Information Bill attacked as toothless

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The Independent Online
SUPPORTERS OF the Campaign for Freedom of Information had waited a quarter of a century for Labour to lift the veil of secrecy that has enshrouded so many areas of public office in Britain.

But as Home Secretary Jack Straw announced to Parliament the draft version of the long-awaited Freedom of Information Bill, the campaigners felt betrayed.

Campaign director Maurice Frankel professed himself "deeply disappointed" by a package which he said was even less radical than the policies on access to information adopted by the previous Conservative government.

He said: "[The Bill] achieves the remarkable feat of making the code, introduced by a government opposed in principle to freedom of information, appear a more positive measure than legislation drawn up by a Government committed to the issue for 25 years."

The Government, of course, begged to differ. Mr Straw said the proposals would "radically change the relationship between the government and its citizens". But the Home Secretary went on to say: "There is a right to know, there is a right to privacy and there is a right to confidentiality." It was, said Mr Straw, a question of balance.

For many months, the campaign has begun to doubt that the Government shared its enthusiasm for open access. A White Paper was published in 1997, under the direction of David Clark, who was later sacked as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

The Bill was then due in early 1998, but failed to materialise and was left out of November's Queen's Speech.

Now it has finally appeared, it includes 21 exemption clauses, compared to just seven exemption areas identified in the White Paper.

For many, the most disturbing exemption was the one protecting safety information relating to public investigations into road, rail, air and ferry accidents, or chemical and nuclear incidents.

Mr Frankel said: "This is an astounding proposal. It will keep the public in the dark about safety. It will encourage complacency by safety authorities."

Campaigners were also angry that the public interest test, which existed in the Tories' Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, has been replaced by a voluntary public interest test, which Mr Frankel said would be easily brushed aside by the authorities.

A further disappointment was the watering down of the "substantial harm" requirement for the withholding of information - as described in the White Paper - to the far weaker "prejudice" test.

The exemption of all information involved in the formulation of Government policy, will make central Government even "more secret" than it already is, Mr Frankel said.

But the Home Office points out that in many areas the Bill is far more progressive than what has gone before. The old "possibility of harm" test used in the existing code, would be replaced in the bill by a more open "probability of harm" test.

The Bill was "considerably wider" than the code and could also include Parliament and bodies accountable to it.

It was in October 1974, that Labour first made a manifesto pledge to "replace the Official Secrets Act by a measure to put the burden on the public authorities to justify withholding information". Further commitments were made in 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992 and 1996.

In the 1997 manifesto, Tony Blair said: "Labour is committed to the democratic renewal of our country through decentralisation and the elimination of excessive government secrecy. We are pledged to a Freedom of Information Act."

Yesterday, Mr Straw said, the promise had been delivered.

The 21 Exemptions

1 Information accessible to the public by other means.

2 Information intended for future official publication.

3 Information relating to bodies involved in security matters, such as MI5 or GCHQ.

4 Information relating to national security.

5 Certificates to be signed by the Attorney General and Cabinet Ministers.

6 Information likely to prejudice the defence of Britain.

7 Information likely to prejudice international relations.

8 Information likely to prejudice relations between the UK Government and those in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland.

9 Information likely to prejudice the British economy.

10 Information held by a public authority for the purposes of an investigation or proceedings into accidents, misconduct, etc

11 Information which could prejudice the detection of crime or the administration of justice.

12 Information contained in court records.

13 Information held by a government department relating to the formulation or development of government policy.

14 Communications with members of the Royal Family.

15 Information which could endanger the health and safety of any individual.

16 Personal information about a third party.

17 Information provided to a public authority in confidence.

18 Information covered by legal professional privilege.

19 Information which constitutes a trade secret or could prejudice the commercial interests of an individual.

20 Information which is subject to other prohibitions, such as contempt of court.

21 Information which is not harmful in itself but which might come into one of the above categories if other information was also to be made public.

HOW MUCH MORE FREEDOM WILL THERE BE?

CIVIL

SERVICE

What was promised?

A revolutionary transparency at the heart of Whitehall resulting from the realisation of a 20-year-old Labour Party commitment to freedom of information.

What has been

delivered?

Instead of excluding only information that would cause "substantial harm", the Bill exempts everything which might "prejudice" the Government. The exemption of civil service advice includes information relating to the "formulation of government policy".

Just how radical is it?

Use of "prejudice" test is seen by freedom of information campaigners as a major climbdown. There are concerns that a broad interpretation of the policy advice exemption could result in publicly-funded scientific data - such as that relating to GM food or BSE - being kept secret.

POLICE

Sir William Macpherson's report on the investigation into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence called for the police to be subject to a Freedom of Information Act unless "substantial harm" would be caused by disclosure.

Exempts anything which might "prejudice" the prevention or detection of crime or the "the administration of justice". It also provided for a separate exemption for information provided by police informants.

Extends access to information to an area not covered by the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. But there will be fears that the wide-ranging exemptions will give police too much scope for concealing information which would not harm investigations or forthcoming trials.

SECURITY

SERVICES

The White Paper exempted agencies like MI5 and MI6, along with information relating to joint operations with other government agencies. It was hoped the Commissioner would have powers to overrule the exemptions if there was a compelling public interest.

The Bill stuck rigidly to those exemptions and to any other information which might be prejudicial to national security. The public-interest test has been replaced by a voluntary one, which prevents the Commissioner compelling the release of information.

In countries like Canada and the US, the security services are subject to freedom of information legislation, provided there is no risk to national security. There are fears that details of multi-agency operations might be unreasonably exempted because of the passing involvement of MI5.

PRIVATISED

UTILITIES

That such businesses should be subject to freedom of information legislation in response to public concerns over their lack of accountability. It was hoped the Commissioner would have powers to seize information that was not provided.

Only information relating to their statutory functions will be accessible. The Commissioner has the power to order the disclosure of information and refer to a court which can treat continued refusal to comply as a contempt.

Commercial confidentiality protection could lead to much information on such companies remaining hidden. The Bill exempts any information which might be classified as a trade secret or which might prejudice the commercial interests of any individual.

HEALTH AND

SOCIAL SERVICES

The Act would allow members of the public access to previously unobtainable information from health authorities.

As public bodies, health authorities are included within the scope of the Bill, the Government claims people in Britain will have "one of the freest access regimes in the world".

Health authorities would be obliged to release internal information regarding, say, a home for the elderly, in addition to the already-available inspection reports. People will also be able to obtain details of how hospitals prioritise waiting lists and how schools apply admission criteria.

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