Ministers accused of undermining FOI laws as 30 per cent of requests rebuffed
Ministers have slashed the amount of information they allow the public to know, a report has revealed.
It showed that a string of Whitehall departments have tightened the secrecy surrounding their activities despite Tony Blair's promise that Labour would bring an era of open government.
Among ministers whose civil servants are now refusing to answer more than half of all the questions put by the public under Labour's Freedom of Information Act are Home Secretary John Reid, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, andTrade Secretary Alistair Darling.
Even Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer - the minister in charge of the freedom of information system that Mr Blair once boasted would bring 'a dramatic difference to the way Britain is governed' - has given answers to fewer than four out of ten requests for information.
The cutback in what Whitehall allows the public to find out comes in advance of Lord Falconer's planned new restrictions on freedom of information law.
These would prevent MPs, lobby groups or journalists from putting more than one request in every three months, and which would also greatly increase the number of requests turned down on the grounds that they would cost too much in bureaucrats' time.
Critics say the effect of Lord Falconer's new rules will be to ensure that the only people who would be allowed to get information out of Whitehall would be those who do not ask for it.
But details of the requests already turned down even before Lord Falconer can bring in his new rules show that information released has been cut back by many ministries.
The report from the Department for Constitutional Affairs showed that Lord Falconer's own office gave full answers in response to only 39 per cent of requests that might have been answered in the three months between July and September.
The 39 per cent compared with 40 per cent in the last three months of 2005.
Mrs Beckett's Foreign Office answered only 30 per cent of requests, compared with 33 per cent at the end of last year. Mr Reid's Home Office answered 40 per cent, up from 38 per cent at the end of last year but down from 49 per cent in the early part of this year.
The Northern Ireland Office answered 47 per cent compared with 71 per cent at the end of 2005.
Across all Government departments, 60 per cent of requests are now being met, a fall of two per cent on six months earlier.
Of nearly 63,000 Freedom of Information requests made since the law came into force two years ago, more than 26,000 have been answered only with silence.
The figures come as ministers prove reluctant to part with information while in Government that they said should be public when they were in opposition.
Mr Blair declared in March 1996 that "we want to end the obsessive and unnecessary secrecy which surround Government activity and make Government information available to the public unless there are good reasons not to do so."
But the Government has refused, for example, to release early drafts of the advice provided to Mr Blair by Attorney General Lord Goldsmith on the legality of the war with Iraq.
It has declined to give new details of Tony and Cherie Blair's guests at Chequers since the couple were embarrassed by publication in 2004 of names of people they had officially entertained.
Tories said that ministers were trying to shut the public out. Shadow Constitutional Affairs Secretary Oliver Heald said: "I fear that the Government may be attempting to close down public scrutiny by curtailing the public's right to know with this more restrictive regime."