Will Jack Straw go all the way for true freedom of information?

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E M FORSTER entitled one of his books: Two Cheers for Democracy. How many cheers will there be for today's Freedom of Information Bill?

Historically, Labour has a long, and not particularly noble, record of being in favour of more open government when in opposition but not all in favour of it once in government. I would guess that not only Jack Straw, but, perhaps even more so, the Prime Minister, are not exactly electrified by freedom of information as an issue. On the other hand, Tony Blair does believe in implementing his manifesto; and today's Bill, admittedly after rather a long wait, is testament to that.

There is not much in the argument that the responsibility should not have been grabbed by the Home Office from the Cabinet Office - where the now ex-minister David Clarke fought a valiant but unskilful battle for as much openness as possible. It's true, broadly, that of the two big beasts on the relevant Cabinet Committee, Lord Irvine has been the more liberal and Mr Straw the more restrictive, and that by all accounts the Prime Minister has backed Mr Straw on some of these points. It is a safe bet that today's Bill will be diligently worked through and that the Home Secretary is dauntingly on top of the detail. Those who criticise the Bill will have to have done their homework.

The second thing to say is less grudging. The Bill certainly won't be toothless. It is likely to have a commendably culture-changing role in many public services such as the health service, education, and local authorities. It may sound unglamorous, but most private citizens are likely to be rather more interested in being able to force a school or a university to declare its admissions policy, or a hospital trust to be open about how it allocates resources between various kinds of treatment, or a planning authority to explain why it allowed a high-intensity housing development in one rural area and not in another, than in the arcane traffic between Whitehall departments that obsesses politicians and political journalists. With any luck, it should also afford the citizen more, and long overdue, rights to see their own files - for example, those which are held by the Department of Social Security.

All this is potentially a very big deal. The notion of a new right to know, at least in Britain, is uncharted and therefore unpredictable. To take the single example of the NHS, the right to information about priorities could accelerate as well as inform a debate about health rationing. And so on.

So far so good. At least two cheers. But perhaps only two.

The greatest controversy is likely to arise in two specific areas. The first concerns the police. The 1997 White Paper excluded a good deal of police activity - apart from matters of administration - from the scope of the policy. But then came the enquiry into the investigation into Stephen Lawrence's murder. It became painfully, blindingly, clear that the Lawrences should, at least at the point that the investigation collapsed, have been able to find out something about the gruesome errors which were not uncovered until Lord Macpherson's enquiry. Indeed, it isn't too much to say that if they had had the legal right to do so, some of those errors would simply not have been committed in the first place.

Not suprisingly, Lord Macpherson clearly recommended that the police should be subject to "full provisions of a Freedom of Information Act" in every area, subject only to a test that it would not do "substantial harm" to do so. (For example, nobody is expecting that the names of confidential informants, or information which prejudiced a further investigation, should be exposed).

Now the indications in Whitehall are that, commendably, the Bill will go further than the White Paper - and it would have to, post-Lawrence - but not as far as Macpherson wanted. In particular, Straw is thought to regard the "substantial harm" test for non-disclosure as not restrictive enough. Maybe these fears are unjustified; but if they are not, the Home Secretary is going to have some explaining to do.

The second area concerns what is loosely called policy advice to ministers. Here it is all too easy for ministers to use the old argument that to bring it within the ambit of the Act will hamper the necessary "candour" between officials and ministers. But the reformers are not suggesting that every conversation in Whitehall should be trundled out for all to see.

What they are suggesting is that some of the background to important decisions should become available while people can still remember what the decision was. Take GM food. There is every reason for supposing that ministers have been creditably assiduous in taking a whole range of factors, from our obligations to the World Trade Organisation and the growth of an important British technology on the one hand, to the possibly quite negligible health or environmental risks on the other. Yet at the moment there is an unseemly wrangle between ministers and a press that they keep complaining, with some justice, is hysterical and uninformed. The Government's case might well be strengthened by the publication of a paper which contained the detailed analysis of the reasons for its policy - and of the alternatives.

It is not too wide-eyed to suggest that the Government would emerge with some of the credit it has so far forfeited. Especially as the new Information Commissioner will - as his equivalents do throughout the world - exercise his power to weed out information which is genuinely detrimental to the business of good government. I hope I'm proved wrong, but if Mr Straw is as restrictive about policy advice as some fear he will be, then in this he will actually be less creative than was the (admittedly non-statutory) code under John Major.

Jack Straw has the great advantage of being an open politician who thrives on argument and is self confident enough to make changes if he accepts the intellectual argument for doing so. Just as well - for he is certain to have to defend his Bill against those who believe that in the interests of good government he could afford to be less restrictive still. The Bill will anyway be subjected to more exhaustive examination than most because it will first be reviewed in draft form by the Select Committee on Public Administration, which has the power to call expert witnesses.

Straw has backed the idea that the committee's present chairman Rhodri Morgan - now a member of the Welsh Assembly - should be replaced by the Labour MP Tony Wright, who happens to have a sturdy track record as a campaigner for Freedom of Information. The draft Bill is unlikely to become a final one before the next parliamentary session. If Straw has, at least in relation to the police and to general policy advice, been as restrictive as the pessimists fear, then he has plenty of time to think again.

Governments who treat their electors as the grown-ups they are rarely suffer as a result.

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