Freedom of Information: Not Quite Open Government

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Over 50,000 previously secret government documents have been released to the public this month as the Freedom of Information Act 2000 finally comes into effect.

Previously official information would typically be closed to public access for 30 years. But under the new rules people have the right to request information at any time and have that information supplied.

However, the government can still keep information secret if it falls under a so called 'exemption'. This includes documents issued by the secret services, or those whose release is deemed to endanger 'national security'. It is not yet clear how these exemption rules will operate in practice. An early test case will involve the attorney general's advice to the government over the legality of the Iraq war. Tony Blair has refused to release the attorney general's advice, despite the widespread view that the war was illegal under international law.

Legal advice to the government falls under one of the Freedom of Information Act's exemptions. But this ruling could be overturned on appeal to Richard Thomas, the government's independent information commissioner.

The 50,000 documents from the last 30 years already released under the act are primarily official files that had been stored at the National Archive in Kew, south west London. They include a host of National Coal Board files from the 1984-85 miners' strike, including daily reports from the Mining Intelligence Unit tracking exactly how much production was being lost due to industrial action by miners.

Witness statements from an inquiry into the death of Kevin Gately in 1974 have also been released. Gately was killed by policemen on an anti-fascist demonstration in Red Lion Square, central London.

Other official files now open to public access include documents from the mid-1970s covering the conflict in Northern Ireland. Then, as now, the threat of terrorism was used by the government as an excuse to bring in repressive legislation. Minutes of a cabinet meeting following the October 1974 Birmingham pub bombings show Roy Jenkins, then Labour's home secretary, backing police requests to introduce detention without trial.

'The police and secret services... favoured an extension of the power of the police to hold without charge, but legislation on this had hitherto seemed impracticable,' the minutes read. 'The revulsion of feeling in the country and in parliament following the recent terrorist incidents in Birmingham had, however, made possible legislation on a package which would provide substantially wider powers for the police.'

Many of the documents released under the new legislation have been scanned in by the National Archive and published on the internet.

Others are available to members of the public visiting the National Archive. Go to the National Archive website at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk for information and opening times.