If Clement Freud’s Official Information bill succeeds a vital democratic principle would finally have been established: that whenever information is withheld, governments should be required to justify their secrecy
Parliament will have an early opportunity to assert itself on an issue to which it is always paying lip service: the public right to know. Mr Clement Freud’s Official Information bill is due to have its second reading on Friday. Open government is opposed by both the Government and the Opposition front bench. Backbenchers will have to be alert if the measure is not going to be smothered on Friday, or denied adequate debating time once it reaches committee.
With 38 clauses the bill, which was drafted by a working party of the Outer Circle Policy Unit, will require special committee sittings if there is to be any chance of it being reported out of committee. But first it needs one hundred supporters to turn out on Friday to ensure that it reaches the committee stage.
The bill will be criticised from two sides. On the Left, many MPs will feel it has not gone far enough. Unlike a draft Labour bill, it has restricted itself to Whitehall rather than incorporating local government and other public services. On the Right, conservatives will dislike the right of access to official information, which the bill would establish.
Of course certain areas are protected – defence, foreign relations, law enforcement, commercial confidentiality, personal privacy, and cabinet documents – but outside the exempted areas, a vital democratic principle would finally have been established: that whenever information is withheld, governments should be required to justify their secrecy.
Theoretically, open government began in Britain on July 6, 1977. Sir Douglas Allen (now Lord Croham), then Head of the Home Civil Service, instructed all government departments to prepare background material relating to policy studies on the assumption that it would be published unless ministers decided otherwise.
Since then, an occasional – only an occasional – policy paper has dribbled out, but one indication of the Government’s abject failure to meet its manifesto promise is that even the White Paper on the reform of the Official Secrets Act was published without any accompanying policy papers. As we said at the time of publication – July, 1978 – the Government’s package would do more harm than good.
Open government should be an intrinsic part of a democratic society. But it has other advantages apart from involving more people in the decision-taking process. It forces governments to examine all sides of an argument and makes it more likely that wrong assumptions are exposed.
Mr Freud’s bill has its faults. Even its draftsmen admit it needs improvement. But it is a useful first draft. Moreover there could be no better means of pushing the Government into producing a bill of its own than the threat of a private member’s bill gathering steam. Both the Left, who may feel they had a better bill, and the cautious Right, should support the measure. It was designed to be moderate. No citadels will fall but at least some sunshine would be let in.
Mr Freud, then, deserves a warm hearing and much support. Time is supposedly the enemy of this Parliament. But close examination of the issues for discussion in the next two months makes time-wasting seem a more apposite description. It should be open house: and open government.
[Freud’s Official Information bill, an early attempt at introducing freedom of information to parliament, had considerable support but was discarded when the general election was called in April 1979.]