Select Committee on Public Administration Second Report

Responses from Members of Parliament

Letter from Peter Bradley, Member of Parliament for The Wrekin

  Further to Tony Wright's letter of 16 March, I enclose copies of my Parliamentary Question to the Foreign Office, part of the answer to which was blocked.

  I also enclose copies of my follow-up correspondence.[39] The final letter from John Battle followed a meeting I had with him on the issue at his request.

  As you will see, my Question sought factual information on the official engagements of ministers on overseas visits.

  However, officials invoked, in my view quite inappropriately, the convention which limits the information available to ministers in answering questions about the conduct of previous administration.

  As you will see, I then applied for the same information under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information which resulted two months later (and therefore well outside the four week target) in an enigmatic response which caused me to write again.

  Finally, I received the letter of 9 March from the Minister which provided the information which should have featured in the answer to my PQ in December.

  This experience raises a number of questions in my mind.

    —  Should the protocol on information about previous administrations bar access to factual information?

    —  Why, if such information is available under the Code, should it not be more routinely available in answers to parliamentary questions?

    —  Why, even when I applied under the Code, was the response to me so deliberately vague?

    —  How can I have confidence, given my experience in this case, that the information which has finally been provided is accurate and adequate?

    —  What was the cost in the time taken by civil servants in denying me access to the information I sought over a period of three months?

  I know from the meeting which I had with the Minister and his officials that the Foreign Office had originally taken the advice of the Cabinet Office as to whether the information I sought should be made available to me.

  I must say that I am surprised that the Foreign Office felt it necessary to seek such advice and even more surprised that the Cabinet Office recommended that the information should not be made available. I further understand that the present Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office felt it necessary to set out his own views to the Minister in a six page memorandum.

  This is, in my view, a quite extraordinary example of the prevailing culture within many sectors of the Civil Service which leads them routinely to withhold rather than to disclose information. It demonstrates both how important the Freedom of Information Act will be and also the difficulties involved in ensuring that civil servants adopt it in both principle and in practice.

  I hope that this is helpful to the Committee.

21 March 2000

39   Not printed. Back

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