Blair delays open government

Freedom of Information Bill will have to wait
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The Independent Online
High hopes that Tony Blair would fulfil his pledge to enact Freedom of Information legislation in his first parliamentary session were dashed yesterday, after ministers were told that it was not possible to draft a Bill in time.

The pretext was privately denounced by Labour MPs last night. One said: "This smacks of Yes Minister." A constitutional expert said: "The more they delay, the more the beauties of closed government will become overwhelming."

Mr Blair told an inaugural meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party yesterday that the "highest standards in public life" would be demanded of his 418 MPs.

He also said: "The people will not forgive us if we go back on our promises. But already, less than a week into government, we are beginning to make a difference. We have started with real energy."

That energetic beginning continued yesterday with the appointment of Sir David Simon, chairman of BP, as new Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe, with a life peerage to come. BP has been under attack for alleged human rights abuses in South America.

In other moves, Stephen Byers, Education Minister, ordered an urgent report into failing schools; Tessa Jowell, Minister for Public Health, said tobacco advertising would be banned within weeks, and early action was promised to "clean up" donations to political parties.

But the high-priority expected for open government and freedom of information was met with less enthusiasm by the Whitehall machine.

The Independent had been told that a Freedom of Information Bill would be included in Labour's first-year programme because it was a low-cost signal of new Labour politics in action.

However, civil servants are said to have advised new ministers this week that legislation would take time to prepare, and it would be much better to offer a White Paper, outlining plans that would be enacted in 1999.

That advice was followed, and approved, at a meeting yesterday of the new Cabinet's legislation committee, chaired by Lord Irvine of Lairg, the new Lord Chancellor.

Though today's first full meeting of the Cabinet could theoretically overturn that plan, there was little hope of that happening last night.

Rather, there was strong suspicion around Whitehall that civil servants had won their first coup, with the backing of key ministers, possibly including Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio, who are thought to be less enthusiastic about open government than Mr Blair. It was being argued that there were another three or four years for enactment of the pledge on freedom of information.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said last night: "The longer they wait, the more diluted it could well become." That is what happened in the 1974-79 Parliament after Labour had pledged, in its October 1974 manifesto, to "replace the Official Secrets Act by a measure to put the burden on the public authorities to justify withholding information." After protracted delay, the pledge was not fulfilled.

Mr Frankel said that the last attempt at backbench legislation on open government, sponsored by Mark Fisher, now Arts Minister, was debated for 21 hours in 1993, and it was absurd to suggest that there had been no legislative preparation. "They could produce a Bill in a matter of weeks if they wanted," he said.

The latest decision to delay was all the more surprising because Mr Blair's commitment could not have been stronger when he was guest speaker at the Campaign for Freedom of Information's awards ceremony last year.

Arguing for a decentralisation of power, he said: "People often say to me today, `Everyone says this before they get into power, then, after they get into power...'

"I actually believe that if we want to make government effective in the modern world, it simply is not possible to do that on the basis of government just handing down tablets of stone.

"In fact, you can see, in my view, both with Scott [report on arms to Iraq] and BSE, it would have been far better if government had been more open, far better actually for the proper conduct of government."

Mr Blair continued: "Our commitment to a Freedom of Information Act is clear, and I reaffirm it here tonight."

Ministerial opponents of the change are worried that if a Freedom of Information Act is put through, then Labour would be making a rod for its own back.

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, yesterday told his 46 MPs that there would be no "knee-jerk opposition for its own sake". He offered constructive opposition when the Government pursued aims supported by his party - like open government.

Parliament met for the first time yesterday, and Betty Boothroyd was re-elected as Speaker. MPs begin the lengthy process of swearing-in today. The Queen's Speech will be delivered at next Wednesday's state opening of Parliament.