Information Is Only As Free As Labour Wants It

(Alasdair Palmer) – GOVERNMENTS RARELY DO EXACTLY WHAT THEY PROMISE; but when this one promises to do something, it is becoming a sure sign that they will do precisely the opposite.

Ministers will tell you, for example, that they are committed to ‘transparency and openness,’ and remind you that Labour was responsible for the legislation on freedom of information – which is true. But ever since that legislation was passed, ministers have tried to block and undermine the parts of the Freedom of Information Act which are supposed to ensure that information is actually freely available to the public. It took a protracted court case to establish that MPs’ expenses claims had to be made public – and the version that would have been revealed, if the Telegraph had not intervened, was so heavily redacted as to be almost worthless.

There was another example of the Government’s hypocrisy over transparency last week. The Department of Health used to publish statistics on the number of late abortions, and the reasons for them. In 2003, it stopped. The reason given was that the data would lead to the identification of doctors who perform late abortions, and the women who have them, and that both would then be targeted by anti-abortion activists.

That argument is even less plausible than maintaining that MPs’ expenses should be kept secret because the poor darlings might get depressed if people find out about their fraudulent claims. For a start, the DoH’s claim that the statistics had, in at least one case, led to the identification of a doctor who performed a late abortion was straightforwardly bogus: as the Information Tribunal noted when ordering the release of the data, the department was ‘not able to point to anything in the published statistics that would have enabled the general area, town, hospital or doctor to be identified,’ still less the identity of any woman who had undergone an abortion. The source of the information the DoH complained about was not the statistics at all: it was a police press release.

But even if there was the possibility that someone could be identified from the statistics – which there is not – there would still be a case for publishing the data. Late abortions are legal only when the foetus has a risk of being born with a ‘serious’ handicap. There is evidence, however, that they are being performed for relatively trivial reasons, such as that the baby might be born with a cleft palate. Doctors who break the law in this way are not entitled to anonymity. Yet it was the allegation that the law was being broken that prompted the DoH to suppress the statistics on how many late abortions were being performed, and why.

Late abortion is, of course, intensely controversial: some people think it a basic right; others believe it to be murder. In between those two extremes, there are a growing number of people who feel distinctly uneasy about allowing abortions after 24 weeks (the date when an infant can usually survive outside the womb), especially when they are performed for ‘cosmetic’ reasons.

Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of that practice, the critical point is that the limits on why and when abortion is permitted have to be decided democratically, through public debate informed by facts about what is actually happening. The DoH does not subscribe to that view. It thinks the matter should be decided by government fiat. That is why it wants to suppress the statistics: its officials are committed to preserving late abortion, but do not believe that they can win the argument, so have decided to stop the argument from happening by blocking the information critical to it.

Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, is now set to devote tens of thousands of pounds of public money to achieving that goal in the courts, by seeking to have the Information Tribunal’s decision overturned. Which only goes to show: when you hear a minister say, ‘We are committed to doing everything we can to promote democratic debate,’ it means they are doing everything they can to stop it.

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