Information Bill `by March'

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The Independent Online
THE LORD Chancellor, Lord Irvine, yesterday announced that the Government plans to publish a draft Freedom of Information Bill in the next few months.

Plans to introduce a Bill allowing greater access to government documents were omitted from the Queen's Speech in November, leading to accusations from campaigners that ministers had reneged on Labour's election manifesto promise to introduce freedom of information legislation.

However, in an interview with the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Lord Irvine denied that the issue had been sidelined and said that he hoped the Bill would be drafted by March next year. "We will publish, hopefully by March, a draft Freedom of Information Bill which will be strong and liberal," he said. "I believe it will attract critical scrutiny, but on the whole it will get great praise."

Lord Irvine also insisted that his relationship with the Prime Minister was "unchanged" following the controversy over the refurbishment of the Lord Chancellor's official apartments at Westminster.

The Lord Chancellor's appearance before a committee of MPs to defend the costs involved was branded by many as arrogant, and led to claims that his role in government had been reduced. But the Lord Chancellor said he was "not aware" of having had his "wings clipped".

"I feel just as fine and fat-feathered as I was on 2 May 1997," he said, referring to his appointment the day after Labour's landslide general election victory.

He also admitted that he was aware that the Prime Minister has been known to give impersonations of his Lord Chancellor. "Occasionally he has been known to mimic the way I speak," he said. "But I'm sure that is for fun and in affection."

Lord Irvine gave young barristers Tony Blair and Cherie Booth their first places in chambers in London in the early 1980s. The young lawyers fell in love and were married, and Lord Irvine has remained a close family friend of the couple.

Maurice Frankel, a spokesman for the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said he welcomed the Lord Chancellor's "positive" remarks. However, he added that campaigners were still sceptical about whether reform would actually happen.

"This has been Labour Party policy for 25 years. If it isn't in next year's Queen's Speech, there would be very, very great dismay about whether this reform is going to happen at all."