Anger at `feeble' secrecy Bill

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The Independent Online
THE HOME Secretary, Jack Straw, yesterday unveiled the long-awaited draft Freedom of Information Bill amid widespread criticism that it had been severely watered down.

The Bill was roundly attacked as being feeble, for having 21 categories of exemptions and allowing escape clauses for ministers on matters relating to government policy and public bodies subject to investigations into major accidents.

Labour MPs protested last night that the Bill would not have forced earlier disclosure of the food safety scandal which led to the BSE crisis. Conservative MPs said the Bill was so weak that William Hague might take up freedom of information as a Tory issue.

Campaigners for radical legislation to give British citizens the right to information for the first time attacked the Bill as a retreat from the White Paper published more than a year ago. They said it had been diluted by the Home Office.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said he was "deeply disappointed". He said the Bill was weaker than an access to public information code introduced by the Conservative government.

Unveiling the Bill, Mr Straw said: "For the first time, everyone will have the right of access to information held by bodies across the public sector."

In a statement to MPs, he said: "For too long we have given insufficient weight to the right to know. The proposals in this draft Bill seek to redress that balance."

The Bill contains a series of "catch-all" exemptions, covering the security services and information which could be prejudicial to national security or the economy.

The recommendation by Sir William Macpherson that police should be subject to the legislation unless disclosure would cause "substantial harm" has been rejected. Although police are covered by the Bill, any information which might "prejudice" prevention or detection of crime or the "administration of justice" is exempt.

Public authorities will also be able to decline to give information which would cost more than pounds 500 to provide or which they consider to be "vexatious".

They will also have up to 40 days to provide information, compared to 20 under the present code of practice on Access to Government Information.

The Bill was much weaker than many had expected after 25 years of Labour manifesto promises to place it on the statute book.

Pam Giddy, director of Charter 88, the campaign to modernise British democracy, said: "Jack Straw today has sent the wrong message to Whitehall. He's told civil servants: `Labour will not break your culture of secrecy'."

There was a Cabinet row over the Bill, but it will not force the disclosure of other Cabinet battles in future. Downing Street said it was never intended that the Bill should provide the public "with a ringside seat" to policy- making, although it may allow disclosure of background information.

Critics in the Commons said the "mice had got at it" while the Bill was being reconsidered within Whitehall. One ex- minister said senior civil servants had been against disclosure in each ministry, leaving Mr Straw with few opponents when he put the Bill before the Cabinet.

It marked a substantial climbdown from the White Paper produced by David Clark, the former Cabinet Office minister who saw the whole project taken over by the Home Office after he was sacked by Tony Blair last summer.

Mr Clark and other Labour backbenchers gave the Bill a general welcome, fulfilling a Labour election manifesto, as a historic step for which Labour had waited more than 20 years.

But the former Labour arts minister Mark Fisher said "there are several areas which will have to be tightened".

In particular, there was disappointment that Jack Straw had won a Cabinet battle with Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, for a more conservative measure in two key areas: the test allowing disclosure unless there is `harm' or `substantial harm' has been scrapped; and there will be no public interest defence to cover disclosures by whistle-blowers. The Home Secretary said the "harm test" was unworkable and has introduced a new test to allow the disclosure of information unless it is "likely to prejudice" the protection which the legislation says is necessary for running the Government and public bodies.

John Wadham, director of the human rights group Liberty, described the Bill as "deeply flawed". He said: "One of the main purposes of a Freedom of Information Bill is to ex- pose wrongdoing, not to help those in power to conceal it."

The Government claimed that in some respects the Bill - which requires a "probability" of harm for information to be withheld - was more open than the existing code of practice, which demands only the "possibility" of harm.

Anger at "toothless" Bill, page 6; Leading article, Review, page 3; Jack Straw, Review, page 4