Leading article: Democracy is poorly served by this disappointing Bill

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IT'S BEEN a long, long wait: for more than 20 years Labour politicians have been committing themselves - in opposition, of course - to freedom of information legislation. They have told us that it is of constitutional importance to reverse the "culture of secrecy" for which the British Civil Service is famous. This would end the authoritarianism of Mrs Thatcher's regime, and show Labour as a party of the people and not of the Establishment.

Well, now we have the Bill, and on no test does it pass the critical scrutiny Labour themselves would have given it in opposition. There are three matters, in particular, to which attention must be paid. First is access. Freedom of information is about the public's right to know; but this Bill will prevent the Information Commissioner charged with enforcing it from using that test to enforce disclosure. Instead it will be up to the authorities themselves to decide whether they will release information. And, most vital, the test they will use is the vague, indefinable matter of "prejudice" to the workings of government, rather than the clear one of "substantial harm". Of course, criticism will prejudice the Government's decisions; the point of freedom of information is to allow the public to take a critical look at decisions being made in its name.

The Bill's treatment of the police is also disappointing. Lord Macpherson's report into the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence recommended that the police be subject to the "full provisions of a Freedom of Information Act". But the Home Office has managed to exclude all information arising from investigation into a crime, even when releasing that material would cause no harm to law enforcement or to legal proceedings. The prevention of miscarriages of justice and the reversing of those that do happen will get no assistance from this reform.

The third matter is the blanket denial of public access to the policy advice given by civil servants to ministers. If this provision goes through unamended, there will be even more secrecy than there is now about how government policy is formulated. But it is vital to the cause of good government that the public know how decisions are made on such matters as the growing of GM crops. The experience of publishing the minutes of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee about the considerations behind the setting of interest rates has only increased public understanding and respect for these decision-makers. The Civil Service has nothing to fear from letting light shine on its activities; a grateful public will admire them all the more if it can see that they are doing a good job.

The Home Secretary has said that he wants consultation on the provisions set out in his Bill. Let us hope this is no empty promise, for he has left much room for improvement.