Cabinet acts over culture of secrecy

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The Independent Online
Ministers are speeding up the timetable for a Freedom of Information Act, after widespread criticism of its omission from this month's Queen's Speech.

Thursday's Cabinet meeting decided to make legislation a priority. A White Paper is to be produced by the end of July and a draft Bill is planned for early in the New Year.

Anti-secrecy campaigners - who had been worried that the delay would lead to the abandonment of the Bill as ministers were increasingly drawn into Whitehall's culture of confidentiality - now say they are convinced of the Government's determination. Press criticism, including in the Independent on Sunday, helped to spur the Cabinet to accelerated action.

David Clark, the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is responsible for the Bill, and set up a special freedom of information unit in the Cabinet Office within days of the election, said last night that ministers were planning a "landmark" measure which would "change the culture of government".

He said: "The fact that we are moving so quickly demonstrates how seriously we take the issue."

Dr Clark is asking newspaper editors for their views, and says the new administration wants to be "as open as possible". The unit will particularly study the working of existing laws in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which also have Westminster-style systems of government.

Leading contenders for inclusion in the Bill are:

A statutory right of access for citizens to government information, with the ability to challenge decisions on disclosure through judicial reviews

An "information commissioner" with statutory powers to examine complaints of failing to disclose information

A portmanteau "public interests override" to negate secrecy clauses in over 200 existing laws.

Yesterday Maurice Frankel, director of the Freedom of Information Campaign, said that Dr Clark had convinced him that he was "personally committed" and had the Prime Minister's backing. He no longer doubted that the Government wanted to pass the act but there were important battles still to be fought.