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Monday, May 24, 1999 Published at 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK

UK Politics

Right to information promised

Labour has promised freedom of information for 25 years

The right to information held by public sector bodies will be given to all UK citizens, Home Secretary Jack Straw has told the House of Commons.

The BBC's Robin Oakley: A step towards the light
He admitted drawing up the draft bill and consultation paper on freedom of information published on Monday had involved weighing various interests.

"This has been a difficult balancing act, but one I think we've got right," he said.

[ image:  ]
"The scales are weighted decisively in favour of openness."

Mr Straw said the move would benefit patients who wanted to know why they had to wait for treatment, parents who sought information on schools' selection procedures and citizens concerned with the conduct of police inquiries.

But the home secretary confirmed the government had changed the definition it proposed to use to determine whether individual pieces of information could be withheld.

The Freedom of Information White Paper published in December 1997 said information should only be kept secret if it would cause "substantial harm".

Mr Straw said the draft bill suggested information could be withheld if it would cause "prejudice".

The BBC's Norman Smith: Public bodies can reject requests for information
Describing his proposals as "radical and balanced", the home secretary said this change in wording would achieve "the same purpose in a more straightforward way".

But the switch disappointed freedom of information campaigners and drew scorn from the opposition.

Shadow Home Secretary Norman Fowler said the test had made it "easier" for public sector bodies seeking to retain confidential information.

The BBC's John Pienaar: Sceptics feel there will be more not less secrecy
He said civil servants had "won the battle" in Whitehall.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Alan Beith suggested that during the gap between the publication of the White Paper and the draft bill "the mice had got at it".

Ending 'arrogance in government'?

[ image: Freedom of information legislation could change the view from Whitehall]
Freedom of information legislation could change the view from Whitehall
The progress of its freedom of information legislation has been one of the most contentious issues since Labour came to power.

It originally appointed David Clark as the minister in charge. He duly produced a White Paper within months, only to find himself promptly sacked.

Labour's 1997 manifesto stated that "unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions".

The charge of its critics it that once it came to power it quickly became guilty of exactly such behaviour.

The delay since the White Paper is widely attributed to rows between the lord chancellor, a supporter of freedom of information laws, and Mr Straw.

[ image:  ]
Even the publication of a draft bill is interpreted as a fudge, although this is an allegation the home secretary strongly denies.

Charter 88 director Pam Giddy said she was "deeply disappointed" with the proposals set out.

"Jack Straw today has sent the wrong message to Whitehall," she said.

"He's told civil servants: Labour will not break your culture of secrecy."

Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information also said the draft legislation did not go far enough.

"The bill allow authorities to classify safety information as top secret," he said. "It replaces the code's public interest test by a voluntary test, making it easier for authorities to conceal misconduct."

Fee for information requests

The draft bill covers government departments, local councils, schools, the NHS and privatised industries providing public services.

It also covers administrative aspects of criminal investigations, following a row at the Commons Public Administration Committee.

[ image:  ]
Under these proposals, the parents of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence would have been able to demand information about the police investigation into their son's death.

But the government has rejected the proposal put forward by the Macpherson report into the murder and police inquiry.

The draft bill does not cover Cabinet meetings, briefings to ministers by civil servants and correspondence between government departments.

The activities of the security and intelligence services - MI5 and MI6 - are also excluded.

To obtain information, members of the public will have to pay a set fee of about £10.

The Home Office estimates the cost of implementing freedom of information legislation will be between £90m and £125m a year.

An independent commissioner will rule on cases where organisations decline information requests.

The consultation period on the draft bill will last until 12 July.

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