By Martin Stabe
Journalists could gain access to the names and direct-dial telephone numbers of every Whitehall civil servant after a landmark Freedom of Information ruling in favour of The Guardian by the Information Commissioner.
Commissioner Richard Thomas has ruled that the Ministry of Defence must release the March 2004 edition of the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) directory, which lists civil servants engaged in arms sales abroad.
The Guardian requested the directory a fortnight after the Freedom of Information Act came into force last January, after it emerged that a DESO official had been allegedly taking gifts, including free holidays from arms firms.
Armed with this precedent, The Guardian is now planning to systematically request the contact details of officials across Whitehall. Reporter Rob Evans said: "Logic would dictate that they would see that we now have this ruling behind us and will disclose."
Existing public directories of Whitehall officials, such as the Civil Service Yearbook, only list the top echelon of each unit.
In the US, by contrast, full staff directories are available for every federal government agency, including the name, title and telephone number of each official.
"I’ve got one in front of me right now," said Evans, before reading out the name of a low-ranking official in the US Department of Labor.
"What we are trying to achieve is that these directories are routinely available here," said Evans.
"But we have really got to have a cultural change in Whitehall. Until now, the typical response to requests like this has been that the sky is falling."
Responding to The Guardian’s request last February, the MoD released only the organisational structure of DESO — including officials’ titles, but not their names. The ministry argued that more detailed disclosure would put staff at risk of harassment from campaigners opposed to the global arms trade.
But the information commissioner ruled that the public interest in "improving the understanding of the relationship between the arms industry and the MoD" outweighed the ministry’s claim that disclosure would prejudice its effective conduct of public affairs.
The MoD has until mid-May to decide whether it will provide the DESO directory to The Guardian or appeal to the Information Tribunal.