The Sketch: Lies, damned lies and freedom of information

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The Independent Online

Blameless as he may be (there's a gift to hecklers) Jack Straw has the suave geniality of the classic English villain. He cares about tailoring. He has his quiet, lizardly smile. He has pale, strangler's hands which he uses to choke people behind his arras. Doesn't he? The libel lawyer points out that this is entirely untrue. But how does she know?

He introduced the Freedom of Information Act in such a way that the Government didn't have to give out any information if it didn't want to.

As Leader of the House he had been telling us about the Royal Prerogative (the power by which a prime minister can take us to war). He had said in 1994, as David Heath told us, that the Royal Prerogative had no place in a modern democracy. He probably hadn't meant it. Yesterday he said parliaments in Europe had sometimes "acted irresponsibly to restrict the proper discretion of the military". There's a phrase for democrats to conjure with. "The proper discretion of the military." But he probably hadn't meant that either.

He stayed on for the second reading of the new statistics Bill, smiling slightly. The Bill promises a new dawn of freedom, honesty, integrity. It offers to make national statistics independent. They have worked it out that nobody believes government statistics because they are controlled by ministers. So the Chancellor is seemingly giving a Statistics Board the same independence that the Bank of England got. It's "to restore trust". Straw smiled in his characteristic way.

"Old definitions of what is and what isn't a statistic are blurred," John Healey, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, said, carrying on in the comic tradition of Leonard Rossiter (whom he strongly resembles).

Frank Field asked why the board didn't have the elementary power to determine which national statistics should be National Statistics? Because there are, under this Bill, Official Statistics and National Statistics - and the board only has jurisdiction (for the integrity, quality, transparency) of National Statistics. Many "official statistics", Mr Healey said, didn't have the same "status or importance" of National Statistics and therefore didn't deserve the same level of "objectivity, impartiality, honesty" etc.

He didn't put it as transparently as this. But you could tell from the way that Mr Straw smiled that that was the official interpretation. It's Freedom of Information Mark II.

sketch@simoncarr.co.uk

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