Tony Blair and Jack Straw are not being entirely open with us

I gave the Home Office the benefit of the doubt over freedom of information. I know now I was wrong
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The Independent Culture
JACK STRAW has executed an unusual sort of U-turn - swapping a measure which might have been very popular for one which may prove very unpopular. The Freedom of Information Bill - on which a Commons Select Committee will hear evidence from Mr Straw today - is a bad Bill which not only could have been, but nearly was, much better.

Writing before the Bill's publication, I anticipated that it would be deeply deficient in relation to the police and so-called policy advice. The Bill does indeed give a shamefully sweeping protection to the police, in flagrant disregard of the recommendations of the Macpherson enquiry into the investigation of Stephen Lawrence's murder.

But I gave the Home Office the benefit of the doubt in the more consumer- related areas, assuming, as most people did, that Straw's Bill would get high marks for extending robust if less politically glamourous rights to ordinary citizens on less dramatic issues which directly affected them.

I was wrong. Here too, the Bill is a big retreat from an admirably liberal - but perfectly workable - White Paper. Take some really humdrum examples - about as far from the ministerial nightmare of sinister conspiracy theorists trying to penetrate the dark recesses of the secret state - as its possible to imagine. After all, as Mr Straw said: "The proposals will benefit everyone and provide access to the sort of information that people really want to know." Well, not exactly. You complain to your local authority trading standards department about a dodgy second-hand car. The man at the other end of the phone is sympathetic and promises to look into it.

But nothing happens, and you are never able to get a straight answer as to why. Or you ring up the environmental health people to complain that your next door neighbour likes to get down to some DIY with a pneumatic drill in his garage at 4am to the accompaniment of Jimmy Hendrix tapes at top volume. And you are similarly unsatisfied.

In the brave new political culture to which Mr Straw paid eloquent lip service when he unveiled his Bill last month, you would think you would at least have an unfettered right to have from the local council, in writing, the reasons for not pursuing your complaint. Not so fast. Under Clause 25(2)(a)(1) the local authority - the one elected to represent you - can refuse you on the grounds that "Information is exempt if it has at any time been held by the authority for the purposes of any investigation for the purposes of ascertaining whether any person has failed to comply with the law or is responsible for any other improper conduct."

Never mind that you may have initiated the investigation. That doesn't give you any right to know its outcome.

Indeed the supposed extension of the right-to-know into areas of public safety is heavily circumscribed by that same clause. For example as an individual employee you are already entitled under existing legislation to be kept informed by the Health and Safety Executive about their inquiries into the premises where you work; and about the aspects of their inquiry which affect you directly, say a lack of proper protective guards around a particularly dangerous kind of machine tool.

But if you are a union official, or, perish the thought, a journalist, enquiring into a general investigation into standards at a series of firms in the locality - like whether machine tools are as well guarded in Bloggshire as they are in Blankshire - forget it.

The idea of not extending the right appears to have been entirely Whitehall- born and bred.

And this is only part of it. Enquiries under the Freedom of Information Act to the supposedly very open Food Standards Agency - as with all other others - may well fall foul of the Bill's stipulations on commercial confidentiality, or the agency's right to demand what use a person wants to make of the information, or simply the argument that it may "prejudice", rather than as the White Paper provided, will do "substantial harm to", its continuing work.

Which brings us back to the question of policy advice, as it is sweepingly defined in the Bill.

Defenders of the government look pityingly at their critics, and say, of course candid discussion by officials with ministers can never be published because it would make such candour - necessary to government - impossible. In fact even this universally accepted assumption can occasionally be exaggerated. In 1996, there was a leak of a document prepared in total secrecy by some bright things at the Treasury brainstorming about issues for the millennium - such as the possibility that the UK's GDP might fall below that of Brazil and some social insurance might be privatised,

There were the usual expressions of horror. There was the usual leak enquiry. But the earth did not move. The government did not fall. If it had been published as what it was - a discussion of prospects which was not remotely government policy - it would probably have caused little fuss.

But let us accept that highly confidential policy discussion is out of bounds. Was this supposed to - as it will now - include factual, scientific, advice of the sort given to the government over BSE - or for that matter genetically modified foods?

Not in the view of Labour when it was in Opposition.

Mr Straw lost the battle with the - on this issue liberal - Lord Chancellor for the White Paper. But he got his own back with the Bill. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Mr Blair gave him the Bill because he knew Mr Straw would do the kind of job the Prime Minister wanted.

The Bill overturns the presumption for openness that was embodied in Labour's programme throughout its period of Opposition, for one against it. It is in many respects worse than the - admittedly voluntary - code on open government published by John Major. Finally, it flies in the face of the admirable sentiments expressed by one of the most prominent Labour supporters of a Freedom of Information Bill in 1996.

He rejected emphatically the suggestion that this was an issue of importance merely to the "so-called chattering classes," and went onto say that a Bill was "part of bringing our politics up to date, of letting politics catch up with the aspirations of people and delivering not just more open government but more effective, more efficient, government for the future."

Mr Straw needs to start thinking today about he can produce a Bill which lives up to those words - which this one emphatically doesn't. And whose were those words?

Why, Tony Blair's of course.

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