Leader: Don't keep us in the dark

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The Independent Online
The doubters will be silenced. The Queen's Speech will be the most radical in most voters' political memory. Scotland will have a parliament, Wales an assembly (both elected under a proportional system), regional development will be boosted, London will get an elected authority and councils will be allowed to spend some of the money they gained from selling council houses. The European Convention on Human Rights will be incorporated into law. Handguns will be banned. All this is in addition to the new government's well-trumpeted commitment to education and crime. Naturally there are disappointments. After 18 years, the electorate's wish-list was too long, the promises, some actual, some only optimistically assumed, too many for one Queen's Speech. None the less the absence of a freedom of information Bill is disappointing.

The idea of open government, of informed participation in the political process, seemed central to the entire New Labour project. Here is Tony Blair, then Leader of the Opposition, at the Campaign for Freedom of Information annual awards in March 1996: "The crucial question is, does the Government regard people's involvement in politics as being restricted to periodic elections? Or does it regard itself as in some sense in a genuine partnership with people? The Government's attitude to what it is prepared to tell people and the knowledge it will share with them says a great deal about where it stands on that matter... the presumption is that information should be, rather than should not be, released."

And here is the short version, in the April 1997 party manifesto: "We are pledged to a Freedom of Information Act, leading to more open government."

True, the Government has not abandoned the idea. It is merely delayed for some 18 months pending publication of a White Paper, Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio, has told us, though with such obfuscation that one despairs of No 10 becoming a natural home for plain speaking. Are we, then, being impatient? Government has, after all, other priorities. And it would be a tragedy to rush such important legislation and get it wrong. As Mr Mandelson has argued, Labour "can't just pull some Bill from the shelf and implement it". Of course not, any more than it could just dust down any old Bill on crime, or handguns, or the Bank of England, none of which seems to have been hit by that particular argument.

But lack of preparedness is the weakest of arguments. Labour (old and new), has, extraordinarily and exceptionally, had 18 steadfast years without deviating from the principle of the citizen's right to know. There can scarcely be a member of the new Cabinet who has not made a speech in support of open government. In 1993 Mark Fisher's widely backed Right to Know Bill went through 21 hours of parliamentary scrutiny before the Tory government arranged for it to be talked out at the report stage. Government officials have visited Australia and New Zealand to report back on the introduction in those countries of similar bills. And, as a practice run for civil servants, we have for two years now had a Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. Freedom of information must rank top of the list of Bills that could be brought before Parliament and implemented almost immediately.

We need, too, to remember the very recent past and why the electorate may favour, as never before, having the Whitehall windows thrown open to a refreshing breeze of scrutiny. The Scott report reminded us of the danger of a vacuum of responsibility when Parliament and public are denied access to information. As Mr Blair put it: "Scott has made the case for a Freedom of Information Act absolutely unanswerable."

There is an even stronger reason for legislation now. Openness should be the framework that informs all government activity, not an add-on luxury. A commitment to open government is not something that can be put off until convenient, rather as Saint Augustine asked for "chastity and continence, but not yet".

"We are the servants now," Tony Blair told new MPs last week, inverting the more triumphalist words of Hartley Shawcross uttered in the wake of another Labour landslide 51 years ago. The Prime Minister's version, with its promise of a different, accountable, relationship between government and governed, is a nobler sentiment with, we still hope, a nobler purpose. The Government must show its commitment to putting it into practice from day one.