Thursday, 24 May 2007

Darling down on Freedom of Information

Ouch! British MPs really do have a downer on the Freedom of Information Act (FoI)

Trade Secretary Alistair Darling wants much tighter restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act, according to the BBC. He is concerned that it does not sufficiently protect advice from officials to ministers.

The Act has already taken a severe hammering from parliament including moves underway, including one to exempt MPs and another to restrict costs.

In a letter to the Lord Chancellor he argues that "incremental harm" could be done to policy development and asks for the Act to be reviewed. Mr Darling emphasises his concern that the Information Tribunal has ruled against the government in favour of openness. He is trying to claim that the demands of the FoI Act were "placing good government at risk".

He apparently feels disclosure of correspondence between MPs and ministers, even if ostensibly innocuous, will inhibit the dialogue between MPs and their constituents.

He goes on to claim, "If we are to live under 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".

Maybe so, if the views and dialog are on when might be a good day to bury bad news. But, one suspects, more likely Ministers and MPs are so down on transparency because they fear being held to account.

For instance, when treasury documents released under the act in earlier this year proved officials warned the treasury that abolishing dividend tax credits (Gordon Brown’s budget in 1997) “would make a big hole in pensions scheme finances". Something denied by the treasury.

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