Britain trails behind America in FoI

Getting ministers to disclose sensitive material about Iraq and Afghanistan can be like pulling teeth, but in the US, dogged perseverance is paying off, says Robert Verkaik, Law Editor of the Independent.

The British military continues to hold a firm line on the non-disclosure of documents relating to the detention and interrogation of "unlawful combatants" and terror suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan. But freedom of information campaigners in America, where the right-to-know law has been established for nearly half a century, are enjoying much more success.

New documents released by the US Department of Defense suggest that America continued to use abusive interrogation methods on detainees even after a 2003 instruction ordering the military to end such practices.

Contrast this disclosure with a similar request made by a British parliamentarian of the Ministry of Defence earlier this year. Andrew Tyrie MP, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition, wrote to the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, asking for information about the agreements between Britain, America, Afghanistan and Iraq relating to the treatment of prisoners transferred from one country's forces to another.

The government reply on 19 March was confusing and failed to address the requirement of the Freedom of Information Act to cite an exemption for not providing the information requested.

As in America, freedom of information campaigners in the UK are learning that full disclosure of potentially politically damaging material is only secured by recourse to the courts.

Freedom Of Information: Britain trails behind America in right-to-know culture (The Independent, 2 May 2008)