MINISTERS' PROMISES to usher in a new age of freedom of information have failed to materialise, with scores of requests to open the Government to public scrutiny being rejected.
About 4,000 requests have been received across central government since the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act on 1 January. But MPs and journalists expressed frustration at the lack of positive responses to their requests - amid claims that the Government has breached its own legislation by failing to meet the Freedom of Information Act's statutory deadline.
Scores of requests have been refused and some departments have been using stock replies to deny access to information, issuing refusal letters to different people using identical wording.
Of the 70 inquiries made by The Independent only 10 have been successful. Almost half were turned down flat; the remainder are still awaiting reply.
In two of the replies the Government conceded that it had breached its own legislation by failing to meet the deadline of 20 working days that expired yesterday. Ministers also admitted they had no idea how many of the 362 requests made on the first day the legislation came into force had been answered. Yet, in 2000, Labour postponed the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act by four years to give government departments and 100,000 public bodies more time to prepare for the new right of access.
Conservative frontbenchers have submitted 130 requests for information under the FOI Act. So far they have received only three holding replies. Julian Lewis, the shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said that, although the Ministry of Defence showed signs of genuine openness, he was discouraged by the amount of time being taken to respond to requests by other departments.
"They have gone right down to the wire, taking the full 20 days to reply. I hope the reason they are leaving it to the last minute to answer this question is because they are putting together a lot of information to give to us," he said. "I fear that the delay is just stalling for time before they give us little more than the casual evasive responses to written parliamentary questions."
Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, said the Government was guilty of hypocrisy over its application of the Act. "There is a real suspicion that the Government is using the FOI Act as a deft manoeuvre to imply openness while allowing the Sir Humphreys of this world arcane reasons for not answering questions," he said. "We have yet to see any evidence at all that the Act will make any positive difference as far as the Government is concerned."
That didn't stop Labour hailing the FOI Act a success, calling it the beginning of a new era of openness. Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, said: "This is a new era in the relationship between the citizen and the state. After just one month, the Freedom of Information Act has already been seen to make a real impact . …