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OMBUDSMAN UPHOLDS COMPLAINTS ABOUT NON-DISCLOSURE OF INFO

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The parliamentary ombudsman, Ann Abraham, has published the results...
The parliamentary ombudsman, Ann Abraham, has published the results

of her recent investigations into complaints about breaches of the

Code of Practice on Access to Government Information (the Code). The

non-statutory Code, which came into being in 1994, will continue in

force until the Freedom of Information Act comes fully into effect in

2005. Departments withholding information from those requesting it

must cite the Code exemptions on which they are relying to justify

their stance. Ms Abraham's report covers eight investigations

completed by her office between May and October 2002.

Ministry of Defence's refusal to release information

Three of the cases concerned complaints about the Ministry of Defence

(MoD). In one, (A05/03), a journalist asked the Ministry for the list

of countries designated as priority markets in the Defence Export

Sales Organisation's 2000 strategic plan. MoD originally refused to

release the information, citing Exemption 13, which relates to third

party's commercial confidences. They later reviewed this decision and

concluded that, although Exemption 13 was not applicable to the

information sought, they would continue to withhold it under

Exemption 1b: 'information whose disclosure would harm the conduct of

international relations and affairs'.

The investigation found that, although the information was in

principle of the type covered by Exemption 1b, any harm caused by its

disclosure was in fact outweighed by the public interest in making it

available. Given that the question of UK arms sales is an issue

currently the subject of public debate, and that the information in

question was already two years out of date, it was recommended that

the list should be disclosed. MoD agreed to make it available to the

journalist.

A second case, (A09/03), found that MoD had wrongly withheld

information about surveys undertaken in the armed services. An MP

requested by parliamentary question a list of the questions asked in

continuous attitude surveys, but received only a list of the broad

categories of question in reply. When he repeated his request, the

under-secretary of state replied that the surveys were a management

tool that would risk losing their significance if published out of

context, and that the questions were being withheld under Exemption 2

('information whose disclosure would harm the frankness and candour

of internal discussion'). Following the intervention of the

ombudsman, however, the permanent secretary of MoD accepted that the

exemption did not apply, and agreed to provide the information to the

MP. He also acknowledged the need the raise awareness of the Code

with the Ministry. The ombudsman considered this a satisfactory

outcome to a justified complaint.

The ombudsman also upheld a complaint (A29/02) that MoD had withheld

three documents relating to reported sightings of unexplained aerial

phenomena in 1980 (the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident). Although the

documents were in principle covered by Exemption 2, the investigation

recommended that, given their age and the fact that they contained no

information not already in the public domain, they should be

released. The ministry subsequently agreed to disclose them to the

complainant and to others who had previously requested them.

The Cabinet Office's refusal to release factual information

A partially justified complaint against the Cabinet Office (A02/03)

highlighted the problem of distinguishing between factual information

and advice. A journalist complained that the cabinet office refused

to provide him with copies of reports made to the secretary of the

cabinet collating returns by government departments showing items

which had been released into the public domain under the open

government initiative. The investigation found that, although the

documents had been withheld under Exemption 2, this exemption does

not apply to factual information. Rather, it is intended to allow

government departments to consider matters on the understanding that

their thinking will not be exposed, so as not to inhibit the frank

expression of opinion. It was therefore recommended that the factual

information contained in the reports be released and the cabinet

office agreed to comply.

Complaints against other bodies

Also contained in the report are investigations into partially upheld

complaints against the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA),

Driving Standards Agency (DSA) and Department for Work and Pensions

(DWP). However, a complaint that the Higher Education Funding Council

for England had withheld information from a man complaining about the

university where he worked was found to be unjustified, as the

information sought fell within the ambit of Exemptions 7 and 8.

Exemption 7 relates to the effective management and operations of the

public service, and Exemption 8 covers public employment and

appointments.

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