Right of Reply: Maurice Frankel

The head of the Freedom of Information Campaign responds to an article by Jack Straw
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EXPLAINING HIS draft Freedom of Information (FoI) Bill in The Independent yesterday, Jack Straw acknowledged that "good government depends upon external scrutiny and challenge". In the interests of good government, may I do a little challenging?

The fundamental FoI principle is that information must be disclosed unless harm can be demonstrated. For the moment, forget whether the harm should be "substantial harm" or just "prejudice". Why does the Bill allow so much information to be withheld without any evidence of harm at all?

There will be a staggering amount of such secrecy. The various enforcement agencies will be able to withhold information about public health, consumer protection, race relations, competition policy and planning. The police enjoy similar protection, despite Macpherson's recommendation that there should be no "class" exemption for them. Safety agencies can conceal what they have learnt about the cause of a crash, fire or near miss. What kind of FoI Bill is this meant to be?

Why exclude everything to do with the "formulation and development of policy"? The bar applies to uncontentious recommendations, to factual analysis and purely descriptive accounts. Kenneth Clarke, when Chancellor, started publishing the minutes of his meetings with the governor of the Bank of England - advice as high as it comes - and the world did not collapse.

May I ask who, in 1996, said: "If a government is genuine about wanting a partnership with the people, the government has to empower the people and give them a say in how that politics is conducted."? And will this Bill empower people the way Tony Blair intended when he said it?

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