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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 May 2007, 17:15 GMT 18:15 UK
Full text: Darling FOI letter
Here is the full text of Alistair Darling's letter to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, dated 8 May, 2007, expressing concern about the Freedom of Information Act:

Dear Charlie,

As you know we are increasingly concerned that in a number of respects the demands of the Freedom of Information Act are placing good government at risk.

First there is the position of MPs' correspondence under the Act. Disclosure of letters between MPs and Ministers, even if ostensibly innocuous, will inhibit the dialogue between MPs and their constituents and MPs and Ministers. It can't be right that a constituent's affairs could be made public because he asked his MP to write to a Minister. And if we are to live under the constant threat of publication, this will prevent MPs from expressing their views frankly when writing to a Minister. We need urgent advice on what the position is.

Second, I am concerned that the FOI Act, as it appears, prevents us from protecting robustly and across the board advice from officials to Ministers. Here again we should be able to guard more effectively against the incremental harm to the policy development process that must inevitably arise from the disclosure of individually innocuous submissions.

This is the type of information that, I believe, it was never the intention should be made public under an FOI Act. The problems seem to stem from the case by case approach that the Act requires us to take to FOI requests and a discernible trend within the Information Tribunal that decisions on the public interest test have not been falling in the government's favour in key cases. It is open to the government to appeal a decision to the High Court, but this must be on a point of law and is inevitably a costly and time consuming process. There have not yet been any circumstances where departments have felt able to take this approach and we appear to be faced for the future with either conceding to adverse decisions or exercising the Cabinet Minister veto to annul them.

Third, on a point of process, where an FOI applicant sends multiple requests to various Departments on the same subject we need to be confident that there is effective co-ordination between Departments' responses. This is particularly so in cases where the request does not meet a Clearing House trigger and where it is left to Departments to liaise on their own initiative.

For immediate purposes, I would ask that officials, led by yours, conduct a speedy review of these aspects of the FOI.

On MPs' correspondence and advice to Ministers, we need to examine whether a more robust approach is possible to applying FOI exemptions and the scope for a more generic approach to guard against incremental harm from individual disclosures.

On coordination between Departments, it would be helpful if officials could examine interdepartmental arrangements for handling FOI requests, taking in the role of the Clearing House, to ensure a consistent and rigorous approach to cross cutting requests. I expect this would entail clear instructions across Whitehall from your Department.

Beyond that, we will need to watch Information Tribunal case law carefully and in due course consider whether change to the legislation is needed to redress an apparent imbalance between the "right to know" and the protection of private space where necessary for good governance.

I am copying this letter to Cabinet Ministers and to Sir Gus O'Donnell.

Alistair Darling.

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