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Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 15:07 GMT


UK Politics

Open government on the way

Jack Straw is moving ahead with freedom of information

Open government in the UK is now significantly closer after the Queen revealed that action would be taken on freedom of information during the next year.

The Queen's Speech
Home Secretary Jack Straw has already published draft proposals on what has been a Labour manifesto commitment for over 20 years, but they have been widely criticised by MPs from all parties and campaigners.

Addressing Parliament on Wednesday the Queen said: "My government will introduce a Bill on Freedom of Information.

"It will give everyone the right of access to information held across the public sector for the first time."

The bill will create a statutory right of access to information.

An Information Commissioner will also be set up to enforce the bill, which with some exemptions will force public bodies to disclose information.

Public authorities will also be given a duty to draw up plans for the publication of information.

Careful deliberations

Ministers have spent a long time considering Labour's manifesto commitment to put an end to "unnecessary secrecy in government".

A white paper was first published in 1997 and then a less robust draft bill followed in May 1999.

But even when Mr Straw published concessions to the draft bill last month they were still condemned by campaigners for transparency in public life for not going far enough.

Straw gives ground

The 1997 white paper had promised access to information unless it caused "substantial harm" but Mr Straw's draft bill proposes a considerably weaker test of "prejudice".

But in Mr Straw's concessions to the bill a blanket ban on the release of information on accident, health and safety and fraud inquiries has been scrapped.

How far the bill proper will go remains to be seen.

Room for improvement

Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Maurice Frankel, said: "Our overwhelming feeling is that the bill will have to be substantially improved if it is to live up to the promises made of it over 25 years."

While the director of Charter88 Pam Giddy welcomed the bill with faint praise: "The government has an outstanding record on democratic reform, but its reputation is in danger of being tarnished.

"The freedom of information legislation as it stands will do little to change the over-secretive political culture in Britain."



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