Right to Know Bill is published

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Indy Politics
THE FIRST attempt by MPs in 14 years to bring in a freedom of information Act was launched yesterday with the publication of a Labour MP's Right to Know Bill.

The Bill, creating a new public right of access to official records and sponsored by Mark Fisher, the MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, has support across the political spectrum with prominent backbench Tories Sir Teddy Taylor and Emma Nicholson among those named as its backers.

Mr Fisher told a Westminster news conference last night that since the last attempt to bring in freedom of information laws - in 1979 - other countries had 'shamed our democracy', leaving Britain out of step with the rest of the Western world.

Insisting the Bill would lead to 'better public debate and better public decisions', Mr Fisher said the outcry over pit closures was a 'classic example. . . of a debate of passion and not of quality - a debate of assertion and counter-assertion, with no facts'.

The Bill would give a right of access to records held by public authorities, subject to security, commercial, legal and privacy exceptions, create a public interest defence to Official Secrets Act charges and give people access to their employment records.

Its Second Reading on Friday week will not be opposed by the Government, giving it a good chance of going into Committee Stage, when ministers will be forced to justify their opposition.

The Bill would also force companies employing 50 or more people to reveal in their annual reports successful action taken against them under consumer, environmental, safety and anti-discrimination laws, deaths and serious injuries of employees and pension fund information.

Individuals believing information had been wrongly withheld could complain to a commissioner and tribunal similar to those under the Data Protection Act.

Exempt information would be subject to an overriding presumption of disclosure in the public interest and in cases involving abuse of authority.

William Waldegrave, whose Office of Public Service and Science is working on a White Paper on greater openness, said yesterday that the Government would study carefully points made during parliamentary and public debates, but emphasised that the Official Secrets Act would not be re-opened.