The Government's freedom of information legislation was dealt a severe blow last night after Labour backbenchers staged a series of revolts in a bid to reduce ministers' power to withhold facts.
A total of 36 backbenchers joined Tories and Liberal Democrats despite concessions by Jack Straw to the Freedom of Information Bill. While the Home Secretary maintained a majority of over 100 during the votes, the size of the rebellion is likely to encourage peers to demand further concessions.
A cross-party alliance could easily defeat the Government and exert further pressure once the Bill goes to the House of Lords for debate. It was the second time this week that Labour MPs had embarrassed the Government after 41 backbenchers supported restoring the link between pensions and earnings on Monday night.
Speaking during the Bill's resumed report stage, Mr Straw insisted that his concessions would provide a "very significant route" for the release of background information, including that which had informed policy discussions.
Dr Tony Wright, the chairman of the Public Administration Committee and MP for Cannock Chase, said he was voting against the Government with "some sadness" because he was a "serious loyalist".
Dr Wright said he was "astonished" by some of the "gigantic set of exemptions" to disclosure of information included in the measure.
But Mr Straw said any over-ride would proceed on the basis that the information involved would at some stage become public or be scrutinised in private. The Government's proposals were "part of an answer, which is a safe one, where the conflict of the needs of Government to make its decisions in confidence with the understandable requirements of the public and of this House to ensure the maximum amount of factual information being available is properly balanced".
Tony Benn, MP for Chesterfield, said: "I see this as the beginnings of a recovery of power by the legislature in dealing with the executive. This is a moment when the executive in the form of ministers is standing against Parliament and the public interest."
Dr David Clark added: "We are not talking about the advice to ministers. We are not talking about the confidential relationship which is essential between ministers and civil servants. We're talking about background factual information." Information made available to citizens would "empower" them and change the waycivil servants worked.
Labour MPs voting for the amendment and against the Government were: Tony Benn (Chesterfield), Dr David Clark (South Shields), Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley), Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead), Frank Cook (Stockton N), Jeremy Corbyn (Islington N), Robin Corbett (Birmingham Erdington), Jim Cousins (Newcastle Upon Tyne Central), Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow), Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich), Mark Fisher (Stoke Central), Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland), Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow), Thomas Graham (Renfrewshire W), David Hinchliffe (Wakefield), Kelvin Hopkins (Luton N), Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff Central), Dr Lynne Jones (Birmingham Selly Oak), Andy Love (Edmonton), John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington), Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock), Alice Mahon (Halifax), Jim Marshall (Leicester S), Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway), Bill Michie (Sheffield Heeley), Julie Morgan (Cardiff N), Gordon Prentice (Pendle), Alan Simpson (Nottingham S), Dennis Skinner (Bolsover), Llewellyn Smith (Blaenau Gwent), Betty Williams (Conwy), David Winnick (Walsall N), Mike Wood (Batley and Spen), Dr Tony Wright (Cannock Chase), Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey). Labour's Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) acted as a teller for amendment supporters.
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