14 November 2006
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has apologised for behaviour that was "neither reasonable nor acceptable" in dealing with a request under freedom of information legislation.
Jane Lewis, a senior official in the MoD's information directorate in Whitehall, has admitted to long delays and a series of "handling errors" when responding to a request for information on safety incidents at the nuclear weapons base on the Clyde near Glasgow.
The request was originally made to the government's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in October 2005. This resulted in the release of some documents revealing concerns about safety lapses at the base, which is the home port for Britain's four nuclear-armed Trident submarines.
But the HSE, frustrated at being unable to get answers from the MoD, suggested that a request for other documents should be put directly to the MoD. This eventually resulted in the release of internal MoD reports in August 2006 revealing a steep rise in nuclear safety incidents at the Clyde base.
But the MoD withheld one document - a private memo from the Clyde naval base commander about a serious incident on the nuclear submarine, HMS Sceptre, in January 2005. This was on the grounds that it contained "free and frank" views which it was in the public interest to keep secret.
It is in responding to a request to review the decision to withhold this memo, that Lewis makes her criticisms of the MoD's procedures. The 10-month delay in responding to the HSE and to the subsequent request direct to the MoD "was neither reasonable nor acceptable", she said.
In a seven-page letter dated 3 November 2006, she also accepted that her MoD colleagues had repeatedly failed to fully explain how the request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was being dealt with. "I apologise again for these failings and will ensure that both the Defence Logistics Organisation and the Clyde Naval Base are made aware of them and the need to ensure that future requests are dealt with in accordance with the Act," she wrote.
Despite the apologies, however, Lewis upheld the MoD's decision not to release the Clyde commander's memo. "Senior commanders sometimes feel that it would be appropriate to correspond on a more personal level," she argued.
"The ability to be able to have this sort of frank exchange is in the public interest. An expectation that such correspondence would be open to external scrutiny shortly after it had been written would be likely to inhibit candour."
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