Observations on secrecy

Too many stones unturned
New Statesman magazine, 19th December 2005
By Heather Brooke

It was meant to shine a light on state power. And in its first year of operation the Freedom of Information Act has successfully illuminated some rats and cockroaches, but central government remains an unturned stone.

A year ago in this magazine, I expressed the hope that the act would at least end the appalling secrecy surrounding food hygiene inspections conducted by local authorities on restaurants, takeaways and catering kitchens; and indeed it proved that these reports were among the most sought-after by people making FOI requests across the country. Even the chef and Guardian columnist Heston Blumenthal felt the heat when the paper exposed food hygiene breaches at his Fat Duck restaurant.

Still, just three councils – Glasgow and Highland in Scotland and Camden in London – are proactively publishing all inspections. The rest publish only individual reports when asked, and some, such as Hammersmith and Fulham, continue to deny public access to any of their reports.

Elsewhere in the food chain, FOI exposed how Common Agricultural Policy farm subsidies in England and Northern Ireland go mostly to rich landowners and big agribusinesses. Pity the poor publics of Scotland and Wales, who are still none the wiser.

Scotland has been more forthcoming about its MSPs’ expense claims and, partly as a result, the first FOI “head to roll” came in October when David McLetchie resigned as Scottish Tory leader after intense media questioning about his taxi bills. A deluge of similar requests prompted the publication online of detailed accounts of how all 129 MSPs spend their average £61,240 in expenses.

Westminster is not keen to share that spotlight. In fact, MPs (who claim almost double that sum) are busy exempting themselves from most of the FOI Act.

I am currently appealing against a refusal to release the names of MPs’ staff. Although these people are paid directly from the public purse, the official line is that identifying them would violate their privacy and put them in danger. (Another request for information showed that no assaults on MPs’ staff had been reported at Westminster.) In other enlightened countries, the rule is that if your nose is in the public trough, expect to have your tail tweaked. Here, privacy and security are the excuses du jour for your public servant.

Big egos demand big secrecy. Take Tony Blair. Lots of rich and famous people do – to their holiday homes in the Caribbean or Italy. But Tony won’t say who they are, for reasons of national security.

Blair even had the cheek to refuse an FOI request for his Christmas-card list on the grounds that such disclosure would embarrass those whose names did not appear on it, though he has it in his power to correct any omissions this year – and there is always the excuse that it was lost in the post. (In fact, uncovering information about the mail in general can be tricky, as the Post Office and Royal Mail refuse even to reveal the name of their openness officers.)

Perhaps the strangest thing I encountered this year was the secrecy at the Information Commissioner’s Office – the independent body set up to regulate and increase FOI. His first decisions were kept secret until he was forced to release them by an FOI request. Detail on the mounting backlog of cases has been even less forthcoming and the commissioner, Richard Thomas, has failed to follow through on promises to make bold decisions early.

It has hardly been a clean sweep, but most local authorities are responding positively to FOI. The problems lie in the real corridors of power, where dirty secrets are still being swept under the carpet.

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