Good government needs scrutiny and challenge

UNDER THE draft Bill that I published yesterday, everyone in the United Kingdom will have the right of access to information held by bodies across the public sector. This will have a profound and significant impact on the relationship between government and the citizen.

In future, parents will be better able to find out how schools apply their admissions policies. Patients will be able to understand how hospitals allocate resources between different treatments, and how they prioritise waiting lists. And citizens will be able to find out more about the actions of their local police force. It's at this local level that constitutional reform matters. We are modernising our constitution to meet the needs of modern Britain - just as we promised in our manifesto.

Freedom of Information is a key part of this Government's drive to create a modern and fairer country. We have created a Scottish Parliament and a National Assembly for Wales, and are working hard to establish the Assembly in Northern Ireland. An elected authority is being restored for London, with an elected Mayor for the capital. It's curious that this Government is always caricatured as wanting to control everything centrally while the facts show we have done more than any previous administration to devolve and share power.

Good government depends upon external scrutiny and challenge. A government that talks only to itself risks losing touch with the people in whose name it makes decisions, as the last government found out. This government is already the most open in the UK's history. In the Home Office, for example, we have published our guidance to immigration caseworkers and taken the politics out of the publication of recorded crime statistics.

The Bill imposes a legal duty on public bodies to adopt and maintain a scheme for publication of information. I believe it has the power to transform radically the relationship between government and citizens.

There are, of course, areas that must be protected. They include material on national security, law enforcement and personal privacy. And government itself needs some protection for its internal deliberations. If government is to work effectively, then there must be the chance for robust policy discussions to take place in private.

And it is worth bearing in mind that most policy deliberations are focused on one end - on proposals that are published. What is important is that as much information as possible is made public, consistent with the needs of good government and collective responsibility.

On the substantial harm test included in the White Paper, we have decided that a single omnibus test could not work properly for the range of exemptions proposed. What is "substantial" in relation to law enforcement may not be in the case of international relations.

After careful consideration, we have replaced this single test with proposals that are workable and will achieve the same purpose in a more straightforward way. Where national security is an issue, for example, the test proposed is whether the exemption is required for the purpose of safeguarding that national security. Where the health and safety of an individual is concerned, the test proposed is whether disclosure would, or would be likely, to endanger the physical, mental health or safety of an individual.

So the draft Bill strikes a balance between extending the right of access to official information, preserving confidentiality and safeguarding personal privacy. But the scales are weighed decisively in favour of openness.

Even in these areas that are specifically exempted, there will still be a duty on the body concerned to consider whether it would be in the public interest to disclose the information requested.

As we set about preparing this Bill, we examined closely the existing FOI legislation in a range of countries, including Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France and The Netherlands. I believe the proposals we are putting forward stand comparison with all of them.

The creation of the Information Commissioner will help enforce the rights the Bill gives to the public. No such regulator exists, for instance, in the US, leaving expensive and lengthy court action as the only way of forcing public bodies to comply with the law.

This is a complex area of law. By publishing a draft Bill, we shall ensure our proposals are given the maximum scrutiny by both Parliament and the public, and that should lead to better law.

We intend, after the consultation period is completed, to bring the Bill to Parliament as soon as time allows. The Bill will be accompanied by a major programme of cultural change, so that all public bodies are prepared for the Act when it comes. We have already established a task force to help achieve this.

It adds up to another major step towards implementing this Government's promise to increase openness, and to involve people more in decisions that affect their lives.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine