Stansted secrets to be published

23.6.2008     (Financial Times)

By Michael Peel, Legal Correspondent

Secret government data on contentious plans to build a second runway at Stansted
airport must be made public, the privacy watchdog has ordered, in a ruling that
further extends ministers’ duties to reveal confidential internal advice.

The judgment by the Information Commissioner’s Office – which will be published
on Monday – attacks the Department for Transport for repeatedly holding up the
investigation and for "clear failings" in its records management.

The ruling, which could offer environmental campaigners useful ammunition against
the much criticised airport expansion, will add to debate about whether disclosing
details of internal talks in ministries risks inhibiting officials in future discussions.

The ICO said the government should release the Stansted data because of the public
interest in the future of air transport and its "potentially wide-ranging impact
on people’s lives, the economy and the environment".

The ruling, which concerns a request under environmental freedom of information
rules for documents relating to the 2003 white paper on air transport, came after
the transport department argued disclosure would prejudice future policymaking.
The judgment did allow the department to withhold confidential legal advice.

The ruling is the latest sign of how Richard ­Thomas, information ­commissioner,
is trying to chip away steadily at a culture of secrecy in government that many
observers say is still far too strong in spite of the introduction of the Freedom
of Information Act in 2005.

The Stansted ruling comes after Mr Thomas’ landmark order last year for the ­Treasury
to publish civil servants’ advice to Gordon Brown, the then chancellor, over his
1997 decision to axe tax relief on dividends, stopping pension funds reclaiming
about £5bn a year in credits.

The latest ruling goes a step further, since it deals with much more recent events
and suggests the government should have published the data when it was first requested
just under two years after the white paper was published. Such a disclosure "would
have allowed more informed debate" about the decision to support the development
of a second runway, the ruling said.

The planned runway – which BAA, the airport operator, has said could allow Stansted
to match Heathrow’s existing capacity – has triggered fierce opposition from environmental
campaigners, residents and local authorities.

Mr Thomas made stinging criticisms of the transport department’s handling of
his probe, attacking its ­"continual requests for additional time" and its "numerous
difficulties in locating information".

The department had admitted to clear failings in its records management, although
it had assured the commissioner these had been rectified.

The background to the formulation of official policy has become increasingly
important legally as campaigners have made deft use of procedural failings to
challenge the government successfully in the courts.

The High Court last year forced the government to repeat a consultation on its
nuclear policy after Greenpeace, the environmental group, argued that ministers
had prejudged the issue and failed to allow a proper debate