Straw placates peers with stronger Freedom of Information Bill

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Jack Straw offered a series of concessions on the Freedom of Information Bill yesterday amid fears that the measure would otherwise be lost.

Jack Straw offered a series of concessions on the Freedom of Information Bill yesterday amid fears that the measure would otherwise be lost.

The Home Secretary accepted demands by the Liberal Democrats and freedom of information campaigners to strengthen the public's access to information from the authorities.

Mr Straw agreed to the climbdown to avert potentially embarrassing defeats by an alliance of Tory and Liberal Democrat peers when the legislation is debated next week in the House of Lords.

He will make a further last-ditch attempt to persuade peers to back down during a special meeting with Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman, on Monday.

The Government has been concerned that any more clashes with peers would further delay the legislative timetable, which has already been pushed back by a month. The Queen's Speech is now scheduled for 6 December.

Under the proposed changes to the Bill, public authorities will now have to spell out why they want to exempt certain information from public release. Previously, the public had to prove why they had a right to have that access.

People who want information will also be able to get assistance in drafting their requests and public authorities will have to advise applicants of their decision within 21 working days. Freedom of information campaigners were angered that the previously proposed 40-day deadline was more secretive than under the present Code of Practice.

The Home Secretary also strengthened the public right to ask public authorities for factual information that was taken into consideration when policy decision were made.

He has already amended the legislation to weaken ministers' powers to overrule the proposed Information Commissioner if he insisted on information being made public. Now, only cabinet ministers will be able to veto the disclosure of information, and guidelines will call for them to consult with their colleagues first.

Mr Straw was forced to back down on a series of issues after 36 Labour backbenchers rebelled in the House of Commons. Backbenchers were furious after the Home Office largely rewrote a draft Bill by Dr David Clark, a former minister and a leading campaigner for reform.

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