Access to secrets will be diluted

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT has watered down its long-awaited plans for a Freedom of Information Act, which will be published next month.

Although ministers will hail their proposals as an historic and radical change, they are facing a backlash from Labour MPs furious that the legislation will be weaker than outlined in a 1997 White Paper.

Yesterday the Cabinet agreed to pencil in the Act as a top priority for inclusion in the Queen's Speech in November, which means the measure will take effect next year. Ministers hope that bringing in swift legislation will placate Labour MPs but are bracing themselves for a rebellion during the bill's passage through Parliament.

Under the White Paper proposals, the Government and other public bodies would be allowed to refuse to reveal information if disclosure would cause "substantial harm".

Critics of the move, in next month's draft bill, say this will allow Whitehall to block the disclosure of many documents that would be been made public under the original plans.

Labour MPs who want "an act with teeth" believe it has been watered down by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, who took over responsibility for freedom of information after David Clark, the Cabinet Office minister, was sacked by Tony Blair last July. Mr Clark drew up the White Paper and wanted a radical bill. Andrew Mackinlay, the Labour MP for Thurrock, said yesterday: "The White Paper was a ground-breaking document and should be enacted in full. It would give us one of the most radical Freedom of Information Acts in the world."

He said the onus should be on the Government and other bodies to prove that there would be substantial harm to the public good before information were withheld. It should not be restricted merely to spare their embarrassment.

As a Cabinet committee chaired by Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, puts the final touches to next month's draft bill, Labour MPs fear ministers may also dilute Mr Clark's plans for an independent Information Commissioner with wide-ranging powers. He would investigate complaints that public bodies were not complying with the act.

The MPs are also pressing for the police to be covered by the act, although they accept that material which might affect a criminal case should not be published.

The security services will be exempt from the legislation and policy advice to ministers by their officials and communications between Whitehall departments will remain confidential.