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Friday, October 22, 1999 Published at 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK


UK Politics

'Information changes not far enough'



Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, tells BBC News Online the changes to the draft Freedom of Information Bill do not go far enough.

"Despite the changes announced today there are still substantial defects in the freedom of information proposals.

Although the changes themselves will remove a number of obstacles to openness, they don't go far enough and there are still fundamental flaws at the heart of the measure.

The main problem is that ministers will not be compelled to disclose information in key areas and they will decide what to release and what to suppress.

So the public won't have any right to see things like scientific facts about new health hazards like BSE, government figures for the number of jobs affected by new proposals, official assessments for the safety implications for the privatising the underground or the air traffic control system.

The government has said it will change the bill to do more to encourage the voluntary release of background factual information but there is still no obligation to disclose the facts behind a new policy at the end of the day, which is an unbelievable omission.

Accident secrecy

The second unjustifiable exemption allows secrecy about investigations into fatal accidents, like the Paddington rail crash, dangerous consumer products or the treatment of laboratory animals.

If there is an investigation that could lead to criminal charges, all information relating to that investigation will be secret.

There has been a concession about investigations which will not relate to possible criminal offences where access will be easier. But where there are more serious matters with the possibility of an offence, then the information will be secret even if it has been decided not to prosecute.

The third thing we are unhappy about is that ministers and authorities, and not the information commissioner, will make the final decision whether disclosure will be in the public interest.

The home secretary said the commissioner will be able to recommend that information should be disclosed in the public interest but ministers could still ignore the recommendation if they wanted.

We think they should have to comply. They would have a right to appeal anyway under the bill, so we don't see why they shouldn't have to comply subject to an appeal.

'Ministerial discretion'

The government is cutting the time that authorities have to respond, which is helpful and a worthwhile reduction.

They are also knocking out some of the unjustified restrictions to which we objected and there are other measures which tilt some of the provisions more in the direction we wanted.

But in the key areas they have given very little ground and are preserving a great amount of ministerial discretion and, potentially, a large amount of secrecy.

We will now see what happens when the bill goes through Parliament. It is not at all clear whether these changes will satisfy Labour Members of Parliament."



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