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Thursday, 9 December, 1999, 01:51 GMT
New secrecy embarrassment for Straw
Jack Straw is already under fire for his Freedom of Information Bill

Home Secretary Jack Straw faces yet more embarrassment over official secrecy following a ruling by an official watchdog that the Home Office breached Whitehall's own code on access to information.

Home Office officials denied two requests for information from the public even though much of the information could have been released without any harm, the Parliamentary Ombudsman said in a report released on Thursday.

Michael Buckley said the disclosure was all the more worrying because the Home Office was responsible for the voluntary code, as well for the new Freedom of Information Bill - ostensibly intended to free up government information.

Ironically, the Home Office has responsibility for moves to shed light onto Whitehall's activities
The bill itself has come under sustained attack from all sides for failing to open up government and for actually making it easier to keep information under wraps.

Mr Straw has repeatedly insisted his proposals would sweep away government secrecy, telling MPs during debate on the bill this week that his approach to releasing information was "far more open" than his previous home secretaries.

'Irony' of Home Office record

In his annual report, however, Mr Buckley upholds or partly upholds nine out of 10 complaints he investigated in 1999, two of which were against the Home Office.

Mr Buckley - responsible for overseeing the code introduced by former prime minister John Major in 1994 - said he had been struck by the "irony" of the Home Office's record.

In the most serious case, Mr Buckley found Home Office civil servants had refused to disclose information about the planned closure of a fire station to an action group fighting the plan.

Despite the group's lawyers sending six letters over several months, Mr Buckley found "the Home Office made no direct mention of the code".

He complained: "The code has now been in operation for five years and both the ombudsman and his predecessor have made it clear that if information is to be withheld it must be withheld in accordance with specific code exemptions.

One would have thought that the Home Office would be setting a good example
Michael Buckley
"I criticise the Home Office for this failure."

In another case, the Home Office failed to tell a person seeking information about the Immigration Service that the code had an appeals procedure. Her complaint was partly upheld.

In other cases, the ombudsman criticised the Department of Trade and Industry for a "knee-jerk" response in not initially supplying information about encryption policy.

The Medicines Control Agency also came under fire for not releasing information about the drug Myodil, and for taking too long to disclose the interests of members on its advisory panel, the Committee on Safety of Medicines.

'Total disregard' for code

Commenting on his findings, Mr Buckley said: "As so often one is saying something of the same thing yet again, which is that it is still clear that there are substantial parts of Whitehall that haven't yet got into their bones that there is a code of access to official information.

He told a press conference the Home Office's behaviour was "a matter of some concern."

He remarked: "One would have thought that the Home Office would be setting a good example."

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: "It is amazing that out of a small number of reports, two involved the Home Office and both show the Home Office acting in total disregard for the code's requirements.

"In one of the cases the official says 'You can't have access to this, it's a Home Office document,' as if that in itself was a legitimate ground for refusing access.

"In both cases, they dealt with the whole thing without acknowledging the code's requirements - and it is the Home Office that is responsible for the code as well as freedom of information."

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See also:
07 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Straw defends freedom bill
06 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Labour 'tightening up secrecy' - Tories
17 Nov 99 |  UK Politics
Open government on the way
29 Jul 99 |  UK Politics
Double attack on information bill

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