Backbench Freedom of Information Bill increases pressure for government to legislate

A backbench Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill introduced in the House of Commons today will highlight dissatisfaction over the government’s slow progress in bringing forward its own long-promised Bill.

The Bill is being tabled by Andrew Mackinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock, backed by a cross-party coalition led by Dr David Clark MP, who until the July reshuffle was the cabinet minister responsible for FOI. The Bill has been drafted by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, and builds on the proposals set out in Dr Clark’s FOI white paper (“Your Right to Know”), published last December.

Mr Mackinlay said he hoped his bill could still persuade the government to find time for FOI in the coming legislative session. The government’s programme will be announced in the Queen’s Speech next Tuesday (November 24), though it is thought that FOI will not feature. Ministers say they will publish a draft Bill for consultation in January or February – this draft had originally been expected in spring this year. Actual legislation seems unlikely before the November 1999 session of Parliament, and is not guaranteed even then.

Mr Mackinlay said: “the Labour Party has been committed to this vital reform for 25 years, and it is disappointing that we are still not ready to legislate. The government itself should be impatient to put this law on the statute books, to demonstrate that it trusts the public with the facts and has broken decisively with the old, unacceptable style of hushing up anything inconvenient. We should not be tentative about freedom of information – it is a benchmark of our democratic rights.”

Dr David Clark said: “A radical FOI Act would shift the whole political culture of our country. That is what the white paper aimed at. I had hoped that change would be well underway by now and I regret that the draft Bill is not yet available, and the actual legislation not being introduced. We have promised this legislation for so long that we will be judged harshly if we fail live to up to expectations that people rightly have of us.”

The Campaign for Freedom of Information’s director, Maurice Frankel, said: “often secrecy is used to stop the public realising that policies are not working, targets are not being achieved or things are being done that people would find unacceptable. A Freedom of Information Act would help keep government honest.”

The Campaign said the Bill would help to address problems such as:

  • BSE: Between 1989 and 1991, Professor Roy Anderson of Oxford University repeatedly asked the Ministry of Agriculture for access to its BSE data base. On each occasion it refused. When he was finally able to analyse the figures, in 1996, they showed that the controls on contaminated cattle feed had not been properly implemented. If known about at the time this finding could have prevented a quarter of a million cattle from being infected, substantially reducing the cost of the epidemic – and the risk to public health.
  • Parents were denied information about the high failure rate of hole-in-the-heart operations on babies at the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Nine out of 13 babies operated on by one of the surgeons died although nationally, the survival rate was 9 out of 10. But although the surgeons and the hospital knew that their mortality rate was unacceptably higher than the national figure, parents were given misleading information about the success rates, the true statistics were concealed from the health authority and GPs, and the surgeons were allowed to carry on.They have since been struck off the medical register.
  • The Scott Inquiry showed that ministers had repeatedly given Parliament misleading information about government policy on supplying arms to Iraq, after secretly revising arms sales guidelines. This approach was justified by the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Howe, on the grounds that the government “is not necessarily to be criticised for a difference between policy and presentation of policy” and by a senior civil servant who commented that “half a picture can be accurate”. Scott reported that the government feared that public pressure might force it to drop its policy of arming Saddam Hussein and secrecy was used to prevent such pressure.

Mr Mackinlay’s Freedom of Information Bill would create a right of access to information held by all government departments and all public authorities at central and local level. Information could be withheld only if disclosure would cause “substantial harm” to interests such as defence, international relations, law enforcement and commercial confidentiality. Even exempt information could be disclosed in the public interest, for example, if there had been serious wrongdoing. The Bill would be enforced by a new Information Commissioner with the power to order government to disclose.

The Bill is being introduced under the 10-minute rule procedure, which allows a measure to be debated – but does not lead to actual legislation. Its co-sponsors are: Chris Mullin MP (Lab), chair of the Home Affairs select committee; Rhodri Morgan MP (Lab), chair of the Public Administration select committee; Archy Kirkwood MP (Lib Dem) chair of the Social Security select committee; Tony Wright MP (Lab); Mark Fisher MP (Lab); Dr David Clark MP (Lab); Ronnie Campbell MP (Lab); Richard Shepherd MP (Con); Roseanna Cunningham MP (SNP); Elfyn Llwyd MP (Plaid Cymru); and Martin Bell MP (Independent).

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