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Monday, May 24, 1999 Published at 22:29 GMT 23:29 UK

UK Politics

Straw denies information bill 'retreat'

Jack Straw: "Balance between right to know and right to privacy"

Home Secretary Jack Straw has defended the government's draft bill on freedom of information against charges that it does not go far enough.

The BBC's Robin Oakley: A step towards the light
The proposed bill changes the criteria under which information from public sector bodies can be withheld from causing "substantial harm" - the wording in the Freedom of Information White Paper of 1997 - to "prejudice".

Critics say the change of emphasis amounts to a watering down of the bill.

[ image:  ]
But Mr Straw told the BBC's Newsnight programme that "substantial harm" was too inflexible a term to be applied across all areas covered by the bill.

Mr Straw said: "What is substantial harm in one area will be very different from another area.

"So what we have decided to do is to have bespoke tests applied to individual areas."

He told Newsnight: "Of course people should have the maximum right to know, but that has to be compatible with the working of good government.

"This is not just a precious point made by a politician.

"All organisations need privacy in order to make decisions.

"We are laying down as a statutory right that the maximum amount of information should be made available consistent with two competing rights - the right to privacy and the right to confidentiality where it is genuinely not in the public interest to make information available."

[ image: Freedom of information legislation could change the view from Whitehall]
Freedom of information legislation could change the view from Whitehall
But critics insist more should have been done to make information more freely available to the public.

Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: "The bill allows authorities to classify safety information as top secret.

"It replaces the code's public interest test by a voluntary test, making it easier for authorities to conceal misconduct."

The BBC's John Pienaar: Sceptics feel there will be more not less secrecy
For the first time, the bill guarantees citizens access to information held by bodies such as schools, hospitals, local and central government and the police.

But there are several exemptions, including matters of national security, defence, confidential, commercial and personal information.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information warned it was a "major retreat" on earlier proposals and warned it was weaker in some areas than the existing openness code.

It said the blanket exclusion of matters on policy development meant that scientific analysis on matters relating to the BSE crisis and genetically-modified foods could remain concealed.

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