The govt’s hostility to Freedom of Information shows again

The BBC is reporting that civil servants have stepped up the shredding of official documents, ahead of the Freedom of Information Act coming into force:

From a series of parliamentary answers Dr Julian Lewis, the Conservative spokesman for the Cabinet Office, says he has discovered a huge acceleration in shredding.

The Department of Work and Pensions destroyed nearly 37,000 files last year – up 22,000 on four years ago when the Act was passed.

The number of files destroyed by the Ministry of Defence and the departments of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Trade and Industry has also risen dramatically.

Dr Lewis has called for an investigation by the information commissioner Richard Thomas

This follows on from the recent reports that the govt has ordered internal emails more than 3 months old to be deleted.

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Govt keeps legal advice re: ID cards secret

In line with its (lack of) commitment to freedom of information, the government has decided to keep the legal advice it received on whether the ID cards bill conforms to the European Convention on Human Rights secret. According to The Register:

This line, however, merely confirms the Government’s shameless approach to human rights in its legislation. One of the early moves of the Blair Government was to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into UK legislation in the Human Rights Act. This one might suppose would mean that the UK Government would be far more careful about human rights in its legislation, but instead of this it tends to be used as a kind of cloaking device. Instead of being accompanied by detailed assessments of human rights impact, UK legislation now tends to have just a one liner saying ‘the provisions of this legislation are compatible with the European convention of human rights.’ So, as Browne put it today, the Cabinet has advice on the impact prepared for it, and nobody else needs to see the advice because the legislation has been deemed to be compatible by the Cabinet. Trust us.

Thus in one fell swoop this illustrates both the weaknesses of the human rights/freedom of information legislation and the attitudes of this government towards privacy, openness, freedom of information and human rights. I.e. they know best and are quite happy to keep secrets about the legislation that will open up our lives to their scrutiny at the expense of our privacy and freedom.

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Govt orders destruction of emails

According to this report in the Scotsman newspaper, the government has ordered that all government emails more than 3 months old be destroyed:

The Cabinet Office, effectively the Prime Minister’s department, says messages more than three months old must be wiped by Monday, The Times revealed.

The deadline comes just 11 days before the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act comes into force.

Conservative leader Michael Howard has written to Mr Blair demanding an explanation.

“There are reports that your Government is engaged on a massive email destruction binge in order to get round the law which you yourself passed,” he wrote.

“How hypocritical can you get ? What is your Government trying to hide ?

“The public are entitled to a clear and simple explanation as to what is going on.”

Many officials, including those in the PM’s Strategy Unit and the offices of Alan Milburn and Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull, receive around 100 emails a day.

The Cabinet Office’s 2,000 staff have been told to print and file emails that should be disclosed but there will be no supervision. (Emphasis added)

Such is the government’s commitment to freedom of information. But then anyone who reads the Freedom of Information Act would soon realise the government’s commitment was weak — the Act sets out a right of access to information held by the government and then produce a list of exemptions so broad as to effectively nullify that right.

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Labour issuing more gagging orders than the Tories

The Guardian reports that:

Ministers in Tony Blair’s government have issued more official gagging orders than the previous Conservative government, figures show.

The rise in the controversial orders – which keep secret Whitehall documents in court cases – has occurred despite official assurances that their use would be curtailed.

Ministers signed 100 public interest immunity certificates (PIIs) in the five full years since Mr Blair came to power in 1997, compared with 70 under the previous five years of the Tory government.

The figures have been collated from lists of orders obtained during an investigation by the BBC’s File on Four programme, which will be broadcast tonight on Radio 4.

Rules introduced in the wake of the arms-to-Iraq affair in the mid-1990s were supposed to reduce the volume of such orders.

While in opposition, Labour made political capital by criticising Conservative ministers for exploiting gagging orders to suppress politically embarrassing evidence. Sir Richard Scott, during his inquiry into the arms-to-Iraq affair, delivered a scathing attack on the abuse of such certificates.

So much for their commitment to freedom of information and open government.

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