'TORIES PUT LABOUR ON THE SPOT TO TEST RIGHT-TO-KNOW LAWS'

By Greg Hurst, Political Correspondent

The Times – 5 January 2005

The Conservatives declared their intention yesterday to use new freedom of information powers to embarrass ministers during the countdown to the General Election.

Shadow Cabinet members published a barrage of applications that they have submitted to Whitehall departments to test the scope of right-to-know laws introduced by the Government. The 120 requests cover some of the most sensitive and controversial decisions taken by ministers, spanning the Iraq war, the foot-and-mouth epidemic, the ban on foxhunting and the proposed referendum on the European constitution.

Others include the assessment that Gordon Brown's five tests for British entry into the euro had not been met, the reasons for Alan Milburn's resignation as Health Secretary and return to the Cabinet Office as Labour's election co-ordinator, and the placing of Railtrack into receivership.

Many of their applications appear to cover policy discussion among ministers or policy advice from civil servants, both of which are exempt under the Freedom of Information Act and would therefore be refused. But Conservative officials admitted that the exercise was designed to expose the limitations of the new powers and to cause maximum embarrassment to the Government before the election, expected in May, rather than to glean information. More requests are to follow.

"It would be fascinating to have even a few of these questions properly answered, but people should not hold their breath,"

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

"If the evidence has not already been shredded, the Government will do all they can to keep it firmly out of sight."


AWKWARD QUESTION TIME

1. Internal government assessments of the inquiries by Lord Hutton and Lord Butler into the death of David Kelly and prewar intelligence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction

2. Communications between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair about the Prime Minister's statement that he intends to serve a full third term

3. Material on legal opinions on the legality of going to war with Iraq

4. The Government's assessment on the origins of the foot-and-mouth epidemic

5. Correspondence on a possible compromise to the Bill to ban foxhunting and the evaluation of Lord Burns's report on hunting

6. Material concerning the Government's decision to change its policy on the holding of a referendum on the EU constitution

7. Correspondence between ministers and the Education Department and the Treasury before the Commons vote on university top-up fees

8. Minutes of Army Board discussions on the merging of regiments and restructuring of the Army and of the Navy Board on cuts in the frigate and destroyer fleet

9. Details of money received from speed camera fines by each local safety camera partnership, a full breakdown of their costs plus any government funding received by each

10. Details of work on any correlation between contracting out cleaning in the NHS and the incidence of the MRSA superbug