Parliament: Open Government - Information Bill `more radical than expected'

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The Independent Online
THE FREEDOM of Information Bill will be more liberal than expected and will require greater disclosures by Whitehall departments, government agencies and public services, including the police.

Critics including the former minister David Clark, who have been campaigning for a radical right to information, feared that it would be watered down in behind-the-scenes cabinet battles between the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg. But Whitehall sources said yesterday that when the draft Bill is published within the next few weeks, it will be surprisingly liberal. "The campaigners will be happier than they thought," said a source.

The row has centred on the so-called "harm" test for the release of information. When Mr Clark left the Cabinet Office, he was proposing that information should be released unless it could cause "substantial harm". That was supported by Lord Irvine, but was rejected by Mr Straw, who wanted a simple "harm" test, which would have made it more difficult to obtain information.

Mr Straw, who attended a further cabinet sub-committee on the Bill yesterday at Downing Street, has suggested that an independent commissioner should decide whether information should be released.

Although the Bill will be released for consultation in mid-May, the legislation will form the centrepiece of the Queen's Speech for the next session of Parliament, which was discussed yesterday by the Cabinet.

The legislative programme is also likely to contain a big transport Bill by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, to allow congestion charging on motorists to curb car use in town and cities, and a possible Home Office measure to reform the voting system for local elections to allow polling to take place in high streets at weekends, to raise voter interest in town halls.

The Queen's Speech may also be used to put on the statute book three Bills that have been published in draft but have been delayed by the row in the Lords over the removal of hereditary peers from the Upper House. The Bills will establish a Strategic Rail Authority, create the Food Standards Agency and set up standards boards to root out sleaze in local councils.