Openness saves lives

January 22, 1999

On the eve of the Freedom of Information Bill, Iain McLean points out abuses of secrecy.

When I was a lad writing a thesis on Red Clydeside, I remember writing to the minister responsible asking to see certain 50-year-old documents about the revolutionary John Maclean. Not only the documents, but the list of them, was secret. A kindly archivist showed me the list and I wrote asking for things that I could not admit I knew existed. I was turned down.

When the documents were released a few years ago, they proved innocuous. In the current confessional mood, government has released a lot of material from more than 30 years ago. Less noticed, but probably more important, it is pushing on with early release of material not quite 30 years old.

Our research on the 1966 Aberfan disaster has relied heavily on such early releases. Successive crises - the Crossman Diaries, Spycatcher, the Scott report, and the sagas of defecting spooks - have forced the British government to reveal more of its operations.

But openness under the 30-year rule is far from the only issue, and indeed contemporary historians have been one of the more quiescent of the groups of academics with an interest in freedom of information. More pressing is probably the attempt by government departments to impose contracts on academic researchers that give the sponsoring department the right to vet and edit the output of research.

Beggars cannot be choosers, and therefore scientists will continue to accept oppressive contractual terms. But let us not pretend that they are acceptable. Let us also try to persuade the government that they are not in its interest either.

If the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had not tried to control research and data about the spread of mad cow disease or about defects in abattoir practice (concealing them even from Hugh Pennington, appointed by government to investigate the Lanarkshire E-coli disaster), lives and millions of pounds would have been saved.

Policy researchers want access to policymakers in departments. Here again, the picture seems better than it has been in living memory, partly through the 1992 white paper on open government (and the Citizens' Charter), but also through the web. Every policy researcher can begin at www.open.gov.uk and in a few clicks will find some description of the policy he or she is interested in and contact details for the policymakers.

Some department sites are vastly better than others. Some policy areas are described in the appalling mission-statementese that we all have to learn these days. But the improvement on five years ago is immense, although departments still need to look beyond the researchers that they find safe.

A recently leaked memo from the Health and Safety Executive told staff to refer any questions from Charles Woolfson, at Glasgow University, a well-known academic critic of the executive, to its Open Government Unit. That is not quite what we were told open government would be about.

So what do academics really really want from freedom of information? As a political scientist and contemporary historian, I would want the government to be still braver about the 30-year rule. Let them look at the US Supreme Court. Few things could be more sensitive than the legal (and perhaps political) reasoning that led judges to decide as they did in landmark cases in the court.

But several retired justices have deposited their papers so that academics can read about cases much less than 30-years-old. The skies have not fallen in.

Over here, a project that I directed, commissioned by the Cabinet Office, on changes in the organisation of central government departments since 1964 - not the sexiest of topics - was unable to get direct access to the machinery of government files for the period on the grounds that politicians or civil servants might be embarrassed.

That departments have been created or abolished to soothe ministerial egos is hardly news - we have known it since Crossman's diaries more than 20 years ago. But it is still too sensitive for an early release.

The issue is not straightforward. My freedom of information is your data protection, and the law must balance the two. But if academics can give a united push, they may even be able to persuade government that more information does not destroy its inner workings, and that it sometimes saves money and lives.

Iain McLean is a professor of politics at Oxford University and a fellow of Nuffield College.

What do academics need from a freedom of information act? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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