Select Committee on Public Administration Second Report


Submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

Thank you for your letter to Brian Bender dated 9 June. Apologies for missing your deadline of 5 July, but I gather officials have spoken to your office about the reason for the short delay.

Please find attached the more detailed explanations requested.

10 July 2000

PQ 64979

The refusal to publish the minutes is covered by Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. Specifically the minutes were a record of 'internal discussion and advice (Exemption 2) and consideration of 'law enforcement and legal proceedings' (Exemption 4). In particular, the minutes recorded discussion of how the Forestry Commission should react if individuals broke the Commission's bylaws, when the Commission should take legal action and how the Commission should enforce its licences. In addition, the minutes recorded internal advice, recommendations, consultation and deliberation.

PQ 68416

The convention to which the answer refers requires little explanation. The refusal to release details of legislative proposals is covered by Exemption 10 of the Code of Practice.

PQ 72292

There is a long-standing convention that once a public inquiry has been launched Ministers treat its work as if it were sub judice. The Prime Minister wrote to colleagues on 22 December 1997, the day that this Inquiry was announced, making this point and stating that Ministers should avoid any comment on evidence presented to the Inquiry until the Report had been published.

There had been press reports in February 1999 relating to a draft internal report written by a MAFF official covering the handling by MAFF of BSE, which had just been passed to the Inquiry and put into the public domain. Passages in this internal document could be read as implying that some surveillance reports were missing from MAFF records. The press suggested that the Ministry had shredded incriminating evidence.

All the material facts and all the departmental papers relevant to this issue had been passed to the Inquiry. The Inquiry would be making judgements on the completeness of the record from contemporary papers and witness statements and would be making their own decisions about what should be made public. In the context of the convention that Ministers do not comment on the evidence before a public inquiry it was inappropriate for the Minister to comment on the papers that had been sent to the Inquiry. Paragraph 4c of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information is relevant.

PQ 83262

The Salmon letter process is used by a public Inquiry to notify individual witnesses of potential criticisms that have been made of them in relation to their involvement in the issue under consideration. The name derives from Lord Justice Salmon, Chairman of he 1996 Royal Commission on Tribunals of Inquiry whose report, amongst other things, set out principles of fairness to which public inquiries should seek to adhere. The BSE Inquiry made it clear that the contents and recipients of the letters were confidential and as a result the Ministry was not in a position to answer the question.
Paragraph 4c of Part II of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information is relevant.

PQ 72747

The European Standing Committee 'A' held a scrutiny debate on Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy on 15 February 1999. Both the Minister (Mr Brown) and the then Minister of State (Mr Rooker) attended that debate and made the UK's opening position clear, for the Agriculture Council of 22/23 February 1999 know to the Committee. To reveal prematurely points where there is flexibility in the UK's position would almost certainly severely compromise the UK's negotiating stance. This approach is in accordance with the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, Part II, paragraph 1 (Defence, security and international relations) which states that the Government is exempt from disclosing "information whose disclosure would harm the conduct of international relations or affairs". The Code also states that harm, in this context, also includes "reasonable expectation of harm".

PQ 75098

The Original answer made it clear that refusal was under the terms of the Code of Practice. In particular Part II Exemption 2.

PQ 84729

The Code of Practice provides an exemption for information covered by legal professional privilege (Exemption 4d) and is important where disclosure of information could impede the ability of government legal advisers to communicate fully and frankly with their clients. The White Paper on Open Government commented on the justification for confidentiality of government legal advice as follows:

    'The right of Government and public authorities to receive legal advice in confidence is usually protected in access legislation. There will be occasions when such advice can and will be published, but Government and public authorities would be significantly handicapped both in litigation and in their day-to-day conduct if they were unable to seek and obtain legal advice in confidence."

PQ 91712 and 91707

In the course of 1999 the Government's badger culling trial was subject to interference by animal rights activists, which took the form of threats and harassment of MAFF field staff, and significant damage to public and private property. The Minister took the view that, in the interests of staff safety and the efficient conduct of the trials, it would not disclose details of the location, timing and operational procedures of its field operations. In the Ministry's view, this approach is consistent with the exemptions in Section 4 of Part II of the Code of Practice (Law enforcement and legal proceedings).

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