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Blair criticised for FOI stance

Former prime minister Tony Blair has been lambasted by MPs for failing to back up his claims that there was no place for the Freedom of Information Act in sensible government.

Sir Alan Beith, chairman of the Commons Justice Select Committee, said Mr Blair was given every chance to give evidence at a convenient time but only answered written questions after a press report suggested they would be critical of his non-appearance.

"We deplore Mr Blair's failure to cooperate with a committee of the House," Sir Alan said.

The report made no major recommendations to reduce the openness created by the Freedom of Information laws and did not recommend fees should be brought in to recoup the costs of answering requests.

But its findings were finalised before the MPs received a letter from Mr Blair, who came up with the idea of the Act as prime minister, saying that it undermined discussions at the highest levels of government.

Sir Alan said: "Former prime minister Tony Blair described himself as a 'nincompoop' for his role in the legislation, saying that it was 'antithetical to sensible government'. Yet when we sought to question Mr Blair on his change of opinion he refused to defend his views before us and submitted answers to our written questions only after our report was agreed, and after a press report had appeared, suggesting we might criticise his failure to give evidence."

The report said the existing legislation already intended to provide a "safe space" for policy-making in which ministers could be given frank advice by officials and this should be respected by everyone. Ministerial vetos would, from time to time, need to be used to protect this space, the report added.

A spokesman for Mr Blair's office said he had submitted written evidence to the committee in response to its questions.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said: "The Act is not without its critics, but in providing a largely free and universal right of access to information, subject to legitimate exceptions, we believe the freedom of information regime is fit for purpose.

"We appreciate the committee's comments regarding the need to protect the safe space for policy making at the highest levels in central Government. We believe these legitimate concerns are consistent with the Commissioner's approach to the issue."

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