Press release: 21 June 1999
Campaign to overhaul "deeply flawed"
information bill backed by 25 organisations
The Campaign for Freedom of Information and Charter88 - backed by 23 other organisations - today launched a campaign to bring about "a radical overhaul of the government's deeply flawed and disappointing" draft Freedom of Information (FoI) bill. The campaign coincides with the appearance of the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to give evidence on the draft bill to the Public Administration select committee in the Commons.
The campaign is launched at a press conference today (June 21) with Mark Fisher MP (Lab), Alan Beith MP (Lib Dem) and Richard Shepherd MP (Conservative).
The draft bill, published by the Home Secretary last month, has been met with almost universal criticism. The organisations are calling on the government to fundamentally rethink the bill's provisions, and say that in its present form the bill fails to give the public the effective right to know that Labour has been promising for 25 years.
Statements from the organisations backing the campaign follow.
Pam Giddy, Director
"Freedom of Information is vital for a healthy democracy - we must have the right to know what they do in our name, with our money. Only then can we ensure that our interests are actually taken into account and we get better government. As the Government enters the second half of this administration, and as it re-assesses its political agenda, it should draw comfort from its successes in the constitutional field. It has kept its promises and acted radically - its constitutional reforms have seen its main successes. The Government should now realize it will gain no credit for an emasculated second chamber, for breaking its promise to hold a referendum on voting reform, and particularly for legislating for a toothless Freedom of Information Act."
Maurice Frankel, Director
Campaign for Freedom of Information
"The bill needs a complete overhaul to be acceptable. At present it (a) allows all regulatory bodies to withhold any information obtained during any investigation, including those into the causes of accidents - even if disclosure could not harm enforcement action (b) allows the police to withhold information obtained during investigations - contrary to the recommendations of the Macpherson report into the Stephen Lawrence murder (c) allows government departments to withhold any information they have considered when drawing up policy - even if disclosure would not cause harm or involves factual information or scientific advice on health hazards (d) allows these bodies to refuse even to say whether they hold any of the above kinds of information (e) encourages authorities to release exempt information in the public interest, but allows them to insist on knowing the applicant's motives for seeking the information, and to prohibit the applicant from making the information public (f) prohibits the Information Commissioner, who will enforce the bill, from ordering authorities to disclose exempt information on public interest grounds even where there has been serious misconduct (g) allows authorities to withhold information which could lead to them being prosecuted for an offence."
Sheila McKechnie, Director
"Freedom of information is crucial in recognising citizens as consumers in public life. The public bodies and government departments that the legislation covers govern our lives, so these institutions must be held accountable, and answer to the people they serve. In situations such as these where citizens don't have a choice, it's all the more important that we strengthen the principles of redress and access to information. In CA's view, the provisions in the draft Bill will undermine the rights of the individual to obtain information about institutions that affect his or her quality-of-life, and the ability of CA to campaign on behalf of consumers."
Anna Bradley, Director
The National Consumer Council
"The National Consumer Council believes consumers should have a general right of access to information about government, the advice it receives and the decisions it makes. For instance, consumers should be able to see how advisory committees decide which drugs should be available on the NHS. Consumers should have access to information about wrongdoing by public authorities. And we should be able to see how government makes safety decisions and whether to act on recommendations from major accident inquiries. As it stands, the Freedom of Information Bill contains far too many exemptions. Under the Bill, public authorities and companies will have carte blanche to label information as commercially sensitive, or supplied confidentially. Consumers may be denied the information they want. The Bill falls well short of our expectations."
Marjory Hall, National Chairperson
"Townswomen's Guilds feels that, today, more than ever, a citizen must be able to trust its democracy and its public bodies should not use secrecy as a weapon. Hence, Townswomen's Guilds welcomes the present government's attempt to promote openness in public bodies. However we feel the draft bill has failed to meet the expectations of citizens by including far too many exemptions in the Bill. One exemption, in particular, is of great concern to our organisation, which has been long involved in the campaign over genetically modified food. We believe it is fundamental for citizens to be able to know how decisions are taken on this issue. We believe we should have a clear right to know what scientific advice the government has been receiving when deciding an issue that affects us all as consumers. Yet, under clause 28/1 it will be possible for the concerned body to withhold this information without having to demonstrate that any harm or prejudice will result from its disclosure. This is clearly a step backward and is totally unacceptable."
John Wadham, Director
"Liberty believes that the draft bill is deeply flawed. A number of the provisions are weaker than those in the existing Open Government Code of Practice. We are extremely concerned that the original White Paper's 'substantial harm' test has been replaced by the far weaker test of 'prejudice'. The draft bill also includes wholly unjustifiable blanket exemptions for large amounts of information held by the police, apparently rejecting the recommendations of the MacPherson Inquiry against the creation of 'class' exemptions for information held by the police. Liberty believes that he intelligence services should be subject to the freedom of information legislation, but under the draft proposals, the intelligence services will be completely exempt. We are also concerned by the proposal that public authorities would not have to supply the Information Commissioner with information indicating that they are guilty of an offence. The draft Bill needs substantial changes to ensure that this country adopts effective and rigorous freedom of information legislation."
Andrew Puddephatt, Director
"Article 19 has compared the Bill to legislation in similar jurisdictions and finds it overbroad and overcautious. The section setting out the 'Right to Information' contains more caveats than guarantees of public access. The tests for withholding information are too weak, the number, breadth and duplication of exemptions excessive, and the discretion granted to public authorities to withhold information far too wide. The law itself would be subject to any other law, effectively stripping it of power. Without amendment, this document will not serve the public interest, and will ensure that the UK remains one of the most secretive democracies in the world."
Liana Stupples, Campaigns Director
Friends of the Earth
"The draft Freedom of Information Bill is beyond belief. Friends of the Earth is alarmed that the Government plans to repeal existing information laws that, since 1993, have given people explicit rights to environmental information. This is of major consequence to wide sectors of society yet the Government have failed to publish any details of how these rights will be protected. The draft Bill will need drastic changes if we are not to be denied rights we have had for over 6 years and contravene EC law."
Debbie Tripley, Company Lawyer
"Environmental issues affect people directly from the quality of the air they breathe to the food they put in their mouths. Everyone has a right o know what state the environment is in and what the threats to it are. Genuine freedom of information offers a real opportunity for people to participate in decisions that affect their world. In 1994 the UK Government gave the go-ahead to THORP nuclear reprocessing facility at Sellafield arguing that an economic report by Touche Ross showed there would be serious economic consequences if the authorisation was refused. Despite repeated requests by Greenpeace and others for this information, it was never produced. Much later it emerged that the report had never actually existed. The THORP plant went ahead. An effective FOI policy would give people the information, they need to assess the viability, need and risks of nuclear reprocessing, radioactive dumping, fossil fuel exploration, toxic release, genetic modification of the food chain, everything, in fact which affects the world we live in."
John Foster, General Secretary
National Union of Journalists
"The NUJ is deeply concerned at the failings in the Bill. After waiting decades for Labour to make good its promise of freedom of information we find a proposal which in some ways is a backward step. Journalists want to bring information to the public but will be restricted by the power of authorities to deny it without explanation. We are concerned too at the power to require some applicants not to publish information they receive. We are also trade unionists and are appalled at the ban on all information on accidents and health and safety. It must be changed!"
Paul Noon, General Secretary
Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists
"Government information must be made available to the public unless government can show absolutely that disclosure would be harmful, says IPMS, the civil service union. IPMS is bitterly disappointed that the bill has been seriously watered down. The Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists represents more than 40,000 civil service staff including government information officers and health and safety inspectors. IPMS members in the Health and Safety Executive say it is in the public interest for safety information to be accessible to everyone. IPMS scientists also believe that scientific advice should be available to ensure public safety is not compromised as it has been in the past."
Bob Satchwell, Director
The Society of Editors
"The Society of Editors supports the Campaign for Freedom of Information in pointing out deficiencies in the Freedom of Information Bill. What should be a liberalising measure could be transformed into the erosion of freedom. The substantial harm test for keeping information away from the public is reduced to one of prejudice, a word we should expect public bodies to use over and over again to withhold information that ought to be released. Combining the roles of the data protection registrar and the information commissioner may work against the public right to know. Far from helping the free flow of information the new Bill might further inhibit journalistic investigation, particularly in television. We expect the government to go into the new millennium with at least one of its key promises on openness fulfilled. The Bill in its present form will not meet that promise."
The Newspaper Society
"The draft Freedom of Information Bill needs radical reform if it is to succeed in empowering citizen and journalist alike to find out what is being done in his name or with his money at national, regional and local level. It must create the obligation to release any information requested, unless that disclosure would cause substantial, significant harm bereft of countervailing public interest grounds. "Modernised", 'joined up government' should institute openness across government, co-ordination of democratic accountability, freedom of expression and freedom of information, instead of threaten the creation of new barriers to public participation and scrutiny. Press and public must urge the government to deliver its promises and produce legislation that will actually reverse our ingrained culture of official secrecy."
Sherry Jespersen, Director of Communications
The Library Association
"The Library Association believes that the right to information is essential if people are to exercise their democratic rights and make informed choices. Libraries of all kinds have a responsibility both to guarantee and to facilitate universal access to information and ideas. We welcome the Draft Bill's intention to give a general right of access to information held by public bodies and the Home Secretary's determination to bring about a wholesale change in culture throughout the public sector. However, we cannot agree that the Draft Bill is weighted decisively in favour of openness. The extensive use of class exemptions is inimical to the principle of freedom of information. It is hard to see how class exemptions, combined with the very weak prejudice test and the new right of authorities to know what use is to be made of information, can be said to add up to a right to know."
The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom
"The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom is an independent membership organisation which seeks to promote a more diverse, democratic and accountable media. We fully share the CFOI's concerns about the bill. There are too many escape hatches for the commercial as well as State sector to deny access to information. There should be no class exemption for commercial confidentiality and no new gagging powers against journalists. While GM food producers and their lobbyists have met this government more than a hundred times, the blanket exemption of all information relating to the formulation or development of government policy‰ falls far short of opening up government to the people. As media mergers proliferate and commercial pressure on regulators intensifies, it is vital that the process as well as the outcome of decisions is open to substantial public scrutiny as the foundation for democratic participation in decisions affecting our information age."
Alison V Gray, General Secretary
The Writers' Guild
"Freedom of expression goes hand-in-hand with freedom of information. Throughout its existence, the Writers' Guild of Great Britain has opposed censorship in all its guises. The failure to introduce an effective Freedom of Information Bill means that unnecessary limits are placed on the free flow of information. That is a form of censorship and we believe it is wrong."
Sir Neville Purvis KCB, Director General
British Safety Council
"What shocks us is the ban on information about health and safety. We want it replaced with a duty to release information unless disclosure is proved to be harmful. We particularly want the government to scrap its intention to prevent disclosure of information obtained during investigation of accidents. Authorities should not be allowed to classify health and safety information as top secret as this would make it easier to conceal misconduct, mismanagement and breaches of legal requirements. The fresh air of freedom of information is beneficial because it allows people to comment and advise and ensure organisations cannot hide mistakes that have a huge impact on the public."
Lorraine Gwinnutt, Press Officer
Association of Personal Injury Lawyers
"APIL is deeply concerned by aspects of the draft Freedom of Information Bill, particularly where it excludes vital information with direct relevance to public safety. The fact that details of issues such as food safety, and reports on major incidents such as road, rail, ferry or air accidents will be kept secret under a draft Freedom of Information Bill defies belief. This association has been pressing the government for a new accident and investigation bureau, precisely to make such information available quickly so interim steps can be taken to ensure repetitions of major accidents never happen. The exemption of safety information under the Bill will simply serve to protect those who, through negligence, kill or injure people."
Graeme Bell, Director
The Town and Country Planning Association
"I would like to support the Campaign from our experience in the field of town and country planning. This is a quasi-judicial process of development planning and development control, which must command public confidence in its execution. Local authorities are at the sharp end of the process and are quite properly under increasing scrutiny, from communities that take a close interest in their environment. Under the terms of the draft Bill, the public may believe that local authorities or government, may be withholding information regarding the impacts of a proposed development even if they are not. Our members have experience of proposed developments ranging from cement works to waste incinerators, which can prove very controversial. Transparency is crucial, not least to councillors in whose wards the proposed development lies, if they are not to be put in an impossible situation."
Charles Medawar, Director
Social Audit Ltd
"Intense secrecy surrounds the UK drug control system. Most members of the Committee on Safety of Medicines have close links with manufacturers, but it is still impossible to discover even what potential conflicts of interests members have disclosed in their discussions about individual drugs. Social Audit's response to the Home Office consultation (http://www.socialaudit.org.uk) emphasises that the proposed Bill would restrict even the trickle of information available under the 1994 voluntary Code of Practice. Our website contains abundant evidence of the abuse of secrecy in this area, illustrating why it counts as a major cause of sickness and ill-health."
Stephen Joseph, Director
"Government action on transport affects people's lives very directly. Information on this is vital if people are to have confidence in it. We are concerned that the draft FOI Bill would continue or even tighten secrecy in areas of transport policy and administration that are of deep public concern, such as transport safety, planned road building and the performance of public transport operators."
Revd John Kennedy, Secretary for Political Affairs
"The Government's commitment to Freedom of Information in its white paper was greatly welcome; the Bill, however, is a disappointment. The test of 'substantial harm' has been replaced by that of 'prejudice'. That term is so feeble as to suggest that information will be suppressed if it is simply embarrassing to the Government. Blanket bans in the areas of public life, commercial secrecy, the economy, international health and safety regulations, and policy-making should be removed. The exemption for information attaching to criminal or accident investigations is too broad. The Freedom of Information Commissioner should have the power to overrule the refusal to provide information by public authorities."
Stephen Alambritis, Head of Press & Parliamentary Affairs
Federation of Small Businesses
"5 Million micro businesses need clarity, certainty and predictability in their affairs and in particular they need access to information in all areas of public life. In particular, information in the commercial domain, information on the economy and certainly information in policy making and in the world of health and safety is sorely desired. They need this information on which to base decisions on which the business's survival and employees' future depends. Furthermore, many of these businesses are from time to time open to an investigation by tax enforcement agencies, local authorities and it is important that all information is laid out before such in investigation so that the business can mount its defence. The freedom of information bill as currently drafted, will lead to opaque and hidden information."
Elspeth Hyams, Director
The Institute of Information Scientists
"The Institute of Information Scientists is concerned that the new Draft Bill for Freedom of Information sacrifices the public interest in accountability to the Government's interest in avoiding politically embarrassing or inconvenient disclosures. The new Bill imposes limitations on the obligation to publish where there are none under the present Code of Practice on Access. Our members, who may work for Government bodies, are nonetheless governed by professional ethics, which emphasise our responsibility to facilitate wide access to information, to pursue truth and, where conflicts arise, to resolve the conflict. We therefore support the campaign by the Campaign for Freedom of Information."
Nancy Tait MBE
Occupational and Environmental Diseases Association
"During 30 years work in Health & Safety I cannot recall meeting or hearing of one person endangered by being told of a risk, but I have spoken with thousands who have died because the cancer risk of asbestos was concealed for many years from workers and the general public by Government Departments as well as Industry. OEDA is often asked by those undertaking research to find a treatment for mesothelioma, to raise funds for chemotherapy clinical trials. We have asked if the results of trials world-wide could be collated in a central registry to prevent the continued use of those drugs or treatments shown to be ineffective. The answer? Drug companies require an undertaking that results will be confidential. Small wonder that the hopes of so many doctors, patients and family are dashed."