By James Chapman, Political Correspondent
Daily Mail – 14 February 2005
Freedom of information rules are being used to protect Tony Blair from political embarrassment, it was claimed yesterday. Dozens of requests for details about sensitive episodes from Labour's eight years in office have been turned down or dodged.
Of the 130 demands for information that the Tories have made, at least 50 have been rejected, including 12 out of 13 they made to the Treasury.
Yesterday it emerged that the release of official papers on how and why former Home Secretary David Blunkett has been allowed to keep his £2million grace and favour home, despite his resignation from the Cabinet, has also been blocked. Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull cited 'security' as the reason for rejecting the application under new rules supposed to make the workings of Whitehall more transparent.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Julian Lewis, who is co-ordinating the Tories' requests, said:
"These are serious questions about recent and present policy that are simply not being answered. All the cards are stacked in the Government's favour, and we are now deeply concerned that this is being abused in a partisan way."
Under Freedom of Information Act rules, mandarins can decide independently whether to release information about things that occurred before Labour came to power in 1997. Anything that happened in the last eight years has to be cleared by ministers or their political advisers. Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin said it was now clear that Whitehall officials were "picking and choosing" what information to release.
"This is supposed to be a Freedom of Information Act, not a Freedom of Propaganda Act,"
said Mr Letwin.
"Whatever the rules are for disclosure of things about the present government should apply to past governments."
Last night a spokesman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs insisted the system was fair, saying:
"The Act has not been misused by government - inquiries from politicians, the media and the public have been dealt with in the same way.
"It is a long-standing convention that the current government does not see the ministerial papers of a previous party in government, and there are procedures in place to ensure that this remains when requests are received under the Freedom of Information Act."
It was, we were told, designed to cast a light on the secret workings of Whitehall. But how typical that New Labour should abuse the Freedom of Information Act.
They were quick to use it to blacken their opponents, encouraging supporters to trawl for anything to embarrass Michael Howard. And John Major was falsely accused – with the connivance of New Labour's favourite paper The Times – of trying to block the release of information about his Black Wednesday humiliation. But when it comes to their own activities, New Labour use every trick to hide the facts or slow their release.
Economic policy? Not a chance. Ministerial diaries? Not a hope.
And when asked why David Blunkett can keep his ministerial residence even though he is no longer Home Secretary, Downing Street merely quotes 'security' for saying nothing. There may be good reasons for allowing him to stay there. But there is no excuse for refusing to give a full explanation.