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Thursday, 25 January, 2001, 16:40 GMT
Watchdog attacks Whitehall secrecy
Secrecy graphic
Whitehall stands accused of excessive secrecy
Whitehall officials have been rapped over the knuckles for being too secretive by a parliamentary watchdog.

There can be no excuse for this

Parliamentary Ombudsman Michael Buckley
Parliamentary Ombudsman Michael Buckley said that civil servants had wrongly withheld information when faced with complaints on no less than six separate occasions in just nine months.

In a report on eight complaints forwarded to him by MPs between April and December last year, he said some government departments still failed to realise that they must deal with requests for information on complaints in line with the established code of practice.

"Given that the code has now been in operation for nearly seven years, there can be no excuse for this," Mr Buckley said.

But some departments were praised for their "clear and efficient" ways of following the code.

Claim rejected

The report criticised parts of Whitehall, rejecting the claim that they risked breaching confidentiality by heeding his appeal to be more open.

Nigel Waterson
Nigel Waterson MP: Attacked "culture of secrecy" proposed for councils
The ombudsman argued that departments could, with a "creative and imaginative approach", release useful information by summarising it or making it anonymous without breaching any confidentiality that might be owed to whoever supplied the information.

He concluded that such an approach would be very much in keeping with the spirit of the code of practice.

Among the complaints upheld or partially upheld by the ombudsman were:

  • Refusal of the Export Credits Guarantee Department to release details and documents submitted by a company over Turkey's controversial Ilisu Dam project.

  • Refusal of the Medical Devices Agency to give a list of experts consulted about the risks of breast implants to a committee examining the issue.

  • Refusal of the Medicines Control Agency to release information about the practice of advertising prescription-only medicines direct to the public.

  • Two complaints over the Driving Standards Agency's decision to withhold appeal board reports on approved driving instructors.

  • Refusal by the Benefits Agency to provide a definition of a medical term.

    This latest attack on secrecy in Whitehall comes as the government has been defending its proposals to ensure access to meetings and information in new cabinet-style local government, which is replacing the committee system in many local councils.

    'Culture of secrecy'

    In the Commons, the Conservatives have tried unsuccessfully to block the new regulations.

    Tory local government spokesman Nigel Waterson said the new cabinet-style system would "encourage a culture of secrecy and exclusion".

    But Local Government Minister Hilary Armstrong insisted that the new regulations would strike a balance that would make local government both open and workable.

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    01 Jan 01 | UK Confidential
    Unlocking the secrets of government
    25 Oct 00 | UK Politics
    Whitehall's culture of secrecy
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