Chancellor's information ban must be overturned

Like “generous editor” or “PR professional”, the term “open government” is usually considered an oxymoron in journalism circles.

The Code of Practice on Open Government, introduced 10 years ago, was apparently a rare opportunity for journalists to push open creaking doors that have previously remained firmly shut.

Except that of course the Code of Practice, in practice, hasn’t worked that way. Two years ago, for example, The Guardian tried to use it to find out all potential conflicts of interest facing government ministers since 1999.

The code ombudsman, Ann Abraham, then spent 10 months trying to remove government blocks to her requests for the information.

Then came an unprecedented intervention by the Lord Chancellor preventing her from further probing on the grounds it would be “prejudicial to the safety of the state or otherwise contrary to the public interest”.

This is the same public interest, presumably, that was supposed to be served so well by Labour’s Freedom of Information Act, a replacement for the code which continues to toothlessly grind its way through Parliament and is due on to the statute books next year.

The Guardian’s challenge to the Lord Chancellor’s ban comes to the High Court next week.

There are some exceptions of course. Last week the Kent Messenger Group used the code to expose a shocking anomaly in the education system that is pointlessly costing taxpayers £1.7m.

But if such results are to be anything other than a rare victory for press and public, the Government must be forced to lift this ludicrous ban and shamed into acting in the spirit of openness that the code – and the act – were supposed to engender.

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