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Thursday, July 29, 1999 Published at 22:04 GMT 23:04 UK

UK Politics

Double attack on information bill

Freedom of Information is a Labour manifesto pledge

The government's draft Freedom of Information Bill has come under attack from two separate committees of MPs and peers.

Both accused Home Secretary Jack Straw of "flunking" key issues and failing to deliver on promises to shake up the culture of secrecy pervading government.

Their reports said the current Bill left the disclosure of information too reliant on the discretion of ministers rather than reinforcing the rights of citizens to know how decisions affecting their lives were made.

Both committees called for radical changes to the draft proposals to shift the balance firmly towards the presumption that information should be released unless there were real and serious dangers that it could cause damage.

'Significant deficiencies'

The cross-party Public Administration Committee warned the Bill had "significant deficiencies".

It has also been attacked by freedom of information campaigners who say it is a "watered down" version of Labour's pre-election promises

The House of Lords committee set up to review the draft Bill said the legislation would have to be heavily amended if it was to deliver "open and accountable government".

MPs and peers warned clauses which exempted certain types of information from the Bill's terms - such as policy advice to ministers or information gathered during accident investigations - were too sweeping and should be defined as precisely as possible.

Clauses giving ministers the discretionary right to publish exempted information if it was in the public interest also came under fire.

Any such decisions should be open to review by the proposed independent Freedom of Information Commissioner who should be able to rule whether the right decision had been made.

'Overcautious and overprotective'

[ image: Jack Straw has already said parts of the Bill may be altered]
Jack Straw has already said parts of the Bill may be altered
Dr Tony Wright, chairman of the Public Administration select committee, accused Mr Straw of "flunking" the public interest issue and said it was essential that any decision based on what was in the public interest had to be taken by someone independent.

He said at the moment the Bill was more about "open government" than "freedom of information" and compared badly with right-to-know operating in other countries.

Dr Wright warned: "It's overcautious and overprotective for ministers.

"But it is a first draft and we'd expect the next draft to be better."

Lord Archer of Sandwell, the Lords' committee chairman, said unless there were "substantial" changes, it would not usher in the revolution which was promised in the White Paper published two years ago.

Both committees welcomed assurances from Mr Straw that he was prepared to listen to their recommendations and amend the provisional Bill.

They insisted the alterations would not have to throw in doubt plans to introduce legislation in the near future.

'Straw willing to re-think Bill'

Mr Straw has already indicated his readiness to re-think certain sections of the draft Bill, including exemption of information relating to investigations into crimes and accidents and the powers of the commissioner.

[ image: Alan Beith says the public must be given 'genuine access to information']
Alan Beith says the public must be given 'genuine access to information'
The Campaign for Freedom of Information which has led criticism of the proposed bill welcomed the recommendations in the two reports.

Its director Maurice Frankel said: "These reports call for the removal of some of the most objectionable elements of the draft bill.

"If acted upon, they would transform the bill from a weak measure likely to frustrate many of those seeking information into a robust right of access, of the kind the Government's own white paper promised."

In particular, he echoed the call for the information commissioner to be allowed to order disclosure and for fewer restrictions covering the release of policy advice to ministers.

'Minister's whims'

Under the current plans, he warned, huge volumes of information could be withheld "at the whim" of a minister whether or not it was likely to cause harm.

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesman Alan Beith called on Mr Straw to amend the bill in line with the committee's recommendations so that the "public have genuine access to information".

Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Newspaper Editors, said: "MPs and the range of other bodies which have condemned the draft Bill a betrayal of the principles set out in the original White Paper have no particular axe to grind.

"We all clearly share a simple common view that ordinary people are entitled to know what is done in our name, and with our money."

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Government draft proposals on the freedom of information

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