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OMBUDSMAN HIGHLIGHTS PROBLEMS OVER REQUESTS FOR OFFICIAL INFORMATION

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The parliamentary ombudsman, Michael Buckley, says that there are recurring problems when people approach governmen...
The parliamentary ombudsman, Michael Buckley, says that there are recurring problems when people approach government departments with requests for information.

Speaking today he said:

'Too often, departments quote exemptions in the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information rather than follow the spirit of the code and give as much information as they are able.

'If someone asks for a document, the department should treat this as a request for all the information in that document. This means applying the principles of the code to all the information contained in the document. They should not apply a blanket ban, for example, on disclosure of a policy document, or submission to a minister, just because it includes sensitive material. Very often, these documents contain facts and an analysis of facts, and that is clearly the sort of information which they should consider releasing under the code.

'I have also seen cases where departments have refused to release information because it was obtained in confidence from a third party. That does not necessarily mean they should withhold it, rather, they should ask the person who supplied the information for their view as they may have no objection to full, or possibly partial, disclosure.

'Departments quite often say that the information requested is covered by one or more of the 15 Code exemptions but in the course of the investigation it transpires that they were unable to find the information- or do not possess it. This creates a false and unnecessary impression of secrecy. If a department does not have the information requested they should say so.'

Cardiff Bay features in two of the reports published by the ombudsman.

In one an interest group asked the Welsh Office for the facts about a decision to allow the Cardiff Bay barrage to proceed. The Welsh Office refused; they said that the review of the project involved confidential discussions and advice.

The ombudsman's investigation into the complaint showed that the secretary of state for Wales had already given most of the information requested when he spoke about the review to a delegation which included a member of the interest group. Mr Buckley said that the Welsh Office's refusal created an impression of secrecy. At the ombudsman's suggestion the Welsh Office released some factual information from the review which the secretary of state had not given. The ombudsman agreed that the internal opinion and advice and the legal advice could legitimately be withheld. He only partially upheld the complaint.

In another case a separate interest group complained that Cardiff Bay Development Corporation (CBDC) had refused to give them the current cost estimates to create a wetland habitat for birds. CBDC said that the breakdown of their overall budget of£5.7 million was an operational matter. The chief executive said that, as the budget might change following tendering and planning processes, it had to remain confidential.

However the ombudsman's investigation into the complaint showed that detailed information about earlier cost estimates was available to the public. He said that public interest in having up-to-date information outweighed any prejudice which might arise from revealing it. He upheld the complaint and asked CBDC to release their most up-to-date information.

After some debate CBDC agreed and also provided details of the cost estimates from October 1996 when the request for information was first made.

Although the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has rigorous procedures for assessing Open Government requests one man complained that they had refused to give him information about workplace stress. They had given him some documents but had said that it would be too time-consuming to search out further data. However the ombudsman's investigation revealed that their computer system could search out a number of letters mentioning stress and that some of the information in them could be presented without infringing a statutory restriction on disclosure. HSE agreed to give more information on stress to the enquirer.

In another case a man complained that the Scottish Office education and industry department had refused to give him the reasons for their decision to allow an electricity company to construct an overhead power line. They had sent him copies of their correspondence with the company.

The department told the ombudsman that they had actually given the man all the reasons for their decision when they wrote to him although they might have given the impression that they had withheld relevant information. However as a result of his request they will in future include a statement of reasons in all decision letters. The ombudsman said that the department had gone to considerable lengths to give the man the information he asked for but had then marred their reply by giving him the impression that they had not given him all of it.

The Parliamentaiy ombudsman deals with complaints from members of the public that they have suffered an injustice because of poor administration in government bodies. The ombudsman's report covers eight complaints about problems in obtaining access to official information under the 1994 Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.

NOTES

1. Report of Parliamentary Commissioner Access to Official Information Investigations Completed April - October 1998: HC5 TSO£12.50 0102534993

2. NO DETAILS CAN BE GIVEN ABOUT THE INDIVIDUALS INVOLVED IN THESE

CASES

3. Copies of the report can be found at www.parliament.ombudsman.org.uk/pca/document/hc5/hc-05.htm

4. Leaflets describing how to complain to the Ombudsman are available from his office; telephone 0171 217 4051.

5. Cardiff Bay has one of the greatest tidal ranges in the world. At low tide it is a vast area of mudflats, which form a habitat for wading birds. As part of a programme to regenerate the area a barrage is being constructed across the mouth of Cardiff Bay. By impounding the waters of the Rivers Taff and Ely, the barrage will create a permanent freshwater lake. The mudflats will then no longer be exposed and the bird habitat will disappear.

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