It's in the national interest to be free with information

`In listening to the critics, Jack Straw has turned a truly awful bill into merely a bad one`
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The Independent Culture
FOR JOHN Prescott's sake, I hope that not too many Labour MPs have yet seen Pushing Tin, the Mike Newell film about sexual jealousy, male rivalry and personal redemption that is improbably set in the Long Island air traffic control headquarters.

At one point the controller (played by Billy Bob Thornton), sits down at a blinking terminal next to the one operated by John Cusack and starts to talk an additional aircraft into an already crowded queue of passenger jets heading from the North Atlantic into New York. The far-from-risk- averse Cusack is aghast that Thornton thinks there is room to add to the queue without threatening a mid-air collision. "There's a hole," Thornton insists. "There isn't a hole," Cusack replies. Like stubborn children, the two men repeat these lines until Thornton triumphantly sees the jets, almost nose to tail, into the JFK approach without mishap.

The point of the incident is precisely the inherent internal conflict of the job. The ace controller is required to avoid near-misses or worse. But he is also paid to bring his aircraft down on time. The fewer aircraft he can delay by sending them flying round in circles before they safely land, the better he's doing his work. It's precisely that conflict, and the fear that it may be resolved in favour of punctuality rather than safety, that has already prompted a surprisingly large number of Labour MPs to announce their strong opposition to Mr Prescott's plan to privatise the National Air Traffic Control Service - one of the few measures that risk possible defeat in the next parliamentary session.

It's understandable that many MPs, not all of them unreconstructed Old Labour ones, believe rather strongly that the profit motive and the fiendishly complex business of modern air traffic control could be an unstable cocktail.

And yet there is a strong case to be made that privatisation will lead to greater rather than less safety. The computer technology needed to cope with the awesome growth of passenger air traffic requires massive investment, almost certainly beyond the resources of the public purse. Moreover, ministers insist that the final regulatory responsibility for safety would remain, in the new order, in the public sector. No doubt some bright official somewhere in Mr Prescott's department has objectively analysed all this and has, for all I know, come up with the persuasive answer that that while both options have a downside, the strongest safety argument is in favour of privatisation.

But how should we tell? Here we come to the failings in another of the Bills that the Queen will announce tomorrow and which, incidentally, shares with the clauses on Air Traffic Control the possibility of a sizeable Labour rebellion. Jack Straw has carried out his promise to listen to the critics of the Freedom of Information Bill.

He has removed some of its most overtly Kafka-esque clauses. What he has not done, however, is to deal with some of the central complaints about the Bill, not least that there will be no public right even to the factual background to important decisions - such as the safety implications of the privatisation of air traffic control, to take a topical, if random, example. He has turned a truly awful Bill into merely a bad one.

What makes this the greater shame is that the legislative programme that the Queen will foreshadow tomorrow is by any standards impressive for an administration in mid-term, much of it emanating from Mr Straw's own department. It will break the old unwritten rule that nothing too radical or controversial can be done in the second half of a parliament. Reform of the CSA, and of a still zealously non-interventionist probation service, is overdue.

Nor is it necessarily illiberal and dangerous to extend, as a new Bill will, the definition of terrorism to Britons who put poison in supermarket food or murder in the cause of animal rights. There is no justification for using such legislation as an agent of brutal regimes such as that of Iraq. Equally, it is racist to assume that terrorism is something fomented only in Beirut or West Belfast.

There will be, moreover, a healthy range of measures that are distinctively left/ liberal. Mr Prescott's local council powers to levy congestion charges and the strategic rail authority fall into that category. So, too, does the extension of the Race Relations Act to the police, 30 years after a Labour government first shamefully exempted them. So does the imposition of standards on Britain's increasingly hellish children's and old people's care homes. So, too, does Michael Meacher's signal victory in securing the right to roam for ramblers, a cause of infinitely greater human value than a ban on fox-hunting.

All of which helps a still deeply flawed Freedom of Information Bill to stand out. For, in contrast to the regimes in most other developed countries, ministers have stubbornly insisted on preserving to themselves the absolute right to decide, irrespective of the recommendation of a new Commissioner, what is and isn't in the public interest to disclose in the background to public policy. The wholesale exemption in law of all information about "the formulation or development of public policy" is scarcely softened by an - entirely voluntary - aspiration to "encourage" the disclosure of factual government information. Instead of a legal presumption that some, albeit circumscribed, information should be disclosed unless it can be shown to harm the public interest, ministers can hide behind the exemption as often as they choose.

This is apparently because Mr Blair and Mr Straw both believe that a more robust Act would inhibit officials ever from writing advice down, and secondly that the Freedom of Information Act has hampered good government in the US. Well, first, even if it were true, that doesn't excuse the blanket exemption for official investigations such as those into rail crashes, where there is any possibility of criminal charges. Why wasn't a test created whereby a commissioner could decide, subject to appeal by ministers, whether a prosecution would be prejudiced?

Secondly, it isn't true. We are not talking here, let it be repeated, about the official who advises the Prime Minister not to do anything to upset Mr Mugabe, because he has lot his marbles. We are talking - and then only subject to a rigorous harm test - about objective, factual analyses before some big decisions.

The irony of all this is that much of the traffic in Whitehall is high- quality objective and factual assessments by dedicated public servants who are trying to think things out in the national interest. Disclosing some of it, it can't be repeated too often, is no less in the national interest here than in the US. It is an irony that countries such as Nigeria are now using freedom of information as part of their armoury of arguments to prove to organisations such as the International Monetary Fund that they have truly turned the corner to democracy. Britain isn't, of course, corrupt in the way that Nigeria so signally has been in the past. But that also means that it has a great deal less to hide. Tomorrow's Queen's Speech is a testament to the sustained energy of a still good government. A Freedom of Information Bill worthy of the name would make it better.

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