Straw struggles to avert revolt on Information Bill

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The Government was bracing for the second backbench rebellion in less than 24 hours last night amid claims that the Freedom of Information Bill left ministers too much power to keep sensitive matters secret.

The Government was bracing for the second backbench rebellion in less than 24 hours last night amid claims that the Freedom of Information Bill left ministers too much power to keep sensitive matters secret.

Leading concern, Tony Wright, the chairman of the Public Administration Committee, said during the legislation's report stage that it would allow ministers to overrule the proposed Information Commissioner if he insists on information being made public.

On Monday night, the Government suffered its third largest Commons revolt since coming into office, over the link between state pensions and earnings.

Last night Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, met with disgruntled backbenchers to try to persuade them to support the freedom of information legislation. He also renewed his assurance that he was ready to consider further changes in response to their arguments. But he made clear that he had already made a series of concessions to freedom of information campaigners.

A series of amendments was tabled yesterday by Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory MPs questioning powers to limit access to information under the Bill. Potential rebels included usually loyal MPs and several Select Committee chairmen. Mark Fisher, the former junior minister and MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, said: "We must hold to a general presumption in favour of the right to know. I fear that at the moment there is a tone running through this Bill which is grudging.

"Wherever there is a balance to be drawn between the rights of the public authority to withhold information or the rights of an applicant to have access to that information - time and again this Bill comes down in favour of the public authority rather than the applicant."

But Mr Straw had earlier insisted that the Bill represented "the most fundamental change in the freedom of information this country has ever seen", fulfilling pledges made by him and Tony Blair in the 1997 election manifesto. Criticism of the Bill was based on "a considerable degree of misunderstanding, some genuine and some, I think, pretty wilful".

Mr Straw said that where the Commissioner rules that certain information does not come under the range of exclusions from the presumption for disclosure, that decision would be final unless overturned by appeal to a new Information Tribunal or to the courts. Only on rare occasions would an "executive override in extremis" permit ministers to overrule the Commissioner, an arrangement he said existed in virtually all of the freedom of information regimes most praised by campaigners.

Robin Corbett, a Labour member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said the Bill was flawed as it allowed public bodies to withhold information on the basis that it would "prejudice" the public interest, rather than "substantially harm" it.

"We think that if you are going to keep information from the public, then the test ought to be a high test, with the presumption being that all the information available to Government should be available to the citizen. We think the Information Commissioner should have the last say.

"If you don't trust the Information Commissioner to get it right, then don't have one."

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