Freedom of information proposal gets high praise

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Rare, across-the-board acclaim greeted the Government White Paper on freedom of information yesterday. A practised hand at trying to get information out of the government machine, Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, takes a closer look at Your Right to Know.

The heartfelt welcome from Richard Shepherd, the Conservative MP who initiated a backbench Bill for more open government a decade ago, was worth far more than the qualified, "constructive" support of the Opposition frontbench in the Commons yesterday.

But the surprise felt by proponents of open government was best summed up by the reaction of Maurice Frankel, long-standing director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, who called the document "stunning". In a Commons statement, David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Cabinet minister directly responsible for the White Paper, went out of his way to praise the contribution of Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, who chaired the Cabinet Committee on the matter - and ensured its safe delivery.

Mr Clark said the statutory right of access offered by the White Paper to information and records "will transform the culture of government and make it more open and accountable. It is a huge step towards rebuilding trust between government and the people."

Some of the main features of the White Paper were remarkable. Information held by privatised water boards, other utilities, and the BBC, as well as the armed forces, hospitals and schools, would be opened up, although, as Mr Shepherd discovered in Commons questions, it was unclear whether rights to openness would extend to the European Council. Mr Frankel was also impressed that the enforcement powers of a new Information Commissioner would be as tough as those of any court, to compel the Government to release information.

"The White Paper goes further than we had thought any British Government would be willing to go," Mr Frankel said. But there were a number of serious gaps that could impede genuine inquiries.

Dr Clark told The Independent that there was no question of departments setting up catalogues or indices of the information they held, to give the public a better idea of what was available. "There can't be an index," he said. "There is no need for an index." But even the Croham Directive, an ineffectual attempt at open government issued by Sir Douglas Allen, Head of the Home Civil Service, 20 years ago, conceded that a digest of information available would provide enormous support for any right to know.

Without such assistance, searches can become worse than looking for needles in Whitehall haystacks. Without knowing specifically what they are looking for, people could face the charge that they are indulging in what yesterday's White Paper called "large-scale fishing expeditions or other applications which would result in a disproportionate cost or diversion of the public authority's resources ..."

There was also an insistence that the public could not be allowed access to the innermost policy advice and decision-making discussions of government, where disclosure would cause harm - rather than the "substantial harm" test that it be applied to other protected areas of information, like defence and law enforcement.

The White Paper says: "Now, more than ever, government needs space and time in which to assess arguments and conduct its own debates with a degree of privacy."

The particular points of policy protection included: the maintenance of collective ministerial responsibility - or the disclosure of splits; and the political impartiality of public officials - the exposure of their engagement in politically sensitive activity.

But the White Paper does include a case-by-case public interest clause, under which officials would be expected to consider whether a decision not to disclose information might itself "result in substantial harm to public safety, or the environment". In welcoming the proposal to appoint an Information Commissioner to police the open government process, the Campaign for Freedom of Information noted "that complainants would not have to bear the potentially prohibitive costs of going to court to enforce their rights."

However, Dr Clark told The Independent that the Commissioner would be appointed by the Prime Minister - a critical choice, and a significant power, if the process is to run smoothly. In his preface to the White Paper yesterday, Tony Blair said: "The traditional culture of secrecy will only be broken down by giving people in the United Kingdom the legal right to know. This fundamental and vital change in the relationship between government and governed is at the heart of this White Paper."

But John Redwood, the Conservative Trade and Industry spokesman, told The Independent last night that for all its spirit of openness, he had been unable to find out from the Government the precise role being played by Geoffrey Robinson, the Paymaster General, in the negotiation of new coal contracts, and he was having difficulty in getting the Government to accept Commons questions on such matters. "It's a funny old world," he said, "strange how these coincidences keep on happening."

Following public consultation on the White Paper, the Government hopes to produce a draft Bill by summer, with the possibility of legislation starting within 12 months and enactment by the summer of 1999. The law would then be phased in over time, but with the real possibility of widespread change before the next election.

your right to know

White Paper offers public a statutory right of access to official records and information.

Scope includes not only Government departments, NHS, local authorities and quangoes like Atomic Energy Authority - but privatised utilities, too.

Exclusions include Security and Intelligence services, like MI5 and MI6, as well as special forces like the SAS.

A right of access will be provided for records or information of any date, for normal fee of pounds 10 maximum, provided no substantial harm caused.

Seven areas to be protected: national security, defence and international relations; law enforcement; personal privacy; commercial confidentiality; public, individual and environmental safety; and information supplied in confidence.

Additional protection for Government decision-making and policy advice, and 30-year closure rule remains for historical records.

Information Commissioner to adjudicate and enforce rights of access, but with no back-up right of appeal to courts.

New criminal offence to be created for wilful or reckless destruction, alteration or withholding of records from Commissioner.