View from the House – Jim Cousins

The end-of-term report on the proposed ‘freedom of information’ legislation has to be that it can do better!

Information about the operations of government departments is essential for calling the powerful to account. But the proposed legislation does not have a strong enough public interest override for our English traditions of furtiveness and secrecy.

Unlike in Scotland, people in the rest of the UK will incur costs securing information, discouraging people from exercising their rights to scrutinise major institutions.

The exemption clauses will prevent people from knowing about matters relating to road, rail and aircraft accidents and safety. Despite the BSE inquiry, people may not have access to government technical, research and policy papers and cabinet documents.

Following the pensions mis-selling scandals and failures such as Maxwell, there is public concern about major financial institutions, but the proposed legislation will continue with third-party commercial confidence and supplier vetoes.

No information would be publicly available for investigations carried out under the Financial Services Act 1986, the Insurance Companies Act 1982 or their successors. Most corporate investigations are carried out under section 447 of the Companies Act 1985, but no announcement is ever made and no reports are published. Even for major probes carried out under section 432 of the Companies Act, ministers would retain discretion.

Reports prepared by accountants in accordance with section 41 of the Banking Act 1987 would remain secret. The reports prepared by the Financial Services Authority would also remain secret. Little would be known about the real/alleged role of accounting and audit in major scandals.

We can expect little new public information about regulatory failures and corporate misdemeanours, limiting parliament’s task of improving new legislation. Without access to reports, the effectiveness of the proposed legislation is in question. The government has already indicated its willingness to re-examine the Bill. We need more ‘new Labour’ openness! Jim Cousins is Labour MP for Newcastle Central

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