Wed, Jan 05, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Iraq advice off limits as UK reveals secret papers

OPENNESS There are limits to the new Freedom of Information Act, which requires government agencies to specify which documents cannot be made public


Britons had their first opportunity to test the country's new Freedom of Information Act yesterday, when the nation goes to work after an extended New Year holiday.

But the government was already making clear that there were limits to its new openness, insisting in particular that it would not release the attorney-general's advice on the legality of the Iraq war.

"Whether or not information is disclosed depends on the Act, but every government needs space to take advice. I don't think any government with an [freedom of information] Act such as this would act on any other basis," Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, or chief legal officer, said on Monday.

Opposition parties and opponents of the Iraq war have sought in vain to obtain a copy of the advice of the attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, which underpinned British Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to join the US-led invasion.

Under the Act, every government department must declare what information will be routinely available, how to get it and whether there will be a charge for access. The effective date varies from department to department.

Every public authority now must comply with requests for information it holds unless that information is specifically exempted from disclosure. In general, public agencies are to respond to requests within 20 working days.

Falconer said the government was not being selective in the information it releases, insisting that any request it refuses can be appealed to an independent tribunal.

A Cabinet minister might veto release from his or her department, but only with the support of the full Cabinet.

A Freedom of Information Act was first promised by the Labour Party in its 1974 election manifesto. Blair's government secured passage of the legislation in 2000.

The Act is supervised by Information Commissioner Richard Thomas. He can reject departmental plans on information release and, in some cases, can order a department to release information that it has withheld.

The Act is expected to lead to the release of Foreign Office files on the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) between 1870 and 1939.

The government has also indicated it will release notes by Cabinet secretaries of Cabinet meetings back to 1942, which are more thorough than the official minutes.

Some 50,000 government files were being released to the National Archives yesterday, all of them sooner than the past British practice of keeping many documents secret for 30 years.

Among the records were National Coal Board Files from the time of the coalminers' strike of 1984 and 1985, and a titanic collision between organized labor and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's government.

In an interview published on Sunday in the Observer newspaper, Thomas said he expected the Act would lead to the public release of information on the performance of National Health Service physicians and surgeons.

Falconer caused some consternation in editors' offices last month when he announced that any information released to a media organization under the Act would immediately be published on a Web site.

The Guardian newspaper, which is using the Act to request the attorney-general's advice on Iraq, protested in an editorial that immediate publication on a Web site would cripple the incentive for reporters to take advantage of the Act.

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