Ministers push information Bill benefits

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The Government made fresh attempts to head off a revolt over its freedom of information legislation yesterday, saying hundreds of thousands of people would be able to find out more about their treatment by schools and hospitals.

The Government made fresh attempts to head off a revolt over its freedom of information legislation yesterday, saying hundreds of thousands of people would be able to find out more about their treatment by schools and hospitals.

Under the Bill, people would be able to obtain more confidential information about varying medical treatments, such as hip replacements. Schools would also have to disclose the reasons behind admission policies and how they were applied.

Many private bodies, such as the British Board of Film Classification, the Jockey Club and private prisons, could also be covered by the legislation.

"There has been a lot of high-brow criticism of this Bill but it is important to make clear that hundreds of thousands of ordinary people are going to benefit," a senior Home Office source said.

During a Lords debate, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Cabinet Office Minister, said the Government was willing to consider improvements to its "open government" legislation.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has already made concessions to the controversial legislation but campaigners believe that the Bill's emphasis is still too far towards maintaining government secrecy.

The Bill, which will come into force within the next five years, will be enforced by an Information Commissioner, currently the Data Protection Registrar, Elizabeth France.

Lord Falconer confirmed the Government's intention to amend the Bill to restrict the so-called "executive override" provision, whereby ministers can ignore a public interest ruling by the Information Commissioner, to Cabinet ministers and the Attorney General.

But Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, for Tory peers, warned the Government: "We will be looking for changes. The MPs who took part in the debates on the Bill clearly expect us to make changes."

The Tory peers' deputy leader argued that the Bill had been "diluted" from the Labour Party's manifesto commitment and its 1997 White Paper. Lord Hunt of Wirral, the former Tory civil service minister who was responsible for bringing in the civil service code on disclosure of information, said: "Once in government you quickly come round to the view that you should restrict [information]."

Baroness Hilton, a former chief inspector with the Metropolitan Police, said: "The Bill is not the offspring of the White Paper but a hybrid of the fears of civil servants and the caution of lawyers," she said.

Lord Young of Dartington (Labour), said the Consumers Association, of which he is president, found the Bill "fundamentally defective". "It's a vote loser perhaps on a large scale."

Crossbencher and the former cabinet secretary, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, said: "I don't believe that this or any other legislation is likely to make it possible to prise out of government information which it really does not wish or think it right to disclose."

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