FOI: Government admits a public interest, but still manages to keep secrets…

The Newcastle Evening Chronicle has been campaigning for compensation for sufferers of pleural plaques since 2009.

Being in an industrial part of the world, it’s a big issue for Chronicle readers. Pleural plaques is a scarring of the lungs caused by asbestos.

The previous government committed to payouts of up to £5,000 per sufferer, and the coalition government has carried this on.

The Chronicle’s Westminster correspondent, William Green, used FOI to ask for copies of correspondence sent and received by the Justice Secretary and his private office, along with the relevant minister, between May and December last year.

That included internal emails, letters, briefings and reports by officials as well as notes of any meetings or telephone calls.

The Chronicle reports the response as follows:

Responding to our request for information, an official from the MoJ said: “There has been significant public interest in the issue of compensation for those people who have contracted pleural plaques through negligent exposure to asbestos.

“I recognise that in this context there are arguments in favour of disclosure of this information.”

He also admitted there was a “general public interest” in openness, and knowing what informs decisions and that they had been taken fairly.

And they conceded releasing information could promote a “more informed debate and increase trust in the quality of the decision-making process”, added the MoJ.

But despite that, it has refused to hand over any details.

That’s right, despite acknowledging public interest, and admitting it would increase trust in the quality of decision-making – surely the very point of transparent government – the Ministry of Justice said no.

The reason was as follows:

“If ministers and officials thought that their policy discussions would be revealed publicly, the nature of those discussions may be affected.

“It might deter ministers and officials from raising radical or controversial options and having free and frank discussions about all available possibilities in relation to any given policy or approach to implementation.

“This would have a detrimental effect on both the process of collective government and the quality of decision-making,” said the MoJ.

This surely flies in the face of the idea of open government. The discussions within Whitehall will have involved people who were a) elected to Government as MPs or people who are b) paid for as civil servants from the public purse.

We surely have a right to know what they are discussing? The notion that if people thought their suggestions were made public would lead to less effective government seems counterintuitive.

After all, if these apparently radical ideas were any good, there’s every chance they’d see light of day anyway.

In this case, we know the conclusion of the discussion, so why not release the details of the discussion.

As ever, failing to release the information begs the question: “What have they got to hide?” In this case, with the FOI officer even conceding a public interest point, that suspicion of a hidden secret will only increase.

NB: William’s excellent politics blog can be found here



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