Guardian legal challenge bears fruit three years on

Evans: legal victory brings him one step closer

Information which should have been released within three weeks by the Government has now taken The Guardian more than three years to unearth.

The paper has still to receive the details about ministers’ conflicts of interest which reporter Rob Evans requested under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. But it has won a legal challenge which brings it a major step closer.

This week a two-day judicial review hearing was due to take place at the High Court over The Guardian claim that there has been a failure to comply with its initial open government request.

It sought to use judicial review procedure to overturn a certificate issued by the Lord Chancellor in June that stopped the Parliamentary Ombudsman investigating the case.

In a 400-page submission filed at the High Court in September, The Guardian argued that the Government was in breach of its duty to act fairly and of the Human Rights Act by issuing the certificate.

On Thursday, government lawyers decided not to contest the case, meaning Ombudsman Ann Abraham’s investigation could continue. But it could still be months before the information is released.

Evans initially wrote to 17 government departments in February 2001 asking for information about conflicts of interest reported by ministers to their permanent secretaries. The Code of Practice on Access to Government Information includes a target time of 20 days for departments to respond to such requests.

When the Government refused to comply with the request, The Guardian complained to the ombudsman under the terms of the code.

Evans said: “This issue is not just about freedom of information, it’s about how allegations of sleaze are investigated in government. In the bad old days when the Jonathan Aitken allegations were made, the Cabinet Secretary just said ‘what’s this about?’ and he just said ‘there’s nothing to worry about’.

“We believe we’ve come to a time now, where if there are allegations of sleaze the public should know how they are investigated.

“These are like the teething pains of freedom of information. Part of this is about how Whitehall culture has changed. They’ve always operated in secret and now they are opening up, these are the teething pains of that process.”

The code was launched in 1994 and only provides guidelines. Journalists including Evans are hopeful the Freedom of Information Act, which puts much of the code into law, will improve matters when it is enacted next year.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said: “For the past four years The Guardian has been campaigning for freedom of information and arguing that the Government was being unnecessarily secretive.

“The attempt to gag the ombudsman was disgraceful, and we hope this landmark judgment will encourage the Government to be more open in future, and allow the ombudsman to do her job.

By Dominic Ponsford

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