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Monday, May 24, 1999 Published at 18:06 GMT 19:06 UK

UK Politics

Defining freedom of information

Jack Straw: Changed "substantial harm" test to "prejudice"

The crux of the draft Freedom of Information Bill is the definition of "prejudice".

The probability of whether a disclosure under the bill will prejudice a public body has replaced the previous benchmark proposed by the government of "substantial harm".

The "substantial harm" was included in the Freedom of Information White Paper published by the government two years ago.

Independent commissioner

But on Monday Home Secretary Jack Straw confirmed the definition the independent commissioner for freedom of information requests would have to apply would whether disclosure could cause prejudice.

The Home Office consultation document says: "After further careful consideration our view is that a single omnibus substantial harm test cannot work properly for the range of separate exemptions proposed."

The department cites the example that a disclosure which may be substantial to a health trust may not be for a body involved in international relations.

Probability of prejudice

Instead the test in the bill is the probability of prejudice - real, actual or "of substance".

The new information commissioner will have the power to review decisions made by authorities to ensure that the risk of prejudice was real and not "trivial or frivolous".

Some bodies, such as the secret services and the National Criminal Intelligence Service will be exempt from the bill, as will courts and other judicial bodies.

[ image: Security services are exempt]
Security services are exempt
Information relating to "communications with the royal family or household", requests which would endanger the physical or mental health or safety of an individual, information provided in confidence, trade secrets are also exempt

But the bill does establish that individuals will have the a "general right of access to information held by public authorities"

It sets out some areas where disclosures would prejudice the organisation.

These include defence, the economy, international relations and the economy.

Information from law enforcement agencies such as the police is exempt if it would prejudice a criminal investigation.


Any public body which denies a request for information must do so on the ground that it is exempt information or that the cost of complying with the request would exceed an appropriate limit.

If the request is "vexatious" or repeats an earlier request then the authority does not have to give notice of the reason for its refusal.

Public authorities will also have discretion over some disclosures in some circumstances, such as when the applicant does not have the right to have the information disclosed and disclosure would be lawful.

Other information which is exempt includes that which is accessible by other means and also that which is going to be published in the future but should not be published before that day.

This could include information relating to research projects, statistics which are normally published, for example, annually or quarterly.

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Home Office - Consultation on draft Freedom of Information Bill

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