“Minimal” amendments do little to improve flawed information bill

Ministers have rejected calls to improve the Freedom of Information Bill, and are proposing only a handful of minor changes for the bill’s repeatedly delayed committee stage in the House of Lords. The limited nature of the government’s amendments, published today, were criticised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The Campaign was particularly critical of the fact that the government has refused to signficantly narrow the scope of the bill’s ‘class exemption’ for information about the formulation of government policy, an exemption which allows even the facts on which decisions are based to be withheld.

The amendments propose merely to remove “statistical information” from this exemption, and then only after a decision has been taken. “This is a derisory change” the Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said. “It highlights the fact that even statistics can be withheld under this exemption, while a decision is being considered. A factual description of existing practice could also be suppressed, with only the tables of figures released”. Policy information in general could be disclosed only if there was an overriding public interest, and subject to a ministerial veto. The Campaign said that in this area the bill was still weaker than the openness code of practice introduced by the Conservatives in 1994, which only allows policy information to be withheld if disclosure would “harm the frankness and candour of internal discussion”.

The Campaign was critical of the fact that nothing had been done to improve access to information held by prosecuting bodies such as safety authorities, who could withhold information about routine inspections of railway safety, or nuclear and other hazardous plants. A third excessive exemption protects information which “in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person…would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”.

Although ministers could overrule the bill’s Information Commissioner, if he or she ordered disclosure of information on public interest grounds, the amendments would remove the power of veto from local authorities and many other bodies. This change was promised by the Home Secretary when the bill left the House of Commons. Another amendment removes the Home Secretary’s power to create new exemptions by Parliamentary order, in time to deal with requests which could not otherwise be refused. This power had been criticised by the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation.

Mr Frankel said: “At one time, this was a flagship bill, which the prime minister promised would fundamentally change relations between the public and the government. Ministers long ago retreated from the idea of any such radical reform. These amendments do almost nothing about the bill’s main shortcomings and are likely to provoke major criticism when the Lords committee stage finally takes place.”

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