“Deeply flawed” Freedom of Information Bill must be improved

The government’s Freedom of Information (FOI) proposals are still “deeply flawed and would allow ministers to suppress embarrassing information”, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

Today’s (17.11.99) Queen’s speech confirmed that a FOI Bill will be introduced in this session of Parliament. But the draft FOI bill published for consultation earlier in the year was heavily criticised. A total of 195 MPs, including 147 Labour MPs, recently signed a Parliamentary motion calling for major improvements. Two select committees, in the Commons and Lords, called for sweeping changes. Last month the Government announced a number of improvements, but rejected the most fundamental recommendations.

The Campaign said two changes above all were essential. First, several blanket exemptions, which give authorities a free hand in deciding what to release and what to withhold, must be replaced. The most unacceptable allows all information considered by government in drawing up new policies to be withheld, even the facts. “The public would have no right to see scientific advice about hazards like BSE, estimates of the number of jobs affected by a foxhunting ban or assessments of the safety implications of privatising the London underground or the air traffic control system. In this crucial area, the bill is weaker than the openness code introduced by the Conservatives in 1994” the Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said.

Second, the Information Commissioner – not ministers and authorities – should have the final say on whether disclosure is in the public interest. “An authority which has squandered public money, ignored reports of child abuse or endangered patients’ lives through incompetent cancer screening will decide for itself if the public interest justifies exposing its own malpractice. This is a recipe for a cover-up culture” the Campaign said. “The bill already allows authorities to appeal to a tribunal and the court against the Commissioner’s decisions if they think they are wrong. There is no case for allowing them to ignore the Commissioner altogether” it added.

A 2-page leaflet setting out the Campaign’s views in more detail can be read here.

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