The Hillsborough files: Actions speak louder than words

When the Information Commissioner ruled last month that the Cabinet Office should release documents it held on the Hillsborough disaster, I suspected that this wasn’t the end of the matter.

The Cabinet Office, after all, has form for not really embracing the spirit that we all have a right to know. And so it has proved, with the Cabinet Office now appealing the Information Commissioner’s decision.

The BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum blogs here about the current position. It was a BBC FOI request which was initially refused which triggered the Information Commissioner ruling.

Without wishing to sound dramatic, I do think that the Government’s real commitment to transparency and openness will be revealed by the outcome of this case.

Over the last year, the Government has talked a good fight about being open, and at times it has been quick to accuse others in the public sector or being secretive – look at the way Eric Pickles took on Nottingham City Council in a row over releasing details about spending.

They have also continued the work started under Labour to unlock more and more data, making it easily available.

But the true test of openness comes when there is information which the public wants to see but which those inside government become twitchy about.

And that’s exactly where we find ourselves now. The Cabinet Office says the Hillsborough Independent Panel – set up to examine all Hillsborough documents – should decided if the Cabinet Office documents should be released.

Under that plan, the panel would exclude  “information indicating the views of ministers, where release would prejudice the convention of Cabinet collective responsibility”. Rosenbaum concludes that a fair amount of the information the Information Commissioner said should be released would be withheld as a result.

Passing the buck to the panel goes against the government’s principle of openness, and creates an understandable sense that politicians have something to hide. That’s a suspicion the families of the 96 killed at Hillsborough have harboured for a long time.

The information the Cabinet Office holds may not reveal any answers to the families of the 96. It may not provide ‘the truth’ which many – rightly – feel has yet to be told.

At the time of writing, 123,000 people had signed a petition to make the Government discuss the release of the documents. The Government billed the launch of the new petition site as way for the public to help shape what parliament talks about. This is an early test for the Government to stick to its word. It has, however, built an effective veto into the process – petitions reaching 100,000 signatures must be discussed first by the backbench committee which decides Westminster’s timetable. Use of that veto would represent proof that the Government talks a good fight on accountability but it’s very much a fairweather fan of transparency.

But the only way we’ll know is by seeing the documents in full. And it’s only by seeing the documents in full that we’ll know the current government believes in true openness – an openness where the agenda is set by the public, not by the civil servants.

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