Culture of secrecy continues to operate in Wales

Martin Shipton of the Western Mail claims that the culture of secrecy endemic in the public sector in Britain has not been changed by the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act at the beginning of last year.

A freedom of information request he made to Estyn, the school inspection quango, was refused on the grounds that there was no cause for concern about its workings, yet it insisted that publication of an internal audit report could hand ammunition to its critics.

Shipton said: "If there are no statements in the report that are critical of the quango, the best way to demonstrate that is to publish the document in full. It is patronising in the extreme to suggest that people will misinterpret a report that offers unequivocal praise for Estyn."

"While public bodies are happy to pay lip service to the concepts of openness and transparency, their inclination remains to withhold from publication anything they believe may prove embarrassing or damaging to their reputation," he continued.

"In allowing free rein to this instinct, the bodies concerned actually fuel the very speculation they fear. In the same way that many public sector organisations have an instinct to keep matters secret, most ordinary people tend to believe in the old adage that there is no smoke without fire. Of course such a position is often unfounded, but in an information vacuum it is inevitable speculation will occur."

"The way to ensure people understand things as they are, rather than as they think they may be, is to provide them with whatever is necessary to let them make an informed judgment. By insisting on keeping the audit report secret, Estyn has shot itself in the foot. The best way for it to proceed now is to review its earlier decision and agree to the release of the document. Such a course of action would be in the quango's own best interest."

Shipton is of the view that the people of Wales should be able to have full confidence in Estyn, which performs the vital role of monitoring school standards and recommending improvements: "Keeping secret an important report that considers the arrangements Estyn has in place to ensure problems don't arise is hardly the best way to instil public confidence."

"A system where the discussion of organisational weaknesses is shrouded in secrecy is more likely to result in a continuation of those weaknesses, or worse."

Culture of secrecy continues to operate (Western Mail,, 29 August 2006)