Fears over Freedom of Information Bill

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JACK STRAW has been put in charge of the Freedom of Information Bill, leading to fears that the Government may water down its manifesto commitment.

The move to put responsibility for the Bill into the hands of the Home Secretary follows the sacking earlier this week of its chief advocate, David Clark.

He had drafted the Bill while Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and campaigned vigorously for strong legislation in Cabinet battles with Mr Straw.

The news that the responsibility had passed to Mr Straw outraged campaigners last night who said he had adopted a very "defensive" position. The announcement was released in the form of a written answer from Tony Blair to a Labour backbencher, Jean Corston.

Mr Clark said yesterday: "I left an agreed timetable for the draft Bill to be ready. I would expect that to be adhered to."

Immediately before his sacking from the Cabinet Office, Mr Clark announced that the Bill was on course and should be published in draft form by the end of September. It was then due to be submitted to the Public Administration Committee for pre-legislative scrutiny.

The committee's chairman, Rhodri Morgan, said he was surprised by yesterday's developments. He said: "This does not entirely chime with the assurances that I had been given since the reshuffle, at the top level ... The work had already been done so the only issue is whether Tony Blair has got cold feet over including the Bill in the next Queen's speech."

Mr Morgan said he had been given "cast iron assurances" that the draft Bill would be published in the autumn. He said that if the Bill was not introduced this year, he doubted it would happen at all: "... no government anywhere ever introduces a freedom of information Bill ... after the civil servants have you in their grip," he said.

The Bill will give the public the right to demand government information unless it falls under an exemption, such as national security.

It is known that both Peter Mandelson, the new Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and Mr Straw have reservations about the proposed Bill and have made their views known to the Prime Minister.

However, a spokeswoman for the Home Office said it was committed to the Bill.