FT fights to open up secrets of ERM row

By Dominic Ponsford

The
Financial Times is demanding the release of further documents about the
1994 ERM debacle under the Freedom of Information Act, and is
threatening to appeal to the Information Commissioner.

The FT
secured the first major news story to emerge under the new FoI powers
for the press when it demanded the release of documents relating to
Britain’s costly exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Its
request for the Treasury assessment into what went wrong included
details of the £3.2 billion cost of Britain leaving the ERM.

But
the release of documents was selective and a number were not released
under FoI exemptions on international relations and formulation of
Government policy. These include a number of communications between
ministers.

FT editor Andrew Gowers said the documents requested
were historic and unlikely to undermine the formulation of Government
policy.

The documents about Black Wednesday were one of a number
of FoI requests submitted by FT political journalist Cathy Newman after
the FoI Act became law on 1 January.

The FT was denied a scoop
because the documents it requested were also released to all other
media on the Treasury website, but Gowers said he had no objection to
this.

He said: “We got the documents before everyone else, but
the law says a release to one party has to be followed fairly swiftly
by a release to everyone. I don’t object to that, it’s in the spirit of
Freedom of Information.

“We knew it was coming so had more time to prepare for it and more time to look at the documents than others .”

Other
FoI requests recently made by the FT include documents on the collapse
of Equitable Life and the activities of the Strategic Rail Authority.

Gowers
said: “I’m very favourably and positively surprised by FoI. I grew up
thinking that Whitehall was addicted to secrecy, even down to naming
who does what in their departments, and getting information out of them
was like pulling teeth.

“That, to some extent, remains the case –
but I think this act over time is going to prove very robust. There are
checks and balances and a system of internal and external appeals. The
information commissioner looks set to play a very active role and put a
bias on the release of information unless there are very good reasons
why not.”

The documents were initially due to be released on 1
February, but were delayed after it was decided that they should be
shown first to the ministers concerned: John Major and Norman Lamont.

Major denied a report in The Times that he had sought to block the release of the documents.

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