Friday, May 27, 2005

Ombudsman makes final report on government openness

Press release


26 May 2005

Ombudsman makes final report on government openness

Ombudsman website

The Parliamentary Ombudsman today published a special report on her Office’s monitoring of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information over the past 11 years and a two-part volume of the last investigations into complaints that government information had been wrongly withheld from those who had asked for it. From January 2005 the Freedom of Information Act 2000 came fully into force superseding the non-statutory Code.

The report sets out the history of the Ombudsman’s involvement in monitoring the Code of Practice after the Office was asked to take on this task in 1994; examines some of the landmark cases; and considers the impact of the Ombudsman’s work on freedom of information generally. The Parliamentary Ombudsman, Ann Abraham, said, ‘Through the decisions my Office has reached, much of the groundwork has been done to create a much more receptive climate for the Freedom of Information regime than was the case when we started our work on openness 11 years ago.’

‘Under the Code, and even more so under the Act, it is not now possible to operate under the ancient principle of the “need to know”; now there is a right to know and an expectation that information will be released. It should be withheld only if there is clear justification, supported by an exemption. We must also recognise that people want information when they want it, not when someone else thinks it appropriate for them to have it. Through the cases we have investigated, we have for the first time in this country explored the key issues that arise in the consideration of freedom of information. Not the least of these is the difficult territory of the public interest test. Much of what we have looked at under the Code will be looked at again under the Freedom of Information Act. I hope that what we have done will provide some useful help and guidance to those who will be doing that work.’

A number of landmark cases contributed to the development of a more proactive approach by government departments in making information – especially internal guidance – routinely accessible to anyone who wanted it. Some ‘heavyweight’ cases, involving complex and voluminous material, were particularly politically sensitive. Examples of such cases in the 1990s involved information about nuclear reprocessing at Dounreay and the export of a multi-purpose riot gun.

Another of the Office’s achievements was to press successfully for the release of information which might not otherwise have found its way into the public domain.
This sometimes involved gaining general acceptance that, in most cases, information decreases in sensitivity as it ages. In one case about accidents involving nuclear weapons (A.12/03), the Ombudsman took the view that, while the information requested was covered by a Code exemption, the strong public interest, and the unlikelihood of significant harm being caused by the release of old information about accidents involving obsolete weapons systems, meant that the information should be made available.

Ann Abraham, said, ‘I am proud of this body of specialised work represented by our investigations. The report highlights some of the major cases we have dealt with and attempts to draw some key lessons about freedom of information and how it should be operated. I hope it will provide useful guidance at a time when over a hundred thousand public sector bodies are taking their first, tentative steps into the brave new world of open government.’

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