Good government needs scrutiny and challenge

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The Independent Culture
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.