Conservatives accuse ministers of selective revelations: Treasury says it withheld certain information for fear of undermining international relations and the economy.
by Cathy Newman
Financial Times – 10 February 2005
The promise to "end the obsessive and unnecessary secrecy which surrounds government activity" and expose "vast swathes" of material to public scrutiny was a bold one.
It was made by Tony Blair, speaking as Labour party leader, in 1996 but was not put into effect until the best part of a decade later.
Yesterday the lid was lifted on some valuable government secrets, but it was a previous government that found its record exposed. Some of the most fascinating disclosures were released accidentally, in an e-mail said to have been sent by mistake to the BBC, which revealed the Treasury's internal manoeuvrings over how to respond to the Financial Times request for information.
The revelation, for instance, that the UK knew about an impending French interest rate rise, apparently implying the government had been spying on Britain's Continental neighbour, was something the government intended to suppress.
Officials also decided to blot out criticism of the Bank of England's performance during the Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis as "sub-optimal", explaining in the e-mail that such a disclosure "would potentially damage our credibility and effectiveness in future inter-vention episodes".
Embarrassing asides about "the open warfare" between Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson, and Mrs Thatcher's "own increasing political weakness", would have remained private but for the mis-sent e-mail.
In its official response to the FT's request, the Treasury said it had withheld certain pieces of information because it did not want to undermine international relations, the economy and the formulation of government policy.
But the official use of those exemptions raises questions about whether the government is blocking requests for information too readily. Journalists, opposition parties and others making such inquiries have often found the government stalling or refusing.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, believed some of the reasons the Treasury gave in the leaked e-mail for blocking the release of information did not stand up. He accused the government of being "from a different planet" in worrying about damage to the Bank's credibility. Describing the Bank as "sub-optimal" was such an understatement, given that the handling of the whole episode was "catastrophic", he said. To block release of the remark was "frankly ludicrous".
Mr Frankel also questioned the Treasury's view that some of the information requested would jeopardise the formulation of government policy.
What bothers the Conservatives, however, is that officials have seen fit to release information on how John Major's government handled Black Wednesday, while ministers appear reluctant to disclose data that might prove awkward for this government.
Ministers are delaying the publication of their diaries, despite a recommendation from the country's top civil servant that they should publish. That has prompted accusations that ministers are playing politics with the information laws.
Yesterday's leaked e-mail illustrated that the government was alive to the potential for embarrassment. For example, the e-mail reveals that ministers originally feared the disclosure of information about past economic forecasts would "read across" to a request for information by Oliver Letwin, shadow chancellor.
It appears the government believed the Tories would use the publication of the Black Wednesday file to force it to shed light on more recent Treasury projections.
Julian Lewis, a Tory frontbencher co-ordinating his party's requests for information, said:
"This bunch of charlatans is not deciding the issues according to their merits but according to whether or not revealing something embarrassing about us in the past would mean they would have to reveal something even more embarrassing about themselves in the present."
Lord Falconer, cabinet minister responsible for the Freedom of Information Act, insisted it was legitimate that some government workings should remain clandestine. "Facts and figures are one thing. Discussion about policies are another."
But while there are clearly teething problems, Mr Frankel does not believe the attempts to withhold information make a mockery of Mr Blair's erstwhile enthusiasm for open government.