Headlines: December 15th, 1998

Government departments are creating an unnecessary impression of secrecy by refusing too often to respond to requests for information.Too often, according to the Parliamentary Ombudsman Michael Buckley, departments say the information is exempt under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. In one case he has examined, the information had simply been lost. In another, department officials said information would take too long to find, when an investigation found the request was straightforward to respond to.

He says there is a clear tendency to cover with the Code all the information in a document which contains just some sensitive material: “They should not apply a blanket ban, for example, on disclosure of a policy document, or submission to a Minister, just because it includes sensitive material. Very often, these documents contain facts and an analysis of facts, and that is clearly the sort of information that they should consider releasing under the Code.

“I have also seen cases where departments have refused to release information because it was obtained in confidence from a third party. That does not necessarily mean they should withhold it, rather, they should ask the person who supplied the information for their view as they may have no objection to full, or possibly partial, disclosure.”

The report, Access to Official Information Investigations Completed April – October 1998, can be found on the web at www.parliament.ombudsman.org.uk/pca/document/hc5/hc-05.htm