Big bang or merely a whimper postponed?

1 November 2001 – The Prime Minister, we are told, wants to delay the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act for a further three years, bringing it very close to the absolute legal deadline of November 2005. It will also, coincidentally no doubt, be very close to the date of the next General Election. For a man who declared (before coming to power) that such an Act would deliver “not just more open but more effective and more efficient government”, such procrastination is astounding. Of course, attitudes change when the secrets due for disclosure are your own rather than those of the opposition, but Mr Blair’s volte-face is at the outer limits of political hypocrisy.

The current thinking in Downing Street is that implementation should be put on hold until all public bodies affected by it are ready to unlock their files. This has become known as “the big bang solution” and runs directly contrary to the timetable proposed by Jack Straw when Home Secretary, who said that the Act should apply to Whitehall departments from June 2002, with the rest of the 50,000 public bodies involved to follow in stages.

Mr Straw, who was responsible for watering down the legislation to such an extent that meaningful disclosure can be blocked at every turn, is certainly no enthusiast for Freedom of Information. Yet even his lack of verve pales beside the Prime Minister’s reluctance to reform Britain’s culture of secrecy.

Mr Blair, it is true, has some formidable opponents. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, wants all Whitehall ministries to comply with the new law by next September. Elizabeth France, the new Information Commissioner who will be responsible for administering the Act, believes that the “big bang” would not work and wants to see a gradual phasing-in. And 116 MPs, including 70 from the Labour benches, have now signed an Early Day Motion demanding action.

Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat front bench spokesman who struck a deal with the government to drop some of his party’s objections to the Bill in return for quick passage and implementation, feels understandably betrayed. “We are very sore and angry about this,” he said this week. “I have a feeling the mandarins have seized on Mr Blair’s hesitation over this act like a shark that senses blood. I have tabled an emergency question to Lord Irvine asking for a statement.”

The Act, with all its imperfections, was passed almost a year ago. Yet so far nothing has been done, even to sweep away more than 300 secrecy clauses in existing legislation which will nullify much of its intent. Civil servants in Whitehall, who no doubt regard the whole exercise with horror, have been dragging their feet in classic Sir Humphrey fashion, apparently with the full support of Mr Blair.

Why should all this matter when the nation is seized with the immediate concerns of war and terrorism? It matters because a nation kept in the dark can hardly be expected to give indefinite support to the administration acting in its name. There are constant complaints from government ministers about the amount of “speculation” in media reports. Yet they must know that speculation will inevitably rush in to fill the vacuum caused by excessive secrecy.

Mr Blair was right when he spoke in 1996. He should have the courage now of his convictions then.

Bill Norris
Associate Director

(Bulletin No 53)