Letter: Free information

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The Independent Online
Sir: Stephen Dorril (letter, 17 December) suggests the Campaign for Freedom of Information has been naive for allegedly suggesting that a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act would have prevented the arms for Iraq scandal - something we have not in fact claimed. But a decent Act should have provided access to documents indicating the crucial change in policy on arms sales to Iraq. Scott reported that the "overriding" reason for concealing the change was "a fear of strong public opposition" to greater defence sales to Iraq. These are not valid grounds for withholding information under an FOI Act.

Nor do I believe we have been naive in welcoming the Government's freedom of information proposals. They will not cover the security services or the non-administrative functions of the police - significant omissions, which should be challenged. However, Mr Dorril is mistaken in suggesting that defence and foreign affairs are also to be excluded.

The range of bodies covered by the Act - which includes local government, hundreds of quangos and even the privatised utilities - is greater than under any other country's FOI law. The right of access will extend to old files awaiting release in the Public Record Office. The proposed commissioner will have the power of a court to compel government to release information: a citizen-friendly, effective enforcement mechanism. Many of the proposed exemptions will permit information to be withheld only if disclosure would cause "substantial damage", a tougher test than the plain "damage" required under the American act.

Of course there may be pressure to weaken the legislation, by charges or other means. But these are bolder proposals than we, and I suspect most others, expected to see, and promise significant improvements to the individual's rights and the accountability of the state.

Maurice Frankel

Director

The Campaign for Freedom of Information

London EC1

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