Comment from Sunday Herald, 17 October 2010
Sometimes, your worst suspicions are confirmed. You like to think the best of public agencies, but they leave you little choice.
So it has been with my three-year battle to force the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to release reports on the safety of nuclear weapons. I thought the MoD, and the UK Information Commissioner, would behave themselves. But they didn’t.
Let me explain. There could hardly be anything more important than ensuring that the British government’s 200 or so nuclear warheads don’t go off by accident. Unfortunately this job is left to a secretive set of faceless officials within the MoD, who are on same payroll as those they are meant to be regulating.
This is unlikely to make them tough, independent or accountable public watchdogs. But they are all we’ve got to protect us from an accidental Armageddon, and I wanted to find out what they’ve been doing.
So back in December 2006, I asked the MoD under freedom of information law for six reports by its internal nuclear safety regulators. Fourteen months later, the MoD reluctantly provided heavily censored versions of the reports, with every substantive comment made by regulators excised.
I appealed to the UK Information Commissioner, who at the time was Richard Thomas, to overturn the decision. He was replaced in June 2009 by Christopher Graham, who issued a decision backing the MoD in February this year.
To my surprise, Graham endorsed the MoD’s arguments, virtually without question. It was in the public interest for safety regulators to make criticisms “free from the ‘chilling effect’ of having these discussions made public,” he argued.
But this is the inverse of the truth. Keeping such criticisms within the MoD’s secretive citadel is far more likely to have a “chilling effect” on the regulator’s frankness and effectiveness than opening them to the light of public scrutiny.
So I did something I have never done before. I appealed to the Information Tribunal, which oversees Graham. I asked three experts to help me, offering to pay them nothing: Fred Dawson, a former senior MoD official; John Large, an independent nuclear consultant; and John Ainslie, the coordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Last month, we submitted 100 pages of evidence showing that the MoD and Commissioner Graham were guilty of breaching freedom of information legislation. In his witness statements, Large accused the MoD of making “emotionally charged” statements that were “potentially prejudicial”.
Key was a submission by MoD officials to the armed forces minister in 2007, Adam Ingram, arguing for secrecy. Officials highlighted the “presentational” problem that the reports had been requested by a journalist, and then got personal.
I was described as “an environmental journalist who generally writes from an anti-nuclear standpoint” and an “avid user of the Freedom of Information Act”. The implication was clear: keep the reports secret, as they will only be used to embarrass the MoD.
That is not a ground for withholding information under freedom of information law. Yet it was the rationale behind the MoD’s prolonged and repeated attempts to suppress the reports, supinely endorsed by Graham.
But now it has blown up in their faces. Last week, on the eve of the Tribunal deciding how to handle our appeal, the MoD performed an astonishing U-turn and released the reports. It was taking a “pragmatic” decision, said the MoD’s lawyer.
Today we reveal the reports’ disturbing contents in the news section. I am left with one conclusion: the MoD, helped by Graham, tried to fob me off, and were only forced to cave in because I persisted with an appeal which would have laid bare their bungles.
That is not as it should be. The MoD has been exposed as a ministry that clings to official secrecy to avoid political embarrassment, and the UK Information Commissioner as its lame lackey.
That’s a sad reflection on freedom of information, and on the state of our democracy.
Almost all the proceedings of my appeal to the Information Tribunal are available on John Large's website here. The statement I drafted for the tribunal, but never needed to submit, is available here (130KB Word document).