Information bill “will still allow cover-ups”

Dangers to public safety and damaging mistakes by ministers could still be suppressed despite new government amendments to the Freedom of Information Bill published today (March 24), according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The amendments would provide a slight improvement to the bill’s public interest test – but still give ministers and local councillors the right to veto disclosure, the Campaign said. The main change would be that quangos would no longer be able to veto disclosures in their own right, but would have to ask a minister to do so for them. The amendments have been tabled for the bill’s Commons report stage, which will be on April 4 and 5.

A number of blanket exemptions in the bill mean there will be no right to information at all in key areas, the Campaign said. Information about dangers to public safety like the Paddington rail crash, abattoirs which fail to comply with BSE regulations or dealers selling dangerous cars will be exempt. So is anything to do with the formulation of government policy, including the facts on which it is based. The amendments make no change to these restrictions.

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said:

“Disclosure on grounds of overriding public interest is the only chance of getting this information, yet ministers insist on the ultimate right to say no. They claim it would be ‘profoundly undemocratic’ to allow the Information Commissioner to compel elected politicians to reveal information.1  But there is nothing undemocratic about requiring politicians to tell the truth. A veto would be an irresistible temptation to suppress details of their own mistakes or misconduct.

“Dame Shirley Porter would be able to veto disclosure about Westminster Council’s housing policy; Doncaster councillors would be able to suppress evidence of their own financial malpractice. Ministers refused to tell the truth about arms sales to Iraq, despite constant Parliamentary pressure to do so. Information which would undermine crucial policies, on which a minister’s reputation depends, can be withheld under the bill”

The Information Commissioner under Ireland’s 1997 Freedom of Information Act can compel disclosure on public interest grounds, and cannot be overruled by ministers, the Campaign pointed out. It wants the UK bill to follow suit. Nearly 200 MPs signed an Early Day Motion last year calling on the government to adopt this approach.

References

  1. Home Office minister Mike O’Brien, during the bill’s committee stage, 8/2/00.
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