The Queen's Speech: What Was Missing - No bills on freedom of information, food and party funds

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The Independent Online
A DISPUTE over a proposed tax of pounds 100 on every food outlet in Britain led to the omission of a Bill establishing a Food Standards Agency, despite a manifesto commitment.

Retailers and consumer groups protested at the failure to produce the Bill, one of several "missing measures" from the Queen's Speech. It has now been delayed for at least a year.

Several Labour MPs were also dismayed by the omission of the Freedom of Information Bill, John Prescott's Transport Bill to introduce a strategic rail authority, measures to implement the recommendations of the Neill committee for a "sleaze" watchdog on local government, and curbs on party funding. A Bill to bring in the option of elected mayors and introduce "a new ethical framework for local councils" has also been put on hold.

Friends of the Earth attacked the absence of measures to protect the environment, talking of a "serious defeat" for the Department of Environment, Transport and Regions.

But the main cause of anger was over the Food Standards Agency. Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, has been forced to settle for a draft Bill, but the Government insisted it was still committed to the idea.

"Discussions are ongoing within government on how, in practical terms, current joint working arrangements can be enhanced and further foundations for the agency can be laid," the Government said.

But ministerial sources said the cause of the delay was a dispute between the Treasury and the Ministry of Agriculture over funding the agency. The Treasury is pressing for the pounds 100m annual running costs of the agency to be met by a pounds 100 levy on shops and restaurants, but the ministry has argued for it to be paid out of general taxation.

A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium said: "Without legislation there cannot be a truly independent Food Standards Agency."

The Consumers' Association was "bitterly disappointed" at the omission. The National Consumers' Council added: "The sooner details of a Bill are published, the better."

The Campaign for Freedom of Information condemned the failure to include the Freedom of Information Bill, which was also promised in the manifesto.

The Government promised a draft Bill "early in the new year", but gave no promises about the timing of it being put on the statute book.

A spokesman for the Campaign for Freedom of Information said the earliest the Bill could now become law was 2001. "If this slips much further it will not be in place this side of the next general election," he said.

A draft Bill on party political funding - responding to the report by the Neill committee - will be published "before the summer recess next year", the Government said. It also pledged to put "robust rules" into place before the next general election, including provision for an independent Electoral Scrutiny Commission.

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