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Wednesday, 25 October, 2000, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
Whitehall's culture of secrecy

By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Those who believe that "Yes, Prime Minister" was an accurate reflection of how government works will have their fears confirmed by the BSE report.

In the hit TV series, ministers and prime ministers were regularly kept in the dark by officials and civil servants who believed they knew best.

Whitehall, it suggested, was steeped in a culture of secrecy where the basic rule was to keep everything under wraps unless specifically ordered to do otherwise.

What has emerged over the years, of course, is that this portrayal of government was uncannily accurate.

From the Suez crisis to the Arms to Iraq affair officials, and sometimes ministers, have worked in the most covert manner possible.

Now, the BSE report shows that it was exactly this culture of secrecy that led to the fatal, 11-year delay in ministers revealing that there was a risk to human health from BSE.

When the muck finally hit the fan the scientists, who had previously warned about the possible dangers, pulled down the shutters and refused to talk to the media.

Later, when they realised they were going to become the government's scapegoat, they accused officials at the Ministry of Agriculture of refusing to hand over vital information about the epidemic to them.

Bunker mentality

It was also claimed that it took the intervention of the Royal Society to force Maff to release the relevant data.

It was around this time that the Science magazine Nature accused the government of a culture of secrecy and being more interested in watching its own back and protecting the food industry, than worrying about public health.

According to some, the inquiry into the affair found that government officials had adopted a "bunker mentality".

These class exemptions could conceal information about safety problems, allow the facts behind government decisions to be withheld and permit almost any embarrassing information to be suppressed

Campaign for Freedom of Information

And it certainly seems to have been the case that officials and ministers were desperately fearful of causing a panic - which is eventually exactly what their delays and secrecy sparked.

But this is far from the first example of the culture of secrecy in Whitehall.

One of the most damaging was the Arms to Iraq scandal when it was finally admitted that ministers and officials had secretly changed guidelines on public immunity certificates without telling parliament.

That affair ended up in the courts with the then minister Alan Clark confessing all.

Before that there had been the row over moves to ban Peter Wright's book, "Spycatcher", which also ended up in the courts in Australia.

The then head of the civil service Sir Robert Armstrong was sent to give evidence in the trial and famously admitted that he had been "economical with the truth".

Huge disappointment

For many the phrase came to symbolise much of what was wrong with the civil service.

Labour pledged to change it all with a Freedom of Information Act but its first draughtsman, David Clark, was sacked as a minister after planning to open up government to a greater degree than ever before.

Home Secretary Jack Straw then got his hands on it and the result was a huge disappointment to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The Act created a public right to information held by public authorities, but gave a series of exemptions.

According to the campaign: "These class exemptions could conceal information about safety problems, allow the facts behind government decisions to be withheld and permit almost any embarrassing information to be suppressed."

And, of course, Labour has suffered its own secrecy rows, most famously over the arms-to-Africa affair.

It was revealed that the Sandline group had broken the arms embargo on Sierra Leone and it was claimed had been encouraged to do so by the foreign office.

Eventually the commons foreign affairs select committee held a detailed inquiry into the whole affair but were constantly denied crucial information by the foreign office.

The row finally escalated into a constitutional clash between the committee and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook who flatly refused to hand over certain pieces of information.

The committee's final report was a devastating indictment of secrecy at the heart of Whitehall.

So it appears that, despite a change in government and the new freedom of information laws, little has actually changed.

And any proposals to make the decision making in Whitehall more transparent would undoubtedly be met with the Sir Humphreyesque comment from civil servants: "How very courageous of you minister."

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