FoI minister accused in Whitehall cover-up row

Hencke asked Cooper about editing report

The minister charged with dismantling the barriers of secrecy around Whitehall has found herself accused of covering up her department’s battles with other departments.

Freedom of Information minister Yvette Cooper invited journalists to the Lord Chancellor’s Department to announce that the Government was repealing or amending 97 laws which banned the publication of information.

But Guardian Westminster correspondent David Hencke, who sits on the committee advising the Lord Chancellor on implementing the Freedom of Information Act, startled reporters and Cooper by asking why details of discussions with other departments included in the draft report had been edited out of the Freedom of Information Publication Scheme.

"I don’t want to be troublesome," Hencke told her, admitting: "I am using information from sitting on the advisory committee."

Cooper, a former leader writer on The Independent, denied any responsibility. "I haven’t gone through this and red-lined detailed things," she said.

But Lee Hughes, civil service head of the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Division, admitted Hencke was right.

"What you saw," he told Hencke, "was that we were being very honest about some of the discussions going on, where we haven’t accepted some departments’ case for retaining them [secrets]."

Even the minister’s announcement that 97 laws are being repealed or amended is less of a breakthrough than at first appeared.

The Lord Chancellor’s annual report said: "No timetable has yet been agreed for the repeal or amendment of individual items, but it is likely that most will occur following full implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in 2005."

The Government is still reviewing whether 205 other laws should be repealed. Cooper disclosed that a file on UFO sightings in Suffolk was now automatically available, but the information had already been available on request from the Ministry of Defence.

From the weekend, every government department is now required to issue publication schemes, but many have not used the opportunity to release new information.

The advisory committee – whose members include Santha Rasaiah, political, editorial and regulatory affairs director of the Newspaper Society, and Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information – has met four times in the past year.

But Cooper was unable, or unwilling, to tell Press Gazette when the Cabinet’s Freedom of Information sub-committee last met or indeed how often it had met.

A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor said: "It is established practice not to disclose information relating to the proceedings of the Cabinet or its committees."

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: "Ministers have to set standards for others. Sadly, there are too many signs at present that organisations that will become subject to the FoI Act will do the minimum to comply, when ministers should be encouraging a move to the situation where information is released unless it is clearly in the public interest that it should be withheld."

By David Rose

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