Ministers shun information Bill: Right to know campaign rejected

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Indy Politics
The principle of more open government was accepted by a junior minister yesterday - but not on the terms laid down by those campaigning for a public right of access through freedom of information legislation.

Robert Jackson, Parliamentary Secretary for the Office of Public Service and Science, told the Commons committee examining the Right to Know Bill that there was widespread support for its principles, and the Government was committed to greater openness by last year's election manifesto.

But he added that ministers did not believe it was 'an appropriate vehicle' and would not, therefore, support it.

Reading out a speech that considerably perplexed the Bill's sponsors - led by Mark Fisher, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central - Mr Jackson said that while the Government accepted it had to be an active provider of information, delivery had to be left to the discretion of ministers accountable to Parliament.

On that basis, he argued, much had already been done - and he cited the success of the 1977 Croham Directive which set up an official process for greater Whitehall openness. It is widely dismissed as 'something of a nine days' wonder'.

Even William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Mr Jackson's departmental head, said last year that the directive had made little difference, and he told BBC television's On the Record that Whitehall 'should be willing to publish rather more of the factual background to decision-taking than they have in the past'.

Mr Jackson suggested yesterday that ministers did not exclude a 'right-based' approach to open government, reciting a long list of Acts under which the public had been given rights of access to official information.

The bulk of the list, however, was made up of Private Members' legislation, and Andrew Bennett, Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, then challenged Mr Jackson on the Government's refusal to publish a Trade and Industry Department report on manufacturing industry, and the denial of a housing association report to a Commons Select Committee.

Mr Jackson said Whitehall policy advice was exempted from the disclosure provisions of Mr Fisher's Bill; Mr Fisher countered that there was a distinction between expert advice and policy advice.

Although the minister made clear that the Government had no intention of allowing the Bill through to the statute book, he said the committee stage could prove valuable at a time when Mr Waldegrave was formulating policy for a White Paper that was expected before the summer recess.