An opinion piece in today’s Daily Telegraph by a former head of the civil service, Bob Kerslake, is a double surprise. It’s a surprise that he’s written at all in a newspaper for the great unwashed. Senior civil servants are usually as reticent in their retirement as when they worked in Whitehall and anything they write in retirement is more likely to be papers for high-level think tanks such as Chatham House or the Brookings Institute.
It’s also a surprise that he’s writing against one of the current campaigns of the senior civil service. This is for the government to amend the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act by which the civil service is obliged to release hitherto private information to bona fide applicants — such as newspaper journalists — except when disclosure might inhibit future advice to ministers.
In recent years, the use of the FoI Act has exposed many glaring instances of civil service mistakes, neglect or the exercise of undue power. In over 1,000 cases of refusal since the FoI, only 28 were subsequently assessed as reasonable by a higher independent body. In short, the FoI Act works very well, being one of two major reforms brought about by the last Labour government — the other being the wresting away of total power over state secondary schools by the Department of Education and the beginning of Free Schools (Charter Schools in America).
Before the passing of the FoI Act, the civil service had it both ways. They could protect any information which might embarrass them or reduce their powers — statutory and exra-statutory — but yet they could leak any information which gave them or the government an advantage against opposing viewpoints. My colleague, Noel Newsome, and I met this unfair situation 50 years ago when we were investigating the dumping of toxic wastes from Coventry automobile factories into rivers in Warwickshire. We knew that the Department of the Environment (DoE) analysed all the rivers regularly. But would the DoE tell us what the resulrs were for the rivers around Coventry? No way!
Incidentally, the article also has aa third surprise. The author, Lord Kerslate, Head of the British Civil Service 2012-2014, signs himself as Bob Kerslake. That’s refreshing also.