Information law used as battle gets personal
By Michael White and David Hencke
Guardian – 5 February 2005
Fears were growing last night that the coming General Election may degenerate into highly personal mudslinging after Labour and the Conservatives accused each other of using Britain's new Freedom of Information laws to dig the dirt on their rivals. A leaked party memo revealed that Labour MPs and officials are demanding background documents about Michael Howard's record in government: on prisons, gay issues, and even family matters. It prompted the immediate counter-charge that the Tory MP Julian Lewis has openly promised to use the new laws to "challenge the government with 120 embarrassing questions".
According to the leaked memo, Labour diggers are trying to discover if Mr Howard fast-tracked a passport for a family friend when he was Home Secretary. They are also seeking the help of gay campaigners to uncover Mr Howard's record on section 28, the notorious clause banning the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools.
In the other corner, the Tories have their own targets. A Tory press release, being circulated by Labour, lists questions submitted by Mr Lewis including:
"When was Gordon Brown told that Tony Blair wanted a third term and what was his reaction?"
Mr Lewis also wants to know "what the government really thinks" about the Butler and Hutton inquiries, if there was a cover-up over the foot-and-mouth epidemic and other "unsavoury and embarrassing" incidents.
The leaked Labour memo suggests that a former minister, Peter Kilfoyle, was being encouraged to pursue inquiries about the release of a relative of Mr Howard who had been charged with drug offences.
A month after Labour's 2001 Freedom of Information Act – which was opposed by the Tories at the time – finally came into force, disclosures have started being used in the election battle. The Liberal Democrats, who are also using the new weapon, struck first by obtaining Mr Blair's guest-list at Chequers.
The biggest casualties so far emerged yesterday when John Major and Norman Lamont reacted with fury to accusations that they had intervened to block or censor publication this week of 200 pages of previously undisclosed papers about the Black Wednesday crisis. The former Prime Minister and his Chancellor wrote a joint letter of protest at what they called a wholly misleading suggestion in yesterday's Times which had suggested they used the Whitehall old-boy network to impede publication.
"I knew nothing of any request for papers until late Wednesday evening when I was in the United States,"
Mr Major said. He had merely asked for time to read the documents – and denied any intention to block them or seek amendments, he insisted. So did Lord Lamont.
Labour's use of personal, negative campaigning contrasts with what Mr Blair said before his first landslide victory in 1997:
"They will attack me and they will attack you. They are negative, they are nasty, they are personalised."
Liam Fox, the Tory co-chairman, last night accused the prime minister of going
"straight back to his old ways of spin and personal abuse."
No 10 said ministers and political aides were not allowed to see FoI documents and requests, which are handled by neutral civil servants. The Tories are sceptical.
"We want parity of treatment, we have made no accusations yet,"
a party spokesman said. The tussle over FoI requests follows disputes about posters in which Labour focused on Mr Howard, depicting him in one as a flying pig. The posters prompted debate about whether or not they were anti-semitic. A Labour Party spokesman said nothing had been done wrong.
"We regard Michael Howard's record as a key part of our campaign. He would take Britain backwards ... asking questions about Michael Howard's record is not part of a smear campaign – it's about establishing the truth. It is not personal – it is about his record."