|Social Audit Ltd
|P O Box 111 London NW1 8XG
|Telephone/Fax 44 (0)171 586 7771
|Freedom of Information Unit
|Room 206, Home Office
|50 Queen Anne's Gate
|London SW1H 9AT
6 June 1999
Dear Mr Winter,
Thank you for providing the opportunity to comment on the New Labour government's Freedom of Information Bill . As requested, I am sending a copy of these comments to the Select Committee on Public Administration . For the benefit of our visitors (70,000/year, mostly professionals), I am also posting an annotated version of these comments on our website.
As a professional in consumer protection for over 30 years, and a specialist on medicines' policy and drug safety , I have a particular interest in freedom of information issues and the problem of secrecy. Sometimes secrecy is appropriate, even beneficial, but mostly it is unnecessary and an abuse of citizens' rights - and it sustains a public health problem of truly enormous proportions . There must be countless opportunities for making real health gains though greater openness, above all by promoting a better understanding of the relationship between the risks and benefits of medicinal drugs.
The UK has been conspicuously backward in these matters, especially in relation to the licensing and control of medicines: like s.2 of the 1911 Official Secrets Act, s. 118 of the Medicines Act conceals almost everything. It promotes the kind of secrecy that leads not only to ignorance, but to ignorance of ignorance. The scope of the secrecy laws in Britain has prevented public enquiries even after the worst drug safety problems. No public enquiry has ever been held, though this would be routine after major accidents of other kinds - the point being to avoid repetition of mistakes .
For years, the Labour Party has made commitments to freedom of information (FOI), but never with the apparent enthusiasm of New Labour. In 1996, I heard Tony Blair talk at length about FOI, at the awards ceremony of the Campaign for Freedom of Information . He was deeply impressive: everything he said suggested that he believed that government urgently needed FOI, like a sick man needs good medicine - and that electors were entitled to no less. I felt Mr Blair understood that secrecy tends to poison government, and that this makes society sick.
In the following year, New Labour was elected and then came the White Paper, Your Right to Know. This cogently diagnosed the problem of secrecy and prescribed remedial measures - in the public interest - that really would have worked. Many people felt this was deeply impressive too.
Now, after two years in office, the New Labour government has published its Freedom of Information Bill . Though sponsored by the Home Office, I am reliably informed that its spirit is very much Tony Blair, so the outcome disappoints even more. I would expect many people to feel deeply deceived, the victims of seductive government if not some rather sleazy campaign. The FOI Bill represents an abortion of hope.
If it were a pill rather than a bill, one would now want it off the market at once. Countless misleading claims have been made and the end product is misdescribed; as an instrument of openness it profoundly fails. It offers no significant access to information about medicines policy and drug risks and would surely do much to impede it. The 47-page Bill itself makes tortuous reading - it is extremely citizen unfriendly - much of it detailing restrictions of requesters' rights. I feel sure that Maurice Frankel, after 15 years as Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, has got it exactly right:
"The bill allows authorities to classify safety information as top secret. It replaces the code's public interest test by a voluntary test, making it easier for authorities to conceal misconduct. It abandons the white paper promise of access to internal discussion where disclosure would be harmful, and instead creates a blanket exclusion for all information about the development of policy; even factual information and scientific analysis on matters like BSE and genetically modified food could be withheld under this provision. It replaces the white paper's 'substantial harm' test by a lower 'prejudice' test. It contains 'catch all' exemptions allowing information to be refused without real evidence of harm " 
For all its limitations, I would sooner go on using the voluntary Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, introduced by the Conservative government in 1994. This feels like a miserable thing to admit, nor can I claim that using the Code has achieved much - but at least it secured my right to raise questions with the Medicines Control Agency and Committee on Safety of Medicines. The Bill would have the opposite effect.
I have failed repeatedly to get hard information by using the Code, but it has at least been possible to demonstrate how pervasive and damaging secrecy is in the world of medicines' control. Though essentially empty, at least the scores of letters from the MCA/CSM to be seen on our website, suggest how little these organisations are able to do in relation to the public problems they profess to mind.
Most telling, perhaps, has been these agencies' frank lack of embarrassment at repeated refusals to answer straight questions. Our main information requests are still outstanding from March 1998 - some 300 working days, compared with the Code's target response time of 20. It is still not possible, for example, to establish which members of the Committee on Safety of Medicines declared possible conflicts of interest when considering applications for individual drugs. Things have now reached the stage where the Ombudsman is apologising for the delay on behalf of the MCA/CSM, and asking for personal intervention by the Permanent Secretary at the DoH . Over 100 letters have been exchanged between the MCA/CSM and Social Audit since this request was first made.
Such extensive evidence of secrecy might at least persuade the public to place its trust elsewhere, but the proposed Bill would change this. Both by default and design, it would provide the authorities with a host of legalistic justifications for not responding to questions and not really explaining why. The Bill appears to have abandoned as a bedrock principle a "public right to know". Rather, the bill confers rights to keep secrets, to an extent that invites official incompetence and abuse. In medicine, this means people get hurt and ill.
I see this Bill as an advertisement for governance at its worst, unworthy of any administration which seeks to earn public trust. I sincerely regret New Labour has come to this.
 See Consultation Document with Explanatory notes and the Draft Freedom of Information Bill at http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/foi/dfoibill,htm
 The Select Committee on Public Administration is the (all-party) Parliamentary committee with oversight responsibilities on freedom of information issues. See also Social Audit/MCA correspondence with SCPA, in March 1998.
 Brief biographical data available, with background information about Social Audit
 See: Social Audit publications, also What's New? section; Essay, The Art and the Calling; Complaints to Ombudsman; and notes on debate: The current system of drug licensing does not adequately represent patients' interests
 Medawar C, Secrecy and medicines. Int J Risk & Safety in Medicine 1996, 9, 133-141 and above
 Cabinet Office, Your right to know: The government's proposals for a freedom of information act, CM 3818, (London: HMSO, December 1997). See also Social Audit correspondence arising.
 See correspondence from Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration