Tuesday, June 29, 1999 Published at 16:21 GMT 17:21 UK
Concessions hint on info bill
Critics say the draft bill would make it harder to access infromation
Ministers may re-think a key part of their draft Freedom of Information Bill after being stung by criticism from MPs and campaigners.
Home Office minister Lord Williams of Mostyn has signalled that the government is willing to consider strengthening the test that officials would have to use before deciding whether to release information to the public.
Under the draft bill some material could be withheld from the public if its release was deemed likely to "prejudice" the working of government.
Lord Williams told a Lords committee, which is examining the bill, that the government would give "careful consideration" to toughening the test so that information could only be kept secret if there was a risk of causing "substantial" harm.
However, he stressed the final decision would lie with Home Secretary Jack Straw.
If agreed, the move could help placate critics who have claimed the draft bill would actually reduce the public's right to obtain information from public bodies.
Ministers defend bill
"I don't think we are as bad as we are always painted," he told the committee.
Mr Straw indicated earlier this month that the government was willing to re-think some of the most controversial areas of the widely-attacked draft bill.
Lord Williams said he was "personally uneasy" about parts of the bill that would impose blanket exemptions on disclosing certain information.
But he maintained that the government was correct to lay conditions on who the information was granted to and to what use it could be put.
Inquest material disclosing that someone was suffering but had not died from Aids could be released to the family, but not necessarily to a tabloid newspaper, he said.
"I personally believe that some information, although it should be disclosed, should not be disclosed to the world at large," he said.
He told peers there was more of a "culture of inertia" in Whitehall than a culture of secrecy.
Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information welcomed Lord Williams's willingness to re-think the harm test.
"It's good to hear they are saying they are reconsidering," he said.
"They seem to have been taken completely by surprise that the public, having discovered there's no right to know in the bill, are very unhappy about it."
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