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War on terror means more state secrets

Guidelines put security ahead of open government

David Hencke, Westminster correspondent
Tuesday March 30, 2004
The Guardian


New curbs on release of information to the public are being planned by the government next year as part of Tony Blair's commitment to fighting the "war on terror".

Confidential draft guidelines drawn up by the Cabinet Office propose a substantial widening of the definition of national security, and a further weakening of the commitment to "open government" by ministers.

The guidelines would increase use of vetoes by ministers and encourage departments across Whitehall to prepare certificates in advance to block requests from public and press under the new Freedom of Information Act which becomes law next January.

They go against recommendations from the government-commissioned review into government communications carried out by Bob Phillis, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, which proposed scrapping ministerial vetoes and deciding instead on the basis of whether the release of information would cause substantial harm to people or institutions.

The changes are similar to the clampdown by George Bush on facts released under the US freedom of information act after September 11.

They also pave the way for civil servants in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence to use national security exemptions under the new act, rather than relying on provisions more likely to require the disclosure of information. The guidance says the definition of "national security" should not be so narrow as to cover only circumstances where harm has occurred, or will occur; rather, it should be extended to "preventing harm occurring and avoiding the risk of harm occurring".

This goes beyond the 1989 Security Service Act, which limited release of information to protect the security services from espionage, terrorism and sabotage and actions intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy.

The guidelines also say that a minister can, "if he or she is of the opinion that to disclose the information would adversely affect national security", withhold facts covering the water industry, control of pollution, offshore safety, and town and country planning.

It points out that the government has established a national infrastructure secu rity coordination centre to identify core services that must be protected from electronic attack.

These include telecommunications, financial services, water and sewerage, energy, transport, the NHS, central government and the emergency services.

It adds: "It should be noted that national security is not the same as the interests of the government of the day. Official information that would be em barrassing or inconvenient to the government if made public is not of itself a matter of national security."

However, Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, has only just backed down from issuing a veto preventing the parliamentary ombudsman, Ann Abraham, from looking at ministerial conflicts of interest after a judicial review was brought by the Guardian.

 Special report
Freedom of information

 Useful links
Freedom of Information Act 2000
Data Protection Act 1998
Public Record Office
Freedom of information: lord chancellor's site
Campaign for Freedom of Information
Charter 88
Global Internet Liberty Campaign