‘Nincompoop’ Blair angers MPs over information act

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Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has been lambasted by MPs for failing to back up his claims that there was no place for the Freedom of Information Act in sensible government.

Sir Alan Beith, chairman of the Commons justice select committee, yesterday said Mr Blair was given every chance to give evidence at a convenient time but only answered written questions after a press report suggested they would be critical of his non-appearance.

“We deplore Mr Blair’s failure to cooperate with a committee of the House,” Sir Alan said.

The report made no major recommendations to reduce the openness created by the Freedom of Information laws and did not recommend fees should be brought in to recoup the costs of answering requests.

But its findings were finalised before the MPs received a letter from Mr Blair, who came up with the idea of the Act as prime minister, saying that it undermined discussions at the highest levels of government.

Sir Alan said: “Former Prime Minister Tony Blair described himself as a ‘nincompoop’ for his role in the legislation, saying that it was ‘antithetical to sensible government’.

“Yet when we sought to question Mr Blair on his change of opinion he refused to defend his views before us and submitted answers to our written questions only after our report was agreed, and after a press report had appeared, suggesting we might criticise his failure to give evidence.”

The report said the existing legislation already intended to provide a “safe space” for policy-making in which Ministers could be given frank advice by officials and this should be respected by everyone.

Ministerial vetos would, from time to time, need to be used to protect this space, the report added.

It said the “potential risks of a chilling effect – if it is a reality – go beyond a bowdlerising or editing of the records”.

“It is that no record exists, because ministers may avoid holding formal meetings entirely,” the committee said.

But research by the Constitution Unit found the “chilling effect” of FOI laws appeared “negligible to marginal”, despite the concerns raised by former senior Ministers and officials.

Retired Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell told the MPs that Ministers and officials “are going to find ways around it, things are not going to be written down” and the cost of Ministers’ mobile phone bills will increase, adding: “That, to me, makes for worse government and it makes it impossible for (historians) to try to recreate accurately what has gone on when there are no records.”

The MPs’ report concluded: “Given the clear intention of Parliament in passing the legislation that it should allow a ‘safe space’ for policy formation and Cabinet discussion, we remind everyone involved in both using and determining that space that the Act was intended to protect high-level policy discussions.”