New British Government Information Laws Make "Mockery" of "Freedom of Information"

Under Blair's plan, most official information that citizens want to know about will be kept secret.

Plans by Tony Blair's government to introduce a British Freedom of Information law have been condemned by MPs and campaigners who have spent 20 years trying to open up Britain's notoriously secretive civil service. Under Blair's plan, most official information that citizens want to know about will be kept secret, or released only if the government approved of the way the information may be used.

Prior to being elected, Mr Blair and other members of his government had promised that freedom of information would be one of their earliest and most fundamental reforms. After two years delay, the government has just published only a draft, provisional law meaning that between two and seven years will pass before the law takes effect.

But the new law now being proposed would be worse than the pre-existing voluntary government code of disclosure, according to Britain's Freedom of Information Campaign. The Campaign this week invited the Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Jack Straw to an awards ceremony. The ceremony turned into a trial of his proposed new law.

Mr Straw was told, sarcastically, that when he had first been invited it had been hoped that the event would be the last awards Freedom of Information awards ceremony to be held, since a campaign should no longer be necessary.

He faced a devastating series of criticisms from Campaign chairman Professor James Cornford, who said he was "deeply disappointed, indeed shocked" by the watering down of the so-called "freedom of information" legislation to the point where it was really just a new official secrecy law.

"I believe that if this bill is enacted in anything like its present form it will become as notorious and disreputable as the Official Secrets Act 1911", Cornford said. The 88 year old law which founded British government secrecy had been rushed quickly through Parliament after security officials had created a fictitious spy scare about German agents snooping near British naval dockyards.

"That measure ... remained as a reproach and an embarrassment for 80 years. This bill could do the same", said Professor Cornford. Under the 1911 law, journalists could be jailed for 2 years if a civil servant told them anything that government ministers had not agreed.

[The draft law] achieves the remarkable feat of making the [open government] code, introduced by a government opposed in principle to Freedom of Information, appear a more positive measure than legislation drawn up by a government committed to the issue for 25 years.

Maurice Frankel, Freedom of Information campaign director

Under Blair's new "Freedom of Information" law, government departments would be entitled to withhold information from members of the public on the grounds that the information would show that they had broken the law. They could also withhold information about illegal activities from a specially appointed Commissioner on the grounds that if they revealed the information it would show that they had broken the law.

The new law would make it legal for public authorities to conceal an information about an "any investigation...for the purpose of ascertaining the cause of an accident", including road, rail, air or ferry accidents or those involving dangerous consumer products. Information about dangerous workplace or environmental hazards would also be kept secret if it resulted from "any investigation...for the purpose of securing the health, safety and welfare of persons at work"

Information about companies breaking laws on environmental health, food safety, animal welfare, race and sex discrimination, planning, or competition policy would be exempt from disclosure "if it has at any time been held by the authority for the purposes of...any investigation...whether any person has failed to comply with the law or is responsible for any other improper conduct".

A public authority which was guilty of misconduct, such as squandering public funds, would decide for itself whether it should be made accountable for its conduct.

No other government in the world has introduced a freedom of information law which prevents citizens getting access to such information. On top of this, the new law adds a series of "Catch 22" clauses, including a right for government departments to refuse to confirm or deny whether they held particular types of information.

Government departments would have a discretion to release "exempt information". But before doing so, they would be entitled to interrogate the requester as to why s/he wanted the information and what s/he planned to do with it. If they decided to let the information out, they could impose special restrictions. The draft law allows public authorities to impose conditions "restricting the use or disclosure of the information by the person to whom it is disclosed."

At last week's meeting, the Home Secretary was reminded that three years before the guest of honour had been Tony Blair, now the Prime Minister. Speaking in 1996 Blair had said:

„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 any relaxation ... which resulted in public safety being compromised .... The only way to begin to restore people's trust is therefore to be completely open about what the risks are..."

It was, said Blair " change that is absolutely fundamental to how we see politics developing in this country over the next few years".

But in the last three weeks alone, Blair's government has repeated its determination to arrest and silence two ex-intelligence agents, Richard Tomlinson and David Shayler, who had revealed malpractice inside the British security services. Tomlinson was expelled from Switzerland on Wednesday. A the same time, journalist Tony Geraghty faces imprisonment for writing a book about computer surveillance methods used in Ireland. His case will first be heard on June 22nd.

According to Freedom of Information campaigners, the Blair government's conduct has made a "mockery" of freedom of information. Freedom of information is a right for the governed, they say, not a privilege for the government to choose who may know what. (Duncan Campbell)