Leading Article: Please redraft your daft bill, Mr Straw

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IN A democracy, it is essential that ministers receive candid advice in private. And a government trying to tackle poverty and rebuild communities should not have valuable resources diverted into answering footling inquiries from middle-class journalists and conspiracy theorists.

No - it couldn't work. It is always a useful intellectual exercise to try to argue a case against the conventional liberal wisdom. But when it comes to official secrecy, the Government's hypocritical U-turn is so indefensible that no reasonable person could make a credible case for it.

Jack Straw's feeble defence of his draft Freedom of Information Bill, which excludes all policy advice to ministers, is that to make civil servants' advice public would "undermine accountability". It would drive policy advice underground into "oral communications and Post-it notes", he said. Now, policy advice is not, in fact, a high priority; it is much more important that people gain access to decisions made about them by social workers, health authorities and the police. But once the Home Secretary starts going on about Post-it notes, the case for openness suddenly seems overwhelming.

It is the same with the Official Secrets Act. Yesterday the writer Tony Geraghty appeared in court, charged with damaging disclosure of information in a book about the security services in Northern Ireland. The charges have been brought by John Morris, the Attorney General, who, in opposition, objected to the 1989 Act because it did not allow a public interest defence - precisely the defence that Mr Geraghty intends to make, in the hope that the jury will defend liberty regardless of the fact that the law is an illiberal ass (as a further twist, it should be noted that Mr Geraghty's case is one of those from which Mr Straw wants to remove the automatic right to opt for jury trial).

In opposition, Labour leaders from Tony Blair downwards savaged the Conservative government for unnecessary secrecy over arms to Iraq and mad cow disease. "If government had been more open," Mr Blair said in March 1996, "it would have been far better actually for the proper conduct of government." Then accountability required openness. Now accountability requires secrecy. They were right the first time. The draft Bill should be drafted again.

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