Clause 70 of the Railways Bill would make it a criminal offence to disclose confidential information about the franchise companies who will take over services. Offenders would be liable to a fine or two years' imprisonment, or both.
Amendments to clause 70 of the Railways Bill are expected to be made by opponents of the privatisation plans, after the alarm was raised by Richard Hope, editor of the journal Railway Gazette International.
'It is intended to protect commercial confidentiality, but if plain English means anything, we could be liable to prosecution if we found out that the timetable for the Brighton line was being cut in half,' Mr Hope said.
Robert Adley, MP for Christchurch and chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Transport, the leading Tory critic of the rail privatisation plans, said that he was writing to John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, to seek reassurances about the clause.
'It is another example of the need for every aspect of this Bill to be exposed to public scrutiny. Ministers cannot be allowed to get away with it,' he said.
'The Prime Minister is supposed to be in favour of open government but this goes one step further than anything we have had before in attempting to gag the press,' Mr Adley added.
But the Ministry of Transport denied that Clause 70 was an all- embracing 'gagging order' on the press. It will apply only to information obtained by those empowered under the Bill to demand it from the franchise companies, for example the regulator and his staff. They would be open to prosecution for leaking the information they obtained in the course of their duties.
A spokesman for the ministry said that a similar clause was in previous privatisation legislation, and insisted that it would not apply generally to the leaking of information to the press about the new operators.
But such reassurances are unlikely to satisfy critics of the Bill.Reuse content