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Monday, May 24, 1999 Published at 18:03 GMT 19:03 UK

UK Politics

Another victory for Sir Humphrey?

Yes Minister: Fictional Whitehall mandarins in control

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

If there is one certainty about open government it is that it always looks a better idea from the opposition benches than from Downing Street.

In its 1997 election manifesto new Labour proclaimed: "unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions."

It cited the arms-to-Iraq scandal that rocked the previous Tory administration as an example, and it promised radical freedom of information laws to produce more open government.

Two years later, and after much confusion and countless delays, Home Secretary Jack Straw has found himself at the centre of accusations of a sell-out after unveiling the long awaited bill.

Critics claim the proposals have been dramatically watered down and that the government, which has earned itself a reputation for secrecy and central control, has reneged on its pledges.

'The mice have got at it'

At the centre of the row are claims that the test for what can be legitimately withheld by public bodies has been weakened to the point of uselessness and that the inner workings of central government have been exempted.

Six months after Labour's election victory, Civil Service Minister Dr David Clark unveiled proposals which he insisted would end Whitehall's "culture of secrecy" forever.

[ image: Dr David Clark was sacked after promising to end the 'culture of secrecy']
Dr David Clark was sacked after promising to end the 'culture of secrecy'
Two years later, he has been sacked and his white paper has been revamped by Mr Straw's department.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Alan Beith claimed the impression had been given that "while the policy has been hidden away in the Home Office, the mice have got at it."

Labour backbencher Rhodri Morgan claimed there was a suspicion that the "Sir Humphreys had drawn the covered wagons of Whitehall into a circle to deny information".

And Tory Richard Shepherd branded the announcement a "significant and substantial retreat" which left too much discretion on what should and should not be released in the hands of central government.

Dr Clark's "secrecy test", requiring public bodies wishing to suppress information to prove "substantial harm" could be caused by the release of the facts, has been dumped.

In its place comes a new test of "prejudice" which critics claims is so woolly and weak that most bodies will be able to drive a coach and horses through it.

Dr Clark also suggested that decision-making and policy advice in central government would be covered by his proposals.

Under the new proposals, Cabinet papers and minutes, legal advice to ministers and inter-ministerial correspondence on policy will be automatically excluded.

The plans particularly angered the Liberal Democrats who had been promised freedom of information legislation by Tony Blair as part of their policy of "constructive opposition."

And the Tories made much of the fact that the draft bill was being published on the same day the government was refusing to reveal information about alleged plans to hand tax powers over to Brussels.

Straw faces pressure for rethink

It now seems certain that there will be a concerted campaign to beef up the legislation before it gets onto the statue books.

And there are even concerns that the government will not manage to do that before the end of the current Parliament, further delaying the laws.

[ image: Jack Straw is used to a bumpy ride]
Jack Straw is used to a bumpy ride
The government is still smarting from the backbench rebellion over welfare cuts and is facing fresh revolts over asylum laws.

But it could yet run into more trouble over the freedom of information bill - this time from a cross party campaign to have it reformed.

It also seems likely pressure groups will launch attempts to strengthen the legislation.

Jack Straw is not a man to back down. He has already weathered a series of both personal and political storms.

His turned his son in for drug dealing, and he has sparked anger at his decisions on General Pinochet and attempts to ban publication of leaked reports of the Lawrence inquiry. So a few more minor skirmishes over secrecy are unlikely to throw him.

He will argue, with much credibility, that the laws still mark a huge step forward towards open government.

For the first time ever they give ordinary people a right to demand information from all public bodies.

And only time will tell how powerful a weapon that will become for those seeking facts from traditionally secretive departments both in Whitehall and elsewhere.

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A-Z of Parliament
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24 May 99 | UK Politics
Defining freedom of information

24 May 99 | UK Politics
Right to information promised

24 May 99 | UK Politics
Freedom to know what?

24 May 99 | Education
Parents to be given right to know more

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Campaign for Freedom of Information

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