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Freedom of Information Bill “fails to cure BSE secrecy problem”

The secrecy problem at the heart of the BSE crisis will continue to endanger public safety in future, because of the government’s deeply inadequate Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill, say campaigners.

The report of the BSE Inquiry, published today, concluded:

  • there was “positive censorship” in the early days [vol. 3 para 2.191];
  • there was “a clear policy of restricting the disclosure of information about BSE” [vol. 3 para 2.175],
  • “the withholding of information robbed those who would have had an interest in receiving it of the chance to react to it” [vol. 3 para 2.189].
  • that “had there been a policy of openness rather than secrecy” this would have led “to remedial measures being taken sooner than they were”[vol. 1 para. 180].

The Campaign says the FOI Bill should deal with such problems, but fails to do so properly. Unless amended it will fail to live up to Tony Blair’s promise that it would address the BSE secrecy issues. The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said:

“Tony Blair promised to sweep away the secrecy that prevented people learning about BSE. But his Freedom of Information Bill would allow information about future health hazards to be suppressed. Even the facts on which decisions have been taken or the findings of safety inspectors could ultimately be concealed under gigantic exemptions. The new Information Commissioner could order disclosure if there was an overriding public interest – but ministers insist on the right to veto such disclosure notices served on a government department. Ministers would have unacceptable power to cover up risks to public safety or their own mistakes.”

In 1996 Tony Blair said: “When a health scare like BSE occurs, the public want to know the facts, people want to know what the scientific advice is in full, and they need to be sure that the public interest has always come first. They want to know if there was relaxation of regulations which resulted in public safety being compromised.” He was speaking at the Campaign for FOI’s annual Awards. (Speech available at:www.cfoi.org.uk/blairawards.html)

But under the FOI bill, which is currently in the House of Lords:

  • Purely factual information considered in deciding what to do about health hazards, would be exempt from access, [under clause 33(1) which exempts all information relating to policy-making]. It could be obtained only if the bill’s new Information Commissioner decided there was an overriding public interest in its release – but even then ministers could veto disclosure.
  • Scientific advice about health risks could be disclosed only on the same basis.
  • The findings of safety authorities, including MAFF Inspectors who check that farms comply with BSE regulations, will also be exempt, in all circumstances, even if there is no forthcoming prosecution which could be prejudiced. This information too would be available only if an overriding public interest in openness is shown. Any such disclosure order served on a government department could be vetoed.

The government has admitted the FOI bill would not provide a clear right to information about BSE hazards. In the Lords, Lord Falconer was asked if the bill would allow the public to learn about the background to decisions about health hazards such as BSE. He replied “Under the Bill, reports about BSE given to Ministers would be covered by the exemption in Clause 33 but it would then be for the Minister or the relevant public authority to decide whether the balance of public interest lay in disclosure or maintaining the exemption. Ministers might get that wrong or right, depending on how it looked some years later with the benefit of hindsight”. [24/10/00, col. 284] The Commissioner could tell the minister to disclose the information, but ministers could veto the Commissioner’s ruling.

There is substantial all-party criticism of the bill in the Lords, and the government is likely to be defeated at the bill’s Report stage. The Campaign says the BSE Report will make it more difficult for the government to reverse any Lords amendments when the bill returns to the Commons at the end of November

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