Let the people in on the secrets

Those who claim to have been disappointed or betrayed by Tony Blair's government have always been disingenuous. As our political editor points out (page 7), this is a government that has kept to its manifesto promises. And very modest ones they were. Mr Blair made it clear from the start that he and his associates were broadly happy with the economic settlement of the 1980s. There would be only minor modifications to the Thatcher-Tebbit trade union laws. Income tax rates would be unchanged. Tory public spending limits would be observed for at least two years (even though the Tories probably wouldn't have done so). Welfare would be reformed to end "dependency culture". Schools would be more rigorously tested and inspected. Criminals would be pursued and incarcerated with Michael Howard-like vigour.

But in two particular respects new Labour promised dramatic change: devolution and freedom of information. Watching the manoeuvres over Ken Livingstone's candidacy for mayor of London (still unresolved as we went to press), voters may well have concluded that the first was a sham. Will they reach the same conclusion over the second?

A robust Freedom of Information Bill, Mr Blair proclaimed in 1996, was "absolutely fundamental to how we see politics developing in this country". It would produce more "effective" government by allowing corruption, incompetence or honest mistakes in policy-making to be exposed and corrected. All this, it was implied (not least by Jack Straw), was of a piece with the government's vision of a new Britain, in which people would be treated as citizens rather than subjects. The government would recognise that it served a sovereign people, who could always hold it to account, not the other way around. An increasingly assertive and educated public would no longer tolerate being treated as infants, whose heads should not be bothered by affairs of state.

The collapse of principle was more rapid than a Millbank rebuttal. David Clark, a decent minister, produced proposals for a half-way respectable bill that would be uncontroversial in any other developed country. He was sacked. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, drafted an alternative, which was announced in the Queen's Speech on Wednesday. It exempts from scrutiny all information on "the formulation and development of government policy". This does not merely prohibit disclosure of the confidential advice that Alastair Campbell might give to the Prime Minister on how best to flatter Rupert Murdoch. It also covers scientific advice on hazards such as BSE, even though the inquiry into that catastrophe showed that, if the Ministry of Agriculture had released adequate data, scientists could have warned that its containment measures were inadequate. All studies on the effects of any policy - from the number of jobs that would be lost if fox-hunting were outlawed to the risks to passengers of privatising air traffic control - will remain official secrets. So will information about the law enforcement activities of the police, prison services, MI5 and MI6. So will inquiries by environmental, health, planning and trading standards officers and by accident investigators. Corporate lobbyists, whose influence permeates the Civil Service, will have their interests protected. Requests to know what they are up to will be greeted with the rejoinder that "commercial confidence" cannot be broken.

Mr Straw will in effect give ministers the final decision on whether it is in the public interest to release information. A department may have been negligent, extravagant or even criminal, but its secretary of state will decide whether its malpractice should be revealed. In other words, we are offered, not a new system, but a re-heated version of the old. The patriarchal barons of Britain's pre-democratic polity will continue to hand out information as a favour to the peasantry, not as a legal duty.

This has not, as Philip Cowley shows on page 21, been an habitually rebellious parliament, but nor has it been a supine one. Where Labour backbenchers strongly and genuinely feel that the government is wrong, they have rebelled with a will and in some numbers. There lies the best hope for those who want something better than Mr Straw's bill - that a rebellion will be led not by the usual awkward squad but by the footsoldiers of the Blair revolution. If the MPs fail to secure significant improvements in the bill, they will betray, not Keir Hardie's ghost, but the spirit of new Labour itself.