Straw unveils changes to Information Bill

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Home Secretary Jack Straw today announced a series of concessions to the Government's heavily-criticised plans for a Freedom of Information Bill.

Home Secretary Jack Straw today announced a series of concessions to the Government's heavily-criticised plans for a Freedom of Information Bill.

He said the changes would go "a considerable way" to meeting the concerns of campaigners who claimed the previous plans would have encouraged secrecy in Whitehall.

The Home Secretary signalled that further changes could be made to the Bill as it made its way through Parliament.

In a statement detailing the changes, Mr Straw said the role of a new information commissioner overseeing the release of information would be strengthened.

The commissioner would have the power to recommend the discretionary disclosure of information and be empowered to enforce compliance, he said.

A blanket ban on the release of information on accident, health and safety and fraud inquiries will also be lifted and replaced with a test of whether the information would be harmful. However, the blanket ban will be kept in cases involving criminal proceedings.

The time limit on replies to requests for information would be reduced from 40 to 20 days.

Mr Straw, who announced several other measures, said: "We need to get the balance right. The public must be able to obtain information but personal and other confidential material must be protected and the effective and efficient operation of Government must be preserved."

Among other changes, Mr Straw said there would be a requirement on government departments to consider whether there was a greater public interest in disclosing documents than withholding them.

He also proposed to remove a ban on the "jigsaw" release of information that, when placed together, could provide a bigger picture of sensitive areas.

Public authorities would also be required to give reasons for withholding information not covered by exemptions.

However, the Home Secretary confirmed that he would exclude from the Bill all advice and factual information given to ministers.

At a Home Office press conference, Mr Straw appeared to recognise the concerns of campaigners who savaged the contents of the draft Bill when it was published in May.

Campaigners claimed then that the plans would be more restrictive than Whitehall's current voluntary code of conduct introduced by John Major.

Two select committees, in the Commons and the Lords, also attacked the draft Bill. Mr Straw said: "If you bring forward a Bill in draft it can have slightly rougher edges."

Holding out the prospect of further changes, he said: "The process of discussion will continue. I have never known a Bill of any length go through (Parliament) without any amendment."

Defending the new proposals, the Home Secretary said he had tried to balance the legitimate need for information against the dangers of disclosure.

"By definition almost all the pressure from campaigners has come from those who wish for greater openness, but it's the government's job to balance that need for greater openness against the need for privacy for individuals and for confidentiality for public authorities," he said.

In other countries with supposedly stronger freedom of information laws, public bodies often resorted to "trickery" to holding back information, and advice was passed to ministers on Post-It notes, he said.

Mr Straw told reporters: "What the law says happens in other countries and what actually happens are often two separate things."

Liberal Democrats welcomed the concessions but claimed that ministers were still erring on the side of caution and secrecy.

The party claimed there were "three major flaws" in the legislation: the fact that the information commissioner would not have the power to force disclosure, that background material to ministerial briefings would not be released, and that Mr Straw had not opted for a stronger test on disclosure.

Constitutional affairs spokesman Robert Maclennan said: "While we acknowledged that our own representations have contributed to shifting the Government's mind in the right direction, the Home Secretary has not moved nearly far enough."

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