Blair plans more open government

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Seven draft Bills will be introduced by the Government over the next 12 months, including one on freedom of information, in a move aimed at giving Parliament and the public much more say in legislative detail.

Ministers cite the mess that was made of the Child Support Agency as an example of what can go wrong with complex Bills, even when there is cross-party agreement that something needs to be done.

The publication of draft legislation means that where all-party agreement exists, consensus can be reached on the detail, with MPs and outside experts going over the fine print to ensure that "wrinkles" are ironed out well in advance.

The change is being heralded as one of a number of moves to mark an end to government "arrogance". After 18 years of Conservative rule, Tony Blair is said to be determined to use his majority to strengthen the role of Parliament, arguing that ministers are the servants, not the masters, of the people.

Ann Taylor, the new Leader of the Commons, has also told MPs that she is open to suggestions that would put an end to the gagging of Commons debate.

Ministers would like to get away from the imposition of the "guillotine" - the enforced timetabling process which strictly limits the time that can be spent in debating batches of clauses in Bills. The guillotine often means that great chunks of legislation are not debated at all by Parliament. But while there has been much talk about getting rid of the device, little has been done about it because it does facilitate government business.

However, Mrs Taylor told the Commons last Thursday: "We need to consider what alternatives there might be to the guillotine imposed by the Government with a majority, and the voluntary understandings that have been tried in the past. Sometimes they have worked, sometimes not, but there is scope to see what other mechanisms could be available to achieve better planning of legislation."

She also said: "There is scope for considering to what extent we could gain by having more Bills published in draft and, possibly, by having pre-legislative committees to examine draft Bills or White Papers."

Once such a procedure had been carried through, it should not take so long to get through to the statute book. That opens up the probability that a Freedom of Information Bill could be up and running by 1999, with a pre-examined Bill included in the next Queen's Speech, in November 1998.

The decision to come forward with a draft Bill on open government is a considerable shift on this month's Queen's Speech, in which the Government's official position was to publish yet another White Paper. But senior government sources have told The Independent that in addition to the 26 Bills proposed in the Queen's Speech, there are now another seven drafts on the way.

They will cover not only freedom of information but also tobacco advertising, the creation of a food standards agency, pensions splitting between husband and wife, financial services, limited liability partnerships, and the control of communicable diseases.

While a concerted programme to give the Commons draft legislation will open up the parliamentary process - and soak up some of the undoubted surplus energies of the large intake of new Labour MPs - action to get rid of the guillotine would be a historic move.

According to research by the Commons library, the guillotine was first used on the Criminal Law Amendment (Ireland) Bill of 1887. The innovation was described by the minister as "absolutely essential in the interests of the honour and dignity of Parliament and the duties which are imposed upon the Members of the House of Commons ...

"We have arrived at the fourth month of the session and we have practically done nothing except to consider the measure now before the House ... the whole course of legislation has been stopped'."

While all oppositions have protested in outrage at the introduction of the guillotine, all governments have been able to point out that their critics have themselves, when in office, used it to curtail debate. Against that background of confrontation, any move to give legislation more mature consideration would mark a sea-change in the parliamentary process.

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