Headlines: July 11th, 1997

Advocates of freedom of information who were disappointed that a Bill did not find a place in the current programme were further depressed by slippage in the White Paper timetable. The announcement that publication of the White Paper had slipped from before to after the Summer recess of Parliament caused concern and allegations of conspiracy. It was alleged that senior civil servants were seeking to water down the draft White Paper by widening and extending the escape clauses. These clauses are currently thought to provide exemption from disclosure on grounds of national security or economic factors.The First Division Association, the trade union for Britain’s top civil servants, today dismissed the allegation that their members are trying to block the White Paper.General Secretary, Jonathan Baume, said: “There is absolutely no evidence that senior civil servants are opposed to the freedom of information legislation, in fact quite the contrary. The FDA has been campaigning for a freedom of information act since 1983, with strong support from our members. This is a complex piece of legislation and both Ministers and civil servants may have concerns about some of the details. It may be that the Government’s timetable is simply too tight. But it is Ministers who must take the final decision. Once they have done so, I have every confidence that civil servants will implement it with the professionalism and efficiency that Ministers themselves were praising just a few weeks ago.

This rebuttal of the blocking allegations was borne out by a spokeswomen of the Office of Public Service who said: “Publication of the White Paper has been delayed because there is a need to thoroughly prepare the ground and there is a lot of work to be done.” She added: “There is no split between civil servants and Ministers.”