Why We Need to Replace This Half-Baked Freedom Law with a Powerful One Based on the American Model

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Byline: By Martin Shipton Western Mail

It is now a full year since the UK's Freedom of Information Act came into effect, and despite the step forward that it represents, we clearly need a new Act that goes further. The present Act gives far too much leeway to politicians and officials who want to keep material secret if it is likely to embarrass them.

To appreciate the restrictive nature of the current Act, I remind myself of the true freedom I had a taste of 15 years ago when using the much more powerful Freedom of Information Act in the United States. At the time, I was working for a paper in the north-east of England, looking into applications by a Californian waste company to build two toxic waste incinerators in partnership with the then recently privatised regional water company.

After persuading my editor to send me to San Francisco for 11 days, I used FoI to gain full access to the files held by various public authorities on the waste company. Visiting the public bodies, I was amazed to find myself handed series of files so thick that I needed a trolley to wheel them to a desk. Trawling through the material, I found an immense amount damaging to the company. I compiled a lengthy report based on the documents that appeared in a special supplement of my paper under the headline, 'Damning Trail of Incompetence'. The supplement was published on the first day of a public inquiry into the incinerator applications, and I handed the documentation I had gathered to the objectors, who subsequently won their case.

This experience is the benchmark against which I judge the UK Freedom of Information Act. I have no doubt that much of the material I gathered in San Francisco would have been classed as 'exempt' information under our Act. I certainly would not have been allowed to roam through the files of Defra, or whichever government department held the material I was seeking. The civil servant charged with deciding what should be released to me would have had an armoury of opportunities to withhold whatever was considered too sensitive. Any legal advice would be kept back on the grounds of 'legal professional privilege'. Documents regarded as 'commercially confidential' would have been excluded, much to the relief of the company concerned. Advice to ministers would not have been included, because it would inhibit the 'free and frank' flow of briefing papers. …