Campaigners today expressed “deep disappointment and anger” at the decision of the Liberal Democrats to back the government’s Freedom of Information Bill – and withdraw their support for real improvements.
In return for Liberal Democrat support, the Government has offered four modest concessions on the Bill. The Campaign for Freedom of Information’s director, Maurice Frankel, said these “represent limited progress on issues of mainly secondary importance and do not address the bill’s key shortcomings. We cannot see how they justify ending all serious efforts to amend the bill, particularly at this critical stage.”
The Liberal Democrats identify a change to the bill’s public interest test as the most important of the four amendments. The Campaign points out that the Liberal Democrat spokesman Lord Goodhart had earlier proposed the same amendment, when he said of it: “It is fair to say that I doubt whether, in practice, this will make an enormous difference.” [Hansard, House of Lords, 17/10/00, col. 908]
The amendment which the Liberal Democrats regard as the next most important, deals with access to background factual material about decisions. The Campaign say that a similar provision had been dropped from the bill by the government a few weeks ago “in error”, according to ministers. The government had promised to reintroduce it [Lord Falconer, 17/10/00, cols 901 and 915]. The Campaign said the Liberal Democrat amendment appeared to be slightly better than the provision ministers had promised to reintroduce but was broadly similar.
Until the deal, the Government had been facing the prospect of being defeated in the Lords by an all-party alliance, including the Conservatives, which was ready to force through substantial improvements to the bill. The agreement with the Liberal Democrats, means the Government is now safe from defeat. “This means the weak Freedom of Information Bill will become law with all its serious defects intact”, Mr Frankel said: “We cannot understand why anyone could believe that the limited changes represented by these amendments are the maximum that could be achieved”.
“We find it incomprehensible that, in return for these modest concessions, the Liberal Democrats are proposing to abandon their support for essential amendments which would have given the public greater rights to safety information and denied ministers the right to veto decisions of the independent Information Commissioner” the Campaign said.
A detailed briefing on the agreement with the Liberal Democrats is available on the Campaign’s web site at www.cfoi.org.uk/briefingpack.html or can be supplied by fax or e-mail on request.