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Tuesday, November 16, 1999 Published at 11:22 GMT

UK Politics

An end to 'unnecessary secrecy'?

A Freedom of Information Act was a manifesto pledge by Labour to put an end to "unnecessary secrecy in government".

The Queen's Speech
But Home Secretary Jack Straw has come in for considerable criticism for his freedom of information proposals.

Even when Mr Straw published concessions to the draft bill last month they were still condemned by campaigners who want transparency in public life as not going far enough.

It is almost two years since the original white paper on freedom of information was published by David Clark, who as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was in charge of the brief.

The white paper was delayed because of internal disagreements, which continued when responsibility for the issue was passed to the Home Office.

[ image: Jack Straw: Published concessions last month]
Jack Straw: Published concessions last month
The draft bill on freedom of information was published by the Home Office in May but was immediately criticised as a watered down version of the white paper.

The white paper had promised access to information unless it caused "substantial harm" but Mr Straw's draft bill proposes a considerably weaker test of "prejudice".

The draft bill also contained 21 exemptions where the public will not be allowed information that could "prejudice" the government unless Whitehall departments or other public authorities decide to release it under discretionary powers. The white paper only proposed seven exempt areas.

The draft bill also gives the home secretary the power to make further exemptions by secondary legislation.

Last month, the home secretary announced further concessions to the draft bill, including strengthening the role of the new information commissioner to give her the power to recommend the discretionary disclosure of information and be empowered to make sure it was complied with.

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. although cases involving criminal proceedings would remain exempt.

The concessions also included reducing the time limit on replies to requests for information from 40 calendar days to 20 working days.

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

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