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Straw: 'It's not a particularly well constructed act. It's rather convoluted'

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The Freedom of Information act is "rather convoluted" and the former Labour government made "errors" when drafting and implementing it, former home secretary and justice secretary Jack Straw acknowledged today.

Straw, who was a key figure in the implementation of the act, said he acknowledged that the act was not "particularly well constructed" and that it was rushed and "had no serious conception about the internet".

Giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee, which is carrying out post-legislative scrutiny of the act, Straw said: "The error that we made wasn't so much having it in the manifesto but it was not thinking clearly enough about how it would operate and not looking at other countries.

"We've ended up with a freedom of information act which ends up with more access to documents than any comparable jurisidiction. In government, we should have taken time to think it through."

He said that parts of the wording were "too loose", but added: "I don't take the view that the only thing to do with the freedom of information act is tear it up."

"It's not a particularly well constructed act. It's rather convoluted. It has produced benefits, I'm not in any doubt about that," Straw told the committee.

Straw also expressed regret that the act was made to apply retrospectively. He said: "It seems to me entirely fair that people in government should be able to take account of the act in the way that they take records, but that opportunity was denied people by the retrospective nature of the act."

The committee heard a quote from former prime minister Tony Blair's autobiography, in which he writes about FOI: "I quake at the imbecility of it."

Straw admitted that Labour's initial manifesto pledge "went too far". He told the committee: "[Blair] said: you've got to try and pull back on the 1998 proposals. I then began the process of pulling back on it."

He agreed "to a degree" that the FOI act had brought about more openness in government, adding: "It's a very complex area. It's virtually impossible to pin down what are the factors which have led to a change in openness.

"My instinct is there are all sorts of reasons why there is greater openness, that said I am unambiguous about this act. Officials are much more alive to the fact that they might be held publicly accountable."

However, he acknowledged that some areas of government had become more reluctant to keep notes as a result of the act.

He said: "It has at some levels of government, particularly high levels of government, led to a reluctance to commit the process of decisions to the record and in one sense it's made it more difficult to secure accountability, rather than less.

"I know there were people in other government departments who went in for unminuted meetings. I don't excuse that."

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