30 January 2004
The government has ruled out any immediate changes to the Freedom of Information Act, but has committed itself to introducing a draft Civil Service Bill later this year.
But Bob Phillis, who chaired the independent review of government communications, told MPs last week that he was concerned that the government was unwilling to open itself up to increased scrutiny.
Speaking at a Commons' public administration select committee hearing, Phillis said he was worried that the government would drag its feet on some of the proposals set out in the review report.
The report, which was published on January 19, was heavily critical of the 'era of spin' and the 'culture of secrecy' at Whitehall. It called for the Government Information and Communication Service (GICS) to be disbanded, as well as for an overhaul of the parliamentary lobby system. It said partial disclosure of information was the root of many problems in Whitehall and recommended that, when implementing the main provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, the overriding presumption should be to disclose.
However, Phillis revealed that he was not confident that the government would deliver on this issue.
He told the committee: 'Do I have a high expectation that these elements will be taken into account? I have some doubts and concerns.'
He called on ministers not to delay an overhaul of the FOI laws: 'I know there is a point of view that says we should wait and see for the Act to bed down, but that seems rather far off.'
A government source told Public Finance: 'We are of the view that it is better to wait and see how the Freedom of Information Act beds down before changes are made. If problems show up following its implementation, then we are happy to look at how we could make the act work better.'
PASC chair Tony Wright welcomed the government's commitment to introduce a draft Civil Service Bill later this year. 'We are delighted that the government has accepted our recommendation so quickly, committing itself to early legislation to protect the values of the civil service,' he said.
In a Commons debate last week, senior Tory Kenneth Clarke blamed the government's many recent woes on special advisers.
Backing the Civil Service Bill, he said: 'It strengthens the civil service commissioners, gives civil servants who feel aggrieved a right of appeal and gives the civil service commission the power to investigate complaints. It entrenches the principle of selection on merit in the civil service and the duty of civil servants to give fearless and impartial advice.'
Mothballed Millennium Dome has cost taxpayer £30m
The Millennium Dome has already cost taxpayers almost £30m in maintenance and sell-off costs, the government has revealed.
The Dome, which is maintained by English Partnerships, has been gathering dust for more than two years, costing taxpayers £250,000 each month just to maintain the shell. It is now unlikely to reopen before 2007.
The building is a continuing embarrassment for the government, which predicted that, after two failed attempts to offload the Dome, it would finally reopen as a 26,000-seat sports and entertainment complex in 2005. It is expected to stage basketball and gymnastics if Britain hosts the 2012 Olympics.
In a parliamentary answer, housing minister Keith Hill said that English Partnerships had incurred expenditure of £26.6m.
'This figure (before deduction of income) is broken down as follows: management and maintenance (including staff costs) £6.5m; decommissioning and site preparation for its long-term use £6.7m; current sale process £7.6m; earlier competition to find a long-term use for the Dome £6.7m,' he said.
A source at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister told Public Finance: 'All the costs incurred by English Partnerships are expected to be recovered from the sale of the building.
'No-one expected that the sale, management and planning issues would drag on for so long but the government still expects that the Dome will pay its own way,' the source added.
Forensic agency under fire from MPs
Delays in reports from the Forensic Science Service are still leading to court cases being jeopardised and suspects freed, the Commons' Public Accounts Committee has said. Describing the agency's speed in producing reports for evidence as 'disappointing', the MPs said it had missed its target for 'turnaround times' in each of the past four years.
DNA samples found at crime scenes wait 14 days for analysis, though that process takes less than 36 hours. 'Any delay can mean suspects being bailed, lead to charges being dropped or jeopardise court cases,' said PAC chair Edward Leigh.