Britain: you want answers?
13 Jul 2009

chris_ames_140x140jpg1The concealment of the contents of an important letter shows that ministers have been evasive about the details of airport expansion, and now an opposition MP has complained to the Speaker of the House of Commons. Chris Ames reports

A Conservative MP has written to the new Speaker of the House of Commmons to complain that ministers have repeatedly provided evasive and misleading answers to her parliamentary questions. In one case, aviation minister Paul Clark claimed that the content of a letter from airport owner BAA to former transport secretary Geoff Hoon was “covered, in full” in a BAA press release. Index on Censorship is today publishing, in full, BAA’s letter, which contains significant information that was not previously available.

Justine Greening MP
is asking John Bercow, who was elected as Speaker last month, to ensure that MPs receive accurate and complete answers. She told him: “The need for transparency and accountability of ministers and Parliament has never been higher.”

In her letter, Greening, MP for Putney and shadow minister for London, listed five examples of written parliamentary answers where ministers either failed to answer her questions or provided answers that have subsequently been shown to be untrue.

Four of the five cases concern plans to expand Heathrow airport. The most recent involves a letter that BAA chief executive Colin Matthews sent Hoon last November. At the time, BAA issued a press release stating that it would ask the government to appoint an independent assessor to ensure that an expanded airport would only increase flights if it operated within environmental limits — a policy that was adopted by Hoon in January.

But the letter itself was not published. I made a freedom of information (FOI) request for it in March. The Department for Transport (DfT) refused to release it, citing an obscure section of the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) and claiming that the letter’s contents were set out in BAA’s press release. Greening then tabled a parliamentary question asking for the letter to be placed in the House of Commons library. The government refused, also on the grounds that the press release contained “the substance of the letter”.

When Greening tabled a further question, asking for an explanation of this refusal, aviation minister Paul Clark, claimed that the contents of the letter were covered “in full” in BAA’s press release.

But I have obtained a copy of the letter from BAA [click here to read]. It contains a number of elements that were not in the press release, including an admission from Matthews that “for many people the environmental consequences of expanding Heathrow remain a major concern, and some have serious questions around how the noise and air quality limits will be met.”

The letter also included technical information that was not disclosed by the press release. It linked the role of the independent assessor for the third runway plans with an earlier proposal that a reformed slot allocation system would be the method used to limit flights. This would make the assessor’s findings independently enforceable. It also revealed that BAA had made this earlier proposal in February last year, in its response to the official consultation. That response — and therefore the earlier proposal — is no longer in the public domain, and the press release made no reference to the proposal.

The DfT’s response to my request raises questions about the tactics that the department is prepared to employ to block the release of information, in stark contrast to Gordon Brown’s recent promises of more transparency.

Both the FOI Act and the Environmental Information Regulations include exemptions that allow public authorities to refuse to disclose information that is available elsewhere. In its response to my request for a review of the DfT’s decision, a senior official asserted that because the letter and the press release covered the proposal for an independent assessor in the same terms, “the information contained within the two documents is the same”. She also offered reassurance that all the “relevant” information was in the public domain.

The DfT’s approach in this case concerns Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. He told me: “It was unnecessary and pedantic, and not releasing the letter was bound to create suspicion. They shouldn’t be assessing what you need to know. The regulation cited does not allow any information to be withheld, however insignificant or irrelevant it may be or be judged to be.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “This decision, made under EIR rules, was that the information requested was publicly available and easily accessible already, as it was contained in a BAA press notice issued in November 2008. The decision was internally reviewed and upheld.”

Another case in which Greening says a minister gave a misleading answer to a question also involves BAA’s lobbying over the new runway.

Ian Pearson, then a minister at the Department for Business, had appeared to claim that ministers had not met the aviation industry to discuss Heathrow expansion. But a letter from Peter Mandelson to Matthews revealed that business minister Baroness Vadera had met the BAA chief executive to discuss new runway capacity. The Department for Business claimed that Pearson had not answered inaccurately because no specific meetings about Heathrow had taken place.

But Greening disputes this. She told Bercow: “MPs should not need a degree in law to be able to word parliamentary questions to get adequate answers or to be able to ascertain the exact nature of a Ministerial response.

“The alternative of using the FOI route is cumbersome and deliberately dragged out by departments, but that is increasingly the route I take because I find that too often I cannot rely on the adequacy or accuracy of ministerial answers to my parliamentary questions.”

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