'TORIES TRY TO TEST OPENNESS LAWS'

BBC News Online – 4 January 2005

The Tories are trying to use new openness laws to ask 120 questions they hope will embarrass the Government. Their queries cover relations between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and whether there was a cover-up over the origins of the UK foot-and-mouth outbreak.

The move comes as the Freedom of Information Act comes into force throughout the UK. Some 50,000 Government files from the past 30 years are being made public under the new legislation. The records held at the National Archives in Kew, London, are among those which officials believe should be automatically published under the law.

Until now, many Government papers have been kept hidden from the public for decades under the 30-Year Rule. Under the Act, the public gains a right to ask for and see documents held by more than 100,000 public bodies. These include every organisation from Central Government down to local schools.

The Conservatives want to see documents which are not being released automatically. They are asking how and when Chancellor Gordon Brown was told that Tony Blair was to announce he would serve another full term in office, if elected, before standing down as prime minister. Their questions list also covers the evidence used by the Government to justify its suggestion that the foot-and-mouth outbreak originated in the Far East, not South Africa. And they want more details of why eight Chinook helicopters were grounded at a cost of £205m.

Frontbencher Julian Lewis, who is coordinating the questions, said:

"Our questions shine a spotlight on many of the most unsavoury and embarrassing aspects of Labour's period in office. Let us see what their boast of openness really amounts to."

Critics of the Act predict it will not prove as open as the Government claims, saying its wide range of exemptions will be used to prevent the release of important papers.

A number of media organisations are applying for the secret advice from the Attorney General to the Prime Minister on the legality of a war in Iraq. Lord Falconer, Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, has defended the continued closure of that file. He says it is "only right" that governments can seek policy advice in a way that allows it to have frank discussions behind closed doors. And writing for the BBC News website, Lord Falconer urged critics to judge the Act over the long term, predicting it will create a new culture of open government.