Parliament & Politics: Select Committee - Straw to be challenged on `diluted' information Bill

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The Independent Online
JACK STRAW will be challenged today over fears that the Government is going cool over its plans for introducing a Freedom of Information Act.

The Home Secretary, who is ready to defend the Government's Bill, will come in for criticism from MPs on a select committee who have accused him of watering down the plans proposed in a White Paper by the former minister for the cabinet office, David Clark, before he was sacked by Tony Blair.

There could be a split in the campaign if the Bill remains largely intact. Sheila McKechnie, of the Consumers' Association, said she would prefer the Bill to be dropped than to see it reach the statute book in its present form. "It is an absolutely disgraceful Bill. It will be a stain on this Government's record for years to come," she said.

Senior government sources last night denied that the Bill was being shelved. But the Home Secretary is expected to be questioned about growing rumours at Westminster that it could be left out of the next Queen's Speech in November because of the Prime Minister's order to the Cabinet to focus on popular legislation to revive Labour's fortunes in the run- up to the next general election.

Campaigners yesterday demanded changes in the "deeply flawed" draft Bill on the eve of the committee hearing to cross-examine the Home Secretary on his legislation.

One member of the Commons committee, the Tory MP Richard Shepherd, said: "Many of us are very concerned about this retreat."

The campaigners were told that the background briefing papers on the Freedom of Information Bill are being withheld by the Home Office, and they may not be issued until after the consultation period comes to an end next month.

In its current form, the Bill would not allow the disclosure of advice to ministers, a restriction which MPs believe could be used as a "catch- all" clause to frustrate demands for information.

The critics demanding changes include Mark Fisher, the former arts minister who was sacked at the same time as Mr Clark. Mr Fisher said he hoped Mr Straw would change the Bill. "He is not a macho minister who sticks to his own opinion as a test of his own strength. He is open to flexibility and reason," he said.

Donald Macintyre,

Review, page 3

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