The Home Secretary said he was willing to compromise over aspects of the Bill amid a looming rebellion over the Government's failure to end the culture of secrecy in Whitehall. MPs are concerned that under the measure the Government can choose to withhold policy advice that has been received.
Tony Wright, Public Administration Committee chairman, said during the Bill's second reading that such decisions should be a matter for an independent commissioner and not a minister or public service.
Mr Straw said there must be a distinction between factual information held by the Government and policy advice, which is never made public. "A minister could choose to withhold information because it was highly prejudiced to national security in a way that the commissioner has not thought of. It is quite important to have faith in the mechanism. This Bill will lead to a cultural change in Whitehall. It is the first time the public will have the statutory right to know."
He conceded that neither the BSE scandal nor arms-to-Iraq affair would have been prevented if the Bill had been law then. "In neither case do I believe that [a freedom-of-information] regime as proposed here, or any that I've seen, would have ensured or guaranteed that the circumstances which arose in respect of arms-to-Iraq or BSE would not have happened." The "substantial harm" test favoured by freedom-of-information campaigners rested on an uncertain definition of the word "substantial". The Bill was likely to encourage public bodies and private companies to develop openness.
Mr Straw acknowledged that the white paper produced by David Clark, former chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster before he was sacked in the 1998 reshuffle, had recommended the substantial-harm test.
Under it, councils, health authorities, police and other services and central government would have only been able to withhold information if disclosure would have caused substantial harm to an individual or group of people.
An Information Tribunal will also be set up to hear appeals against the commissioner's decisions or refusals by organisations to disclose data.