Exclusive, 15 February 2010
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has broken freedom of information law by delaying a response on the safety of nuclear weapons, according to a new ruling from the UK information tsar.
The MoD has been rapped by the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, for taking more than five months to reply to a request for six reports on nuclear weapons safety.
Graham has ruled that even in complex cases responses should always be made with 40 working days. The MoD, he said, had breached section 17(3) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 “by failing to provide the complainant with its public interest determination within such time as is reasonable”.
But in other cases the MoD is taking over 14 or 15 months to respond to requests for information on the safety of operations at the Clyde nuclear submarine bases. This has led to accusations that it is trying to hide inconvenient truths.
“The MoD appear to be deliberately delaying the release of embarrassing information and they are failing to comply with the Freedom of Information Act,” said John Ainslie, the co-ordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
The MoD insisted that it took its responsibilities under freedom of information legislation very seriously. “We respond to the majority of requests for information within the statutory time scale,” said an MoD spokeswoman.
“We acknowledge that on this occasion, we have failed to respond in the required time due to the complexity of the information requested and an administrative error.”
The MoD has been ordered by Graham to release some extra information on nuclear weapons convoys. But he has accepted the MoD’s argument that it would not be in the public interest to publish critical comments made by the MoD’s internal nuclear weapons safety regulators.
It was important for the regulators to express their views “in as free and frank a manner as possible”, the MoD argued. “If regulators became aware that their assessments could be published they would be less willing to provide their advice.”
The MoD’s internal regulators, who usually remain anonymous, have not published any reports about their work. In contrast to other regulators, like the Health and Safety Executive, their operations remains shrouded in secrecy.
The full decision by the Information Commissioner is available to download here (6.5MB pdf).
A log of freedom of information requests, including 34 to the Ministry of Defence, is here.