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Saudi arms and the big chill

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:01 UK time, Monday, 2 November 2009

Jack Straw feeling the coldWinter is approaching, and it's getting cold in Whitehall - uncomfortably so, for some.

There's an icy gale blowing through the offices of public authorities, and it's driven by freedom of information - that anyway is the view of some FOI-sceptics in officialdom.

While many others are worried about global warming, these people are concerned about the "chilling effect" - the idea that publicly disclosing internal discussions would inhibit officials from giving free and frank advice in future. But how cold really are the resulting temperatures?

These arguments are often central to assessing whether disclosing data is in the public interest or not. There's no doubt that some civil servants do genuinely agonise over this, as indicated for example by research earlier this year from University College, London [906Kb PDF].

But those who believe in a powerful chilling affect appear to have much difficulty in persuading the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal - not least because it would seem to imply that civil servants who respond in that way are rather unprofessional and willing to ignore the Civil Service Code.

All this is strongly illustrated by an important and interesting recent ruling [167Kb PDF] from the Information Tribunal. The case involved an FOI request from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade to the Export Credits Guarantee Department for a risk assessment relating to the Al Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

iciclesPaul Radford, head of ECGD's Credit Risk Analysis Decision, told the tribunal that the impact of disclosure would not be a "chilling effect" but a "freezing effect", which he described as "catastrophic". "He did not know how the ECGD would manage, how it would conduct its affairs, how it would function to demonstrate it was doing a proper job."

This prediction of what sounded like a new ice age that would paralyse ECGD did not impress the tribunal, who dismissed his claims as "exaggerated", his language as "extravagant" and his demeanour as "dismissive".

The tribunal argued that senior civil servants would still have "sufficient courage and independence" to give robust advice, even in the face of potential public scrutiny. It then decided that ECGD should release the material involved to CAAT.

The department maintains it was right to take the case to the tribunal. Its spokesperson says: "ECGD takes its FOI responsibilities seriously, including its duty to protect information that it believes is exempt."

"Mr Radford is a very experienced economist whose contribution to the credit risk management work of ECGD remains highly valued," the spokesperson adds. "He did not intend to be dismissive. It is disappointing that the tribunal interpreted the expression of his genuinely and strongly held views in the way in which it did."

This is one of a number of freedom of information cases pursued by CAAT, which has used the FOI law extensively.

"FOI is very useful", says Ann Feltham from CAAT. "More information about how these huge arms deals are financed is now coming our way. We are definitely better informed, but it has taken a long while."

ECGD is currently considering whether it can appeal against the tribunal decision. So for the moment, we still have to wait to see whether the buildings of Whitehall are transformed into giant freezers.

In any case, always remember there are some people who prefer the cold.


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