Delay over `right to know' Bill provokes anger

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Plans for a White Paper on freedom of information have been delayed amid wrangling about its content, it emerged yesterday.

But while campaigners claimed that civil servants were trying to water down the measure, government sources maintained that there were simply a few problems in defining who should be covered by it.

There was further protest yesterday after it emerged that ministers were planning to make their legislation enforceable through a parliamentary committee rather than through the courts or an information commissioner.

The Government had promised to deliver its White Paper before MPs left for their long summer holidays at the end of this month. However, it now seems that it is unlikely to be published before October.

Yesterday, Andrew Puddephatt, director of the constitutional reform group Charter 88, said he understood that the measure had been delayed because civil servants wanted to include a catch-all exemption which would allow them to withhold information. The clause would mirror one on "good government" in the existing Open Government Code of Practice, which exempts information "whose disclosure would harm the proper and efficient conduct of the operations of a department or other public body".

Mr Puddephatt said the delay was being caused by "substantial Civil Service opposition". "Three out of four people in this country back freedom of information, and there is clear government support for this. Sir Humphrey is alive and well," he said, referring to the archetypal civil servant in the BBC's Yes, Minister series.

Donald Dewar, speaking at a Charter 88 convention on the constitution in London, denied the charges and said the Government was determined to press ahead with the measure.

"I suspect if Sir Humphrey exists he has probably retired into a rest home for the bewildered, given the pressure of change. We obviously want to get the measure right but the commitment is there and it is strong," he said.

The Cabinet Office said there were complications in defining some of the organisations where the open-government rules would apply, and other government sources said the most important thing was getting the measure right.

In a separate development yesterday, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, David Clark, said he expected the legislation, due next year, to be enforced through a parliamentary committee rather than through the courts or an information commissioner. The parliamentary ombudsman and his select committee could be made responsible, he said in an interview with Stakeholder magazine.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said such a move would be totally unacceptable. "At the end of the day a legally enforceable right is in our view essential. We would be deeply concerned if the applicant was ultimately denied such a right," he wrote in a letter of protest to Dr Clark.