Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor has assured journalists that the Government is taking freedom of information seriously.
He said the ministerial veto on releasing information will be used
sparingly. And he described sceptical Guardian reporter David Hencke as
the “Che Guevara” of FoI, urging him to come back in from the “jungle”.
Speaking on the day he signed the Commencement Order which will
bring the Freedom of Information Act into force on 1 January he said
getting to this stage had been a “real struggle”.
He said: “Cultural change in Westminster is like turning around the
classic ocean liner. Opening up Whitehall and introducing freedom of
information is a titanic task.”
He added: “From 1 January the act puts in place, for the first time in this country, a presumption of openness.
A presumption that there is a general public interest in access to information.”
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of
Information, challenged Falconer over the clause in the act which
allows ministers to veto information requests.
He said: “The benefits to public confidence in Government that will
come from this reform will be seen when we see that uncomfortable
information is being released without interference.”
Falconer said use of the veto will be “very exceptional and not affect the overall approach to the act”.
If it is used, he said, a full account of the reasons why will have
to go to Parliament and he said that any use would have to be approved
by the Cabinet.
Guardian Westminster correspondent David Hencke was doubtful about
the new spirit of openness from his experience of using the existing
Open Government Code.
He said: “Having done this for more than two years, using the code
to get information, I have found a very mixed response. The nearer you
get to the centre of power the more difficult it becomes. Downing
Street is the most hostile.”
Hencke said he had requested details of ministerial gifts, trips and lobby meetings – and made little progress.
He said: “I never thought we were going to have to spend two years
on this, or that Downing Street would put up such a fight over
something which is a one-day story.
“Has anything happened since then? Lord Falconer hasn’t accounted for any gifts he gets.”
He added that the Prime Minister has also refused to reveal if he
has had any meetings with lobbyists for major casino companies.
He said: “I see no reason in the world why we shouldn’t know who lobbies our PrimeMinister.”
Hencke predicted that journalists will require “grit and
determination” to get the information they want under FoI. He said:
“You are going to have to push people because they are going to find
Falconer responded by calling Hencke the “Che Guevera of Freedom of
Information” and said that his views were based on years of dealing
He invited him to stop fighting in the jungle and to come back into
the fold, saying: “The jaundice in David’s liver is the same jaundice
that led us to introduce this act”
MAKING THE BEST USE OF THE ACT
Times journalist Frank le Duc gave a series of tips on how to make
the best of the new FoI Act which becomes law on 1 January. He told the
conference, organised by Press Gazette and the Newspaper Society at the
Royal Society for the Arts in London, that the act was a tool that
journalists should use to supplement work they already do.
He said journalists should:
? Publicise successes achieved using FoI by including in stories
“this information was disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.”
? Publicise failures by stating “a request under the FoI Act was
refused.” This may prompt someone with the information to come forward.
? Appeal against refusals: first to the body the information was
requested from, then to the Information Commissioner. It’s free.
? Learn the key public interest tests.
? Don’t be deterred by setbacks.
? Identify when the FoI Act will be most useful (eg for specialists,
investigations and campaigns or dealing with difficult press officers).
? Encourage one or two members of staff to become FoI experts.
? Track requests made under the FoI Act.
? Revisit old stories to see if the FoI Act can uncover new material.
? Find expertise among readers and harness their knowledge and talent to use the FoI Act.
Dominic Ponsford and Jon Slattery report from the 2004 Law for Journalists conference