MPs in show of support for Right to Know Bill

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THE HOUSE of Commons yesterday put pressure on the Government to end Britain's reputation as one of the world's most secretive democracies, giving an unopposed Second Reading to a backbench Right to Know Bill.

Though ministers will not allow the Bill to reach the Statute Book, the large turnout of MPs of all parties to support the measure will strengthen the hand of William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in drawing up his White Paper on open government.

Mr Waldegrave told MPs he intended to publish the White Paper before the Commons rises for the summer recess - usually at the end of July. 'We do keep too many secrets in Britain and make secrets of things which should not be secret,' he said.

'There is a tendency, and I admit this, of all organisations, and government departments are not immune from it, to use secrecy for convenience if they can get away with it.'

The Right to Know Bill, introduced by Mark Fisher, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, would establish a general right of access to official records subject to certain exemptions, provide for the correction of inaccurate official records and require companies to disclose health and safety information in annual reports.

The Bill would also replace the Official Secrets Act of 1989 with provisions allowing for a public interest defence and one of prior disclosure. For several Conservatives who were otherwise supportive of the Bill's aims, this was a principal sticking point.

An unusually large number of MPs were present in and around the Commons chamber to ensure the Bill would go on to consideration in committee. When Mr Fisher moved a closure motion after a full day of debate, it was carried by 168 votes to two.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information and Charter 88 both welcomed the Second Reading. Maurice Frankel, the Campaign's director, said: 'Mr Waldegrave has said he wants to make government at least as open as it would be under a Freedom of Information Act. He will have to demonstrate in committee that he can achieve even a fraction of what the Bill offers. What voluntary scheme will make ministers release information which shows that they have made a mistake or that their policies aren't working?'

Charter 88 supporters have held hundreds of local meetings to mobilise support for the Bill and distributed tens of thousands of postcards for people to send to their MPs.

Mr Fisher said the Bill enshrined in law the principle that free access to information should be a basic fundamental right in a democracy. 'It is based on the belief that we the public have a right to know what government is doing in our name, with our money, on our behalf,' he said. Britain was one of the most secretive societies in the western world, and one of the very few democracies not to have some form of freedom of information legislation, he said.

Mr Waldegrave said more needed to be done, but Mr Fisher's 'blockbuster of a Bill' was not an approach he could recommend. He preferred a steady increase in 'pragmatic steps' of the kind the Government had already taken. He said the Official Secrets Act should be left to work and thought other provisions in the Bill, such as those on access to medical and other records, would 'make the ordinary process of administration in government very difficult indeed'.

Mr Waldegrave is not expected to try to heavily amend the Bill in committee - the Government can always kill it off at a later stage - but to gauge opinion. He is regarded by freedom of information campaigners as being sympathetic to reform but in need of reinforcement against the secretive instincts of the Civil Service and some Cabinet colleagues.

Supporting the Bill, Kate Hoey, Labour's spokeswoman on the Citizen's Charter, said 'obsessive secrecy' appeared to be a peculiarly British disease.

'How can the Government be serious about improving public service when the length of the queue in the Post Office is an official secret?' The Post Office monitored queues but refused to publish the data, she said.

Don Foster, for the Liberal Democrats, said it was 'disgraceful' that ministers would not publish legal advice on their U-turn on the effect on ratification of the Maastricht treaty if Labour's Social Chapter amendment to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill was carried. Mr Fisher said his Bill would require ministers to publish the legal opinions, but not the advice on how to use the information to their best advantage.

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