'WORRYING START TO OFFICIALS' USE OF INFORMATION LAWS'

Sunday Express – 26 December 2004

Editorial

The Freedom of Information Act should, in theory, give more power to the people by allowing them unprecedented access to data held by public bodies. It is right and proper that the public can find out whether a local restaurant has been prosecuted for poor hygiene, or ask for documents on MMR. Indeed, it is astonishing that in a free country this knowledge has not been available before now.

We hope that the Act will make Whitehall far more open and encourage it to start disclosing facts voluntarily before it receives formal requests - but we fear that government departments will just become more furtive and develop devious ways of withholding information. Already the spirit of the Act has been flouted as hundreds of thousands of secret files are being shredded before the public gains the right to see them. Whitehall departments have nearly doubled the number of files they have destroyed. It is an ominous start.

The destruction of records is not only frightening for democracy. It could also deprive academics and historians of the future of potentially vital information on such subjects as the run-up to the Iraq war and previous conflicts such as the Falklands. Shadow Cabinet Office minister Julian Lewis has aptly summed up the destruction as a "bonfire of historical records".

There is also the danger that many timewasters will use the new law and drain the public purse. Surely the authorities should not have to spend money and time responding to Mickey Mouse, writing from Disneyland? Worryingly, as we report today, organised crime bosses and Right-wing extremists could exploit the new law to unmask informers. The Government insists there are safeguards to block the release of sensitive information that could pose a security risk but police believe it will be possible for the determined to get around this by asking a series of apparently innocuous questions to different forces across the country. The Government must listen to their fears instead of saving face by dismissing them.

Even good laws can be a source of ill. Whether the Act breeds more secrecy and becomes a waste of public money and a charter for criminals and extremists depends on the persistence of those who love freedom and copper-bottomed security and vigilance.