By Greg Hurst, Political Correspondent
The Times – 24 December 2004
The watchdog appointed to police new freedom of information laws was embroiled in controversy yesterday after dismissing protests by the Conservatives over the destruction of Whitehall records. Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, declared that he was unaware of deliberate destruction of files by civil servants, and said that government departments were keen to co-operate with him.
He was responding to Opposition claims that some departments had stepped up the shredding of files to conceal them from historians.
“All my discussions with Whitehall bodies have established that they really do recognise the benefits of being a great deal more transparent,”
Mr Thomas told “The World at One” on BBC Radio 4.
“I am not aware of wholesale destruction deliberately to avoid the legislation. I recognise that good record management, good housekeeping, will involve records being destroyed. There is a code of practice on this and it is my job to make sure it is properly followed.”
This provoked a furious reaction from Julian Lewis, the Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, who earlier called on the commissioner to investigate figures on the destruction of papers at five ministries. He told The Times:
“Either he has not bothered to examine the statistics or he is not up to his job. Of course he could not be aware of them being destroyed for purposes of avoiding the Act because he has not made an investigation.”
Parliamentary questions tabled by Mr Lewis showed that the Department for Transport and Office of the Deputy Prime Minister destroyed 53,232 documents last year, more than the estimated figure for the previous two years, and planned to destroy a further 23,400. The Department of Trade and Industry destroyed 97,020 items last year, compared with 64,820 the previous year and 52,605 five years ago. The Department for Work and Pensions got rid of 36,885, compared with 28,549 in 2002-03 and 15,524 in 1999-2000.
The number of papers destroyed by the MoD reached 3,211 last year. It reviewed and kept 438. Figures until November for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs showed that 44,313 documents had been destroyed.
Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, said:
“If the allegations of shredding are true then it shows Whitehall departments acting entirely against the spirit of the new Act.”