'RECORDS BEING SHREDDED BEFORE INFORMATION ACT'

By Ben Fenton and Heather Brooke

Daily Telegraph – 29 November 2004

Government departments have been shredding record numbers of official files in the months leading up to the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. Information from anonymous government officials, which has been passed to the Telegraph, reveals that vast numbers of documents were being destroyed before enforcement of the Act, which empowers any member of the public to apply to see secret files.

Some 10 weeks later, figures obtained from most Government departments support the claims that the destruction of records has accelerated over the past 18 months.

Freedom of information campaigners, MPs and academics fear that in the middle of a "housekeeping exercise", some politically embarrassing material has been destroyed. The increase in destruction rates, which in the case of one government department is 500 percent, appears to follow the circulation of an internal document last year warning departments about the Act.

Even before seeing the results of the Telegraph investigation, Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner charged with supervising the Act, had warned that there was a danger of the improper destruction of documents. He told a meeting of MPs and Peers:

"Everyone is being encouraged to get their records management system in order but ironically that makes it easier to locate embarrassing material."

Julian Lewis, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, said:

"I was wondering how a government with such a culture of evasion would be able to cope with an era of openness and it seems the Telegraph has found the answer.

"They are going to destroy the evidence."

Maurice Frankel, Chairman of the independent Campaign for Freedom of Information, said the statistics did not necessarily prove that sensitive files were being destroyed.

"Most of the shredded files are probably mundane,"

he said.

"But authorities are being told that if they set up routine schedules for destroying old material they won't have to release them under the act."

The Department of Constitutional Affairs said the increase in shredding was explained mainly by a greater awareness of a need to sort out archives.