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Letters Editor
The Guardian
119 Farringdon Road
London EC1R 3ER

24 June 1999

Congratulation on your FOI campaign - but what should be the measure of its failure or success? Like Jack Straw, I am keeping a thoroughly open mind, though all my instincts are that it would be better to reject this so called Freedom of Information Bill, rather than tinker with it. I tend to think it is rotten to the core, giving central government the unchallengeable right to keep secret pretty much anything it wants. You reported (23 June) that Mr. Straw told the Select Committee on Administration that he might make some concessions along the way - but what would they be worth so long as he flatly refuses people the right even to question whether the "public interest" might be more important than government's own?

I confess I feel a great deal more excised by the Bill than I ever did about what Jonathon Aitken or Neil Hamilton did - same sort of taste in the mouth, but stronger now. The Bill is not only misconceived; it also hugely undermines the high ideals that once caused crowds to cheer. This Bill is a serious misrepresentation of the bedrock principles of good governance that Mr. Blair once proclaimed. After nearly 30 years of direct professional experience - constantly frustrated by mad and damaging levels of official secrecy - I am not feeling inclined to give up lightly the offers of honest government that were dangled in front of me and other electors immediately before and after this government came to power.

This feeling was reinforced earlier this week by finally establishing that the public has no right to know which members of the Committee on Safety of Medicines have affiliations with pharmaceutical companies, and what they contribute to discussions about the drugs those companies make. To establish this, using the present voluntary Code, it took scores of letters exchanged with the authorities for well over a year, and then a complaint to the Ombudsman. Yet, under the Bill, I would not even have had the opportunity to show (http://www.socialaudit.org.uk) how farcical and duplicitous are the official arguments for keeping such matters under wraps.

I hope The Guardian would not interpret withdrawal of the Bill as some failure. In these grim circumstances, I'm afraid it might be a triumph.

Charles Medawar

 

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