Straw gives in on rights to disaster information

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The Independent Online

Jack Straw responded to the fierce criticisms of his "watered-down" draft Freedom of Information Bill yesterday, by announcing a series of concessions in the final document that will go before Parliament.

Jack Straw responded to the fierce criticisms of his "watered-down" draft Freedom of Information Bill yesterday, by announcing a series of concessions in the final document that will go before Parliament.

The Home Secretary said he had listened to the calls for "greater openness" during a public consultation and he was convinced that the Bill was "much improved" as a result of the changes.

He admitted that the draft Bill had "quite rightly received quite a lot of criticism" over plans to prevent disclosure of information relating to accident investigations, such as the Zeebrugge ferry disaster and the Paddington rail crash. Such information will not be exempt provided no criminal charges are imminent, he said.

Mr Straw also announced stronger powers for a new information commissioner who will be able to make recommendations that public authorities disclose information in the public interest. He claimed that such a recommendation would send a "very strong and powerful" message to the public body which would be difficult for it to ignore.

But freedom of information campaigners warned last night that the changes still left the authorities with too much discretionary power. They predicted that the Bill would have a rough ride through Parliament.

MPs and campaigners savaged Mr Straw's draft Bill when it was published in May, claiming that it would be more restrictive than Whitehall's current voluntary code of conduct, introduced by John Major.

Mr Straw appeared to recognise the earlier concerns, saying draft Bills could have "slightly rougher edges". But he insisted the changes would go "a considerable way" to meeting the concerns.

Outlining the changes, the Home Secretary said he had to balance the right of the public to obtain information with the Government's need for confidentiality. The Bill would include a significant new power for the information commissioner to recommend that ministers disclose information, Mr Straw said.

A blanket ban on accident, health and safety, and fraud inquiries would be replaced by a test of whether the information would be harmful, although there would still be an exemption for cases involving criminal proceedings.

Other changes include halving to 20 days the time limit on response to requests for information, and requiring civil servants to consider whether there is a greater public interest in disclosing documents than there is in withholding them.

However, the Home Secretary confirmed his intention to make exempt the disclosure of ministerial briefings from civil servants, including factual information. Rejecting claims that information relating to government policy-making should be disclosed, Mr Straw said it was not true that other countries operated more open systems.

He said: "In other countries, ministers take avoiding action and cease to record things in writing or use Post-it notes or do things on the telephone."

Although the Campaign for Freedom of Information welcomed the concessions, it said the Bill still contained "substantial defects". The campaign's director, Maurice Frankel, said: "In key areas, ministers could not be compelled to disclose information and would be free to decide what to suppress.

"The public would have no right to see scientific evidence about new health hazards such as BSE, or see government figures for the numbers of jobs affected by a fox-hunting ban or new funding to employ police officers," he added.