Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Whose fault is that?

In the Times, Rachel Sylvester says that the real problem - for which Damian Green is being punished - is that the government has lost control over the flow of information. She accepts without question, the claims of ministers and officials that the freedom of information act is a bad thing:

They have a point. Of course, as a journalist I am all in favour of getting as much information as possible. But there comes a time when the public interest means that some things should be kept private. If the Information Commissioner decides that the details of Cabinet meetings should be released it will become almost impossible for ministers to have a frank discussion.

Officials have already become more circumspect in the advice they give for fear that their private musings will be released. People are reluctant to put things on paper. Even in e-mails civil servants use codenames, or replace some letters with asterisks when discussing individuals - so that a search for the person's name under the Freedom of Information Act, would draw a blank. Legislation that was meant to encourage more openness has, in fact, led to greater obfuscation. Sir Gus jokes with investigative journalists at parties that it is his job to frustrate their inquiries; the Civil Service sees its role as to block any important requests, which means that only trivia (such as the guest lists for dinners at Chequers or the amount of money MPs claim on expenses) is revealed. “Most ministers think that the Freedom of Information Act is a joke and a waste of taxpayers' money,” says one government member. “It's killing the system.”

There were 8,865 freedom of information requests in the past three months for which records are held. Hundreds of civil servants have to work full-time on answering the questions, at a cost of more than £20 million a year. Officials estimate that they have spent more than £1 million answering requests from the BBC alone. Lord Turnbull, Sir Gus's predecessor as head of the Civil Service, once told me he had to devote an hour a day to deciding which documents should be made public while a minister claims he spends twelve hours a week answering “scrutiny” questions including those submitted under the Freedom of Information Act. Many requests are a waste of time - one questioner asked how much money was spent on Ferrero Rocher chocolates by British embassies; another woman asked for a list of phone numbers of eligible bachelors in the Hampshire police force. Legislation designed to increase voters' trust of the political system has ended up undermining it.

It's quite astonishing that a journalist can accept such tosh at face value without asking whose fault it is that civil servants spend so much time and money being obstructive. Not that £20m a year for freedom of information is a great deal when the government spends hundreds of millions on its own propaganda. The old chestnut about Ferrero Rocher chocolates came straight out of the very same government spin machine.

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