Submitted by David Hencke, Westminster
Correspondent, The Guardian
Lobby journalists normally receive information
from two major sources. The main source available is the public
domaineither reports, debates, Parliamentary answers or
from press briefings or conferences. The second major source is
unofficialeither 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 informationparticularly 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 codethe Code of Practice on
Access to Government Information introduced by John Major in 1994to
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 decisionssomething 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 articleand 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 responsewell
within 20 working dayswas 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 Lifewhich 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 Codebut
again responded in detail and on time.
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 requestafter
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 rightsand received a rather unconvincing explanation.
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
waseven though I had received no reply to my request. They
kindly faxed an unsigned copy of the lettersaying the real
copy was in the post. I later learnt that Downing Street had flagged
up the reply on Thursday at the 4 pm lobbybut only as a
table showing that Labour Ministers spend less than the Tories.
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 itit 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
The Code appears to be an effective tool in
extracting informationparticularly from lower profile ministries
like MAFF. But the nearer to the real centre of powerNumber
Ten and the Cabinet Officethe 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' tripswhere
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.