Fresh 'right to know' urged: White Paper on creating more open government does not give much away

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The Independent Online
STATUTORY rights of access to personal files and health and safety information held by public authorities are the key proposals in yesterday's White Paper on Open Government, published by William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister of Public Services and Science.

The new rights will be laid down in a code of practice for government departments and agencies, which is intended to ensure that information is volunteered rather than withheld unless specifically requested.

The detail that can be expected as a matter of course in future are: facts and analysis used by the Government to frame major policy initiatives; explanatory material and internal departmental guidance about dealing with the public; information giving reasons for administrative decisions and details about standards of service and performance targets. In addition, if people are prepared to pay, 'reasonable requests for factual information relating to the policies and decisions of departments will be met'.

Departments will establish their own complaints procedures for people who feel they have been unfairly refused access. Those who are still unhappy can write to their MP for their case to be taken up by the parliamentary commissioner or ombudsman.

After that, if a department failed to comply with the recommendations, it could be asked to explain itself before a Commons select committee which deals with the ombudsman's reports.

The list of exemptions from the code is long, however. Information damaging to national security and international relations, proceedings of Cabinet and Cabinet committees, internal advice and opinion, and confidential communications with the Royal Household and Privy Council will not be released. Nor will information that might prejudice a legal case or relates to immigration, harms the management of the economy or the running of a public body.

Personnel records and the thinking behind recommendations for honours will not be disclosed - nor anything that would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy. Commercial confidences will also be respected and the doctrine that information originally supplied in confidence should be protected, will be upheld.

Commons critics have painted a picture of a government that was not so much open as ajar - with the ability to slam itself firmly shut. Crucially, the Government did not even supply a definition of 'information'.

As Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information pointed out, the code offered no right to see documents, only a right to information. 'The distinction is terribly important because the right to see documents is the basis for all freedom of information laws in other countries. Information means that someone has filleted out what they think is relevant to your request. It does not give you the right to see a whole file,' he said.

The 30-year rule was maintained on public records, as in other European Community countries. The 'harm' test will apply to see if they should be retained beyond that period. If their release would cause 'actual damage' - to national security, confidentiality and so on - they would be kept secret.

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