'TORIES TEST LIMITS OF INFORMATION ACT'
By Matthew Tempest
Guardian Online – 4 January 2005
The Conservatives today fired off a barrage of 120 "embarrassing questions" they want answered under the new Freedom of Information Act. The Tories have requested information on what Gordon Brown thought of Tony Blair's surprise decision to stay on for a full third term and on the exact moment the Government decided to do a U-turn on holding a referendum on the EU constitution.
Posing the questions, the Tory shadow Cabinet Office minister, Julian Lewis, said:
"I'm not staking my shirt on the Blair government answering, but we may get some bullseyes, and at the very least it will show the parameters of the act and remind the public of a long list of Labour misdeeds."
Nine shadow ministers spent Christmas coming up with the list, which includes questions on what the Government thought about the outcomes of the Hutton and Butler Inquiries into the Iraq war and whether there was a cover-up of the origins of the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
Mr Lewis, himself a former researcher at the Public Records Office in Kew, has also asked every Government department to make public its files on departmental policy on the destruction of documents. The Tories have alleged that departments shredded thousands of papers in the months before the Freedom of Information Act came into effect, on January 1.
Other potentially juicy questions relate to the resignation of Alan Milburn, material assessing the usefulness of the Treasury's five tests on joining the euro and the decision to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor.
Mr Lewis said:
"This is another dossier that Labour will be keen to dodge. It would be fascinating to have even a few of these questions properly answered, but people should not hold their breath: if the evidence has not already been shredded, the Government will try to keep it firmly out of sight.
"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."
The Freedom of Information Act requires Government departments to release any information requested unless it is covered by a range of exemptions that permit documents to be withheld if, for instance, their publication could endanger national security or breach commercial confidentiality.
A final veto on the release of information is held by the Secretary of State for each department, though the Government has said that this will be used rarely.
Mr Lewis added:
"The by-product of the FoI Act will be either more of the "sofa government" so criticised by Lord Butler, where decisions are taken orally or informally and not noted down for future historians, or more of the destruction of records we have seen recently."