Select Committee on Public Administration Memoranda


Submitted by the British Safety Council

  Thank you for your letter asking me to contribute evidence to the Select Committee on Publication Administration on the draft Freedom of Information Bill. The British Safety Council will be responding separately to the Consultation Document direct to the Home Office.

  In giving this evidence to the Select Committee I do so on behalf of the British Safety Council and our 12,700 member organisations who between them employ 4.5 million people (1 in 5 of the UK workforce). We have canvassed opinions from all our member organisations and have had an astonishingly high level of response (628 replies). We have every reason to believe that the replies are representative of the opinions of all our members.

  The British Safety Council's first concern is with the blanket exemption, in clause 25 of the draft Bill, for information resulting from investigations. 94.1 per cent of our members believe the Health and Safety Executive should be obliged to release the results of accident investigation where this is in the public interest. It is known that the Home Secretary has already indicated that he will make concessions and change the Bill in this area. However, it is important that the changes made are substantive and not merely cosmetic. The crucial test should be that of "substantial harm" to the public interest as predicted in the Government's White Paper.

  The British Safety Council's second concern is that the Information Commissioner has no power [clause 45(2)] to override public authorities' decisions. There should be a binding public interest test and the Commissioner should be able to compel authorities to release information. If this change is not made then any authority can cover up the fact that it has been, or is about to, endanger public safety. 92.6 per cent of British Safety Council members believe the public has a right to know about industrial (and other) hazards.

  The British Safety Council's third concern is with the blanket exemption, in clause 28, about government policy. While there may be some reason for wishing to keep secret the positions taken by authorities leading up to a policy decision there can be no benefit in keeping the background facts and the analysis hidden. 91.0 per cent of British Safety Council members believe that freedom of information is beneficial to health and safety and in this respect clause 28 needs substantial amendment.

  Finally, the British Safety Council is concerned that clause 14 allows authorities which make a discretionary disclosure to "gag" the recipient. There can be no justification, in health and safety issues, for insisting on knowing what use is going to be made of the information before it is given. Neither can there be any justification for preventing its publication once release has been made. This clause needs substantial change.

  In presenting this evidence to the Committee the British Safety Council's sole concern is to ensure that there is no unreasonable restriction on the fresh air of freedom of information which has been proven to be beneficial in creating a culture of openness. Without such a change in culture further significant improvement in health and safety cannot be achieved.

June 1999

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