation to him.

  He has now replied refusing to provide information which he could disclose under the Code saying there are no public interest grounds. He is also citing the provisions of the draft Freedom of Information Bill when he makes a decision

CONCLUSIONS

  The Code appears to be an effective tool in extracting information—particularly from lower profile ministries like MAFF. But the nearer to the real centre of power—Number Ten and the Cabinet Office—the less effective it is.

  I am particularly alarmed at the invocation of a privacy defence to prevent the public knowing salaries paid to special advisers out of public funds. In theory, this could be extended to anybody in public life. I am also pretty cynical about the handling of the request for Ministers' trips—where it is obvious that a "planted Parliamentary Question" was used to release the information and a less than truthful explanation appeared to have been given to the lobby about its release. That is just plain playing politics with the release of information they knew they could not refuse. Here I think Downing Street want to discourage journalists prying for public information by making sure they will never get a "scoop" by using the Code. That way, I suspect, they hope people will forget about it.

  Jack Straws response to my request was too conservative. He assumes that anybody who writes to him on a matter always wants it to be in confidence. A more imaginative approach might be for Whitehall to devise a model letter when journalists are seeking third party views which can be sent out when a request under the FOI bill has been made. While heavily emphasising that their letter would normally be kept secret for 30 years, it could at least offer them the choice of releasing the information or the opportunity to contact the journalist. I have been amazed by how many people welcome the opportunity to go public. The secrecy culture seems to permeate Whitehall, not the people outside the system.

June 1999


 
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Prepared 16 August 1999