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Friday, October 22, 1999 Published at 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK

UK Politics

Straw unveils information bill

The draft bill has been criticised for not going far enough

Home Secretary Jack Straw has announced a series of concessions to the government's criticised plans for a Freedom of Information Bill.

Jack Straw: "We've strengthened the power of the Commissioner"
The home secretary said the new law would produce a huge change in the behaviour of government.

But he said that policy advice to ministers would remain confidential and the government could not be forced to reveal information.

The changes have come in for criticism by campaigners for more transparency in government, who say they do not go far enough.

Mr Straw said the role of a new information commissioner overseeing the release of information would be strengthened.

[ image: Jack Straw:
Jack Straw: "Get the balance right"
The commissioner would have the power to recommend the discretionary disclosure of information and be empowered to make sure it was complied with, he said.

A blanket ban on the release of information on accident, health and safety and fraud inquiries will also be lifted and replaced with a test of whether the information would be harmful.

But cases involving criminal proceedings would remain exempt.

The time limit on replies to requests for information would be reduced from 40 calendar days to 20 working days.

But he confirmed the bill would exclude all advice and factual information given to ministers.

Mr Straw said: "By definition almost all the pressure from campaigners has come from those who wish for greater openness, but it's the government's job to balance that need for greater openness against the need for privacy for individuals and for confidentiality for public authorities."

The BBC's Laura Trevelyan: "The Home Secretary has made one concession"
The home secretary also announced that the bill would include a requirement on government departments to consider whether there was a greater public interest in disclosing documents than withholding them.

Public authorities would also be required to give reasons for withholding information not covered by exemptions.

He also proposed to remove a ban on the "jigsaw" release of information that could provide a bigger picture of sensitive areas when placed together.

[ image:  ]
Mr Straw's draft bill had been heavily criticised for reinforcing secretive government and keeping important information out of the public domain.

Although the home secretary said the bill would be changed as it progressed through parliament, the Campaign for the Freedom of Information criticised the amendments for not going further.

Maurice Frankel said: "In some areas the commissioner will be able to order disclosure, but where the question is whether disclosure is in the public interest the commissioner will only be able to recommend disclosure, not order it, and ministers will be able to say 'we do not agree it is in the public interest'.

Maurice Frankel: "They haven't gone far enough"
"I think that's bad news because if authorities are trying to trying to conceal the fact they have made mistakes, if you invite them to disclose their mistakes in the public interest, they will say 'no we won't'."

Liberal Democrat constitutional spokesman Robert Maclennan also criticised ministers for erring on the side of caution and secrecy.

He said: "While we acknowledged that our own representations have contributed to shifting the government's mind in the right direction, the home secretary has not moved nearly far enough."

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Campaign for Freedom of Information

Home Office - Freedom of Information Unit

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