Politics: Straw loses freedom of information battle

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The Independent Online
A Commissioner will be appointed with power to order Whitehall departments to open files under a Freedom of Information White Paper to be published tomorrow. Colin Brown says it amounts to a victory by Lord Irvine , the Lord Chancellor, over Jack Straw, the Home Secretary.

The Commissioner for information will have statutory powers to order Whitehall departments to release information for public scrutiny including civil service advice unless it would do harm.

Mr Straw objected that the disclosure of civil service advice could compromise confidential reports to ministers. George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, also objected, delaying the White Paper as the tussle went on for several weeks.

But they were overruled when, with the backing of Tony Blair, Lord Irvine, who chaired the key Cabinet committee on the White Paper, came down on the side of Mr Clark, who was pushing for more openness.

The statutory powers mean that members of the public will be able to seek judicial review if departments withhold papers, and the commissioner will be able to overrule ministers. Destroying information could be made a criminal offence.

Sensitive defence and diplomatic secrets such as MI6 contacts in the arms-to-Iraq affair would remain secret, but more routine advice to ministers, such as Whitehall estimates on the numbers of jobs to be lost in the beef industry from the export ban on beef, are likely to be disclosed under the new codes.

The White Paper will be followed by a draft bill probably in the spring, and the legislation is expected to be introduced in the November Queen's Speech.

Mr Clark, the Cabinet minister for public service, had argued for a select committee to hear appeals against the Commissioner, but the courts are likely to act on appeals by ministers and the public.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, yesterday urged the Government to include a test of public interest in the legislation.

It will fulfil a Labour election manifesto promise to introduce a Freedom of Information Act to promote open government, saying that "unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions".

The disclosure of details of the White Paper le d to the Speaker of the Commons, Betty Boothroyd, cracking the whip over ministers about leaks from the Government.

Mr Clark apologised to the Commons for a leak, and he strongly denied being the source. The Speaker has become increasingly annoyed about leaks before MPs have been informed. She complained about leaks of the white paper on the NHS published yesterday and last night she ordered defence ministers to delay a briefing for the press today on the Royal Yacht until MPs had been informed.