Joint letter to the Prime Minister about the delay in introducing an FOI bill

The Rt Hon Tony Blair MP
Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
London SW1A 2AA

19 November 1998


Dear Prime Minister,

I am writing on behalf of the Campaign and other organisations to express our dismay at reports that a Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill has been dropped from the coming year’s legislative programme.

We appreciate that many measures are competing for a place in the Parliamentary timetable but nevertheless believe FOI ought to be a high priority. The reform has a unique place amongst current government commitments. An FOI Act featured in the Labour party’s manifestos of 1974, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992 and 1997. A measure which has been consistently promised over 25 years ought to be an irresistible candidate for early implementation.

If FOI is not introduced in the coming Parliamentary session, the earliest an Act can come into force is 2001. This will be a long wait for these important new rights. As there has been no commitment on the timing of the legislation the delay may be even greater. It is possible that an Act may not be in operation this side of the next general election.

The prospect of such a delay will be deeply frustrating for those who are now denied information – and may even damage the government’s ability to discharge its obligations. The former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Donald Acheson, recently told the BSE inquiry that information about the possible BSE contamination of medical products such as vaccines had been withheld from him, while he was CMO, because of the secrecy imposed by the present medicines legislation. The delay in bringing forward a Freedom of Information Act will allow such extraordinary secrecy to continue.

It may also have implications for the longer term. At the Campaign’s annual Awards in 1996, you said that FOI is “absolutely fundamental to how we see politics developing in this country over the next few years”. We welcomed this statement both because of the unambiguous terms in which you expressed your commitment to reform and for your recognition of the central importance FOI would play in the work of the new government. We fear that the longer delayed the legislation is, the more difficult it will be to achieve this shift in culture.

The impact of an Act of course depends on its substance. The FOI white paper of December 1997 was widely welcomed. We hope the forthcoming draft Bill will fully reflect the White Paper’s principles, and that the proposals on scope, enforcement, ‘substantial harm’ and charging will not be revised in ways likely to limit the citizen’s effective right to official information.

If the measure fails to find a place in the legislative session after the next, many people will believe it is dead. We hope the government will avoid this by giving an explicit commitment on the timing of the legislation (as opposed to a draft Bill). This should go beyond the usual statement that it will be introduced when parliamentary business permits, and make it clear that the legislation will be introduced in the third session of this Parliament. In the absence of such a commitment, there is bound to be speculation about its future and a reform which should reflect great credit on the government may instead become a source of disappointment and reproach.

Yours sincerely,

James Cornford
Co-chairman, Campaign for Freedom of Information

Co-signed by

Malcolm Smart, Deputy Director
Article 19

Jonathan Baume, General Secretary
Association of First Division Civil Servants

Denise Kitchener, Executive Director
Association of Personal Injury Lawyers

Arthur Chappell, Executive Committee Member
British Humanist Association

Sir Neville Purvis, Director General
British Safety Council

Mike Baker, Chief Executive
British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection

Roger Bolton, General Secretary
Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph & Theatre Union

Jonathan Hardy, National Secretary
Campaign for Press & Broadcasting Freedom

Jean Mossman, Chief Executive

Andrew Puddephatt, Director
Charter 88

Christopher Underwood, General Secretary
Chartered Institute of Journalists

Rt Revd Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford
Church of England, Board for Social Responsibility

Marianne Rigge, Director
College of Health

Sheila McKechnie, Director
Consumers’ Association

Rosie Boycott, Editor
The Express

Tim Lobstein, Co-director
Food Commission

Tony Juniper, Policy & Campaigns Director
Friends of the Earth

Kevin Dunion, Director
Friends of the Earth Scotland

Deborah Tripley, Company Lawyer

Alan Rusbridger, Editor
The Guardian

Geoffrey Elliott, President
Guild of Editors

Simon Kelner, Editor
The Independent

Helen Shaw, Co-director

Anne Owers, Director

John Wadham, Director

Ross Shimmon, Chief Executive
Library Association

Revd John Kennedy, Secretary for Political Affairs
Methodist Church

Ruth Evans, Director
National Consumer Council

John Foster, General Secretary
National Union of Journalists

J McCusker, General Secretary
Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance

Nancy Tait MBE, Director
Occupational & Environmental Diseases Association

Claire Rayner, Chair
Patients Association

Peter Beaumont, Development Director
Pesticides Trust

Jon Slattery, Acting Editor
Press Gazette

Stephen Shaw, Director
Prison Reform Trust

Karen Ashton, Acting Director
Public Law Project

John Sheldon & Barry Reamsbottom, Joint General Secretary
Public and Commercial Services Union

Janet Lynch, Clerk of Central Committee
Quaker Social Responsibility & Education

Richard Smith Jackson MBE, Hon Chairman

Derek Manson-Smith, Co-ordinator
Scottish Campaign for Freedom of Information

Charles Medawar, Director
Social Audit

Marjory Hall, National Chairman
Townswomen’s Guilds

Dave Prentis, Deputy General Secretary

Revd Peter Brain, Secretary for Church & Society
United Reformed Church

Barry Coates, Director
World Development Movement

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