The Queen's Speech: Straw faces long struggle with open access campaigners

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The Independent Online
CAMPAIGNERS WARNED that they would continue to fight to strengthen the Government's controversial Freedom of Information Bill during its passage through Parliament.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is facing months of detailed argument over the Bill, which will establish a statutory right to information for the first time. The battleground will be over limitations on the release of information.

A total of 195 MPs, led by five Commons committee chairmen, including the Labour MPs Giles Radice, Robert Sheldon, Tony Wright and Martin O'Neill, have signed a Commons motion to give the proposed Information Commissioner, Elizabeth France, power to order ministers to release information about policy formation.

The Home Office made some concessions after criticism by two Commons select committees, but Mr Straw has insisted that the commissioner should have the power only to recommend the release of information on policy development. He argues that releasing these details could inhibit frankness between ministers.

The Bill will give the public limited rights of access to information held by a wide range of bodies across the public sector, from government departments to town halls, the police, schools and health authorities. Parents would be able to obtain the admission criteria for local schools and find out how their application was dealt with.

The main exemptions are for rights to privacy, confidentiality and matters of national security. Public authorities will have to consider the public interest in requests for disclosure of information, even where an exemption applies, but they will not be required to release it. Furthermore, the Information Commissioner will be prohibited from ordering the disclosure of information in the public interest, and ministers and authorities will decide where the public interest lies.

Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said the Bill was too restrictive. He said several blanket exemptions gave authorities a free hand in deciding what information to release, including the facts upon which government policy was based.

Meanwhile, the Armed Forces Discipline Bill will give soldiers, sailors and airmen similar legal rights to civilians when they are charged with an offence. The Bill also introduces a right of appeal against a commanding officer's decision on minor offences, known as summary offences.

Colin Brown Chief Political Correspondent