By Benedict Brogan, Whitehall Editor
Daily Mail – 24 December 2004
Ministers have ordered the shredding of thousands of embarrassing documents to avoid making them public under new access to information rules, it was claimed last night. Figures showed that the destruction of Whitehall emails and letters has dramatically accelerated in recent weeks.
The Government rejected the claims but Opposition MPs expressed fears that a "bonfire of historical records" was under way to save Labour from controversy when the Freedom of Information Act comes into effect on January 1. They pointed to the unexplained disappearance of vital documents in the Blunkett affair as evidence of a "culture of concealment".
The legislation imposes on more than 100,000 public bodies, from the Prime Minister's Office to every GP's surgery, a duty to make all the information it holds available. There are 23 wide-ranging exemptions allowing the Government to withhold information considered too sensitive, but the change to the rules on official secrecy mean millions of documents will be accessible for the first time.
A series of written Commons answers to questions tabled by Tory MP Julian Lewis showed that, for example, in the Department for Trade and Industry the number of files destroyed had nearly doubled since the law was passed, from 52,605 in 2000 to 97,020 last year. At the Department for Work and Pensions 36,885 files were deleted last year, compared to 15,524 four years ago.
Mr Lewis said:
"There has been a dramatic and disturbing increase in the number of files that have been shredded. The steep rise in shredding in some departments is hard to account for other than the awareness that information will no longer be classified as confidential. It looks like there has been a bonfire of historical records."
Lib Dem MP Norman Baker said:
"This whole episode yet again paints an unflattering picture of the inner workings of government. It is clear that the Government's initial enthusiasm for open government has turned to selfserving cynicism."
Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, who is overseeing the implementation of the law, warned civil servants they could face prosecution if they were found to have destroyed documents earmarked for release, but said he had no "hard evidence" that documents were being wrongly destroyed.
"I would condemn any deliberate destruction of official information to avoid disclosure under the Act," he said. "Public bodies should consider the value of the information contained in documents before files are destroyed. It is important that the public can access governmental information. Freedom of information means we can sweep away the cobwebs of secrecy in favour of greater transparency and accountability."
A spokesman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs insisted the destruction of unimportant records was "routine" and saved the cost of storage.
"No Government departments have been told to destroy records in order to prevent their release under the FOI Act, and such a policy would run totally contrary to the Government's intention to increase openness,"
"Departments regularly destroy records as part of proper records management policies. Overall, less than five per cent of Government records contain historically significant information worth preserving - the rest is destroyed, and always has been. The FOI Act has undoubtedly brought a renewed focus on good records management, and the Code of Practice on records management recognises that the managed destruction of records is a proper and necessary part of efficient record keeping."
Constitutional Affairs Minister David Lammy told Sky News:
"You wouldn't expect a Government department to keep documents beyond five years in relation to catering, maintenance, stationery; the sorts of things that go on in the civil service on a day-to-day basis. Actually what the Tories are doing are trying to disrupt the fact that the Government is wanting to be open, wanting to be transparent."
The new law opens up the records of all publicly-funded bodies ranging from the Treasury to schools, local councils and hospitals. Under the Act, an individual will be free to ask for details of any personal information held by a public body. This could cover health records, educational transcripts, police records, credit history and information on the individual's use of public services.
Recorded information may include letters, emails, minutes of meetings, contracts and personal details. An applicant, however, will not be allowed to see personal records for other individuals. A request may be made by writing or sending an email. A response has to be made within 20 working days. The request can be refused if the authorities can show its release would harm national security, health and safety, commercial confidentiality or legal proceedings.
In all there are 23 exemptions which critics say will allow public bodies to keep much sensitive material from the public eye. Applicants may ask to have a refusal reviewed by a tribunal. Public bodies are allowed to charge for the information, but not much more than the cost of postage and photocopying.