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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 October 2007, 16:41 GMT 17:41 UK
UK secrecy laws facing shake-up
Houses of Parliament
A whole raft of constitutional reform plans have been outlined
Britain's secrecy and data protection laws face a shake-up under plans put forward by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Freedom of Information laws could be extended to cover some private firms and planned increases in the cost of making such requests have been axed.

Mr Brown has also appointed Daily Mail chief Paul Dacre to review the 30-year limit on releasing government papers.

In a speech on liberty, he also set out plans for a Bill of Rights and Duties and a possible written constitution.

Justice Minister Michael Wills said any "fundamental alteration in the powers of Parliament" would likely be put to the public in a referendum.

The Conservatives called Mr Wills' comments "extraordinary" in the light of a vote on the EU treaty being ruled out.

In his speech, Mr Brown said he wanted to protect traditional British liberties in the modern age and build on the constitutional changes he first announced in July.

"I believe that by applying our enduring ideals to new challenges we can start immediately to make changes to our constitution and laws to safeguard and extend the liberties of our citizens," said Mr Brown.

Private firms

Mr Brown announced a review of protest laws in Parliament Square to ensure "people's right to protest outside the very heart of our democracy - the House of Commons - is not subject to unnecessary restrictions".

He also launched a three month public consultation on extending the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows the public to request confidential information from public bodies.

Mr Brown said: "Freedom of Information can be inconvenient, at times frustrating and indeed embarrassing for governments.

KEY POINTS
Review of data protection laws
30-year-rule could be scrapped
Parliament Square protest ban reviewed
No increase in Freedom of Information (FOI) request fees
FOI could be extended to some private firms
Government to publish National Security Strategy
New rules on authorities' power to enter homes

"But Freedom of Information is the right course because government belongs to the people, not the politicians."

In future, it could cover private firms carrying out work in the public sector, such as security companies running prisons.

Mr Brown also announced a review of the 30-year rule, saying that FOI meant it was now often possible to gain access to recent documents more easily than those from the past.

"It is time to look again at whether historical records can be made available for public inspection much more swiftly than under the current arrangements," said the prime minister.

Private sector

Mr Dacre, editor-in-chief of Daily Mail and Evening Standard owner Associated Newspapers, former top civil servant Sir Joe Pilling and historian David Cannadine would review the rules.

Brown's speech looks like a desperate attempt to resurrect his 'new politics' which has already been discredited by his serial use of spin
Nick Herbert, shadow justice secretary

Mr Brown said plans to restrict media reporting of coroners' court proceedings would also be scrapped.

The prime minister also praised the work of Information Commissioner Richard Thomas who is to launch a review of personal data sharing safeguards in the public and private sector.

Mr Thomas will also move to protect legitimate investigative journalists from a planned crackdown on the trade in personal data, such as utility bills and health records.

The commissioner said the prime minister "has sent significant signals to Whitehall and the rest of the public sector that FOI must be taken seriously".

Alan Beith, chairman of the constitutional affairs committee, also welcomed the speech but said he was "disappointed" Mr Brown had ignored calls for independent funding for the information commissioner.

"Can it be appropriate for the Ministry of Justice to set the funding levels for the independent regulator and thereby directly influence its capacity to investigate complaints?," said Mr Beith.

The Conservatives have, meanwhile, reported the government to Mr Thomas for allegedly blocking or delaying a series of Tory requests for information.

Civil liberties

"We are calling for an urgent investigation by the Information Commissioner into exactly what role ministers have played in this subversion," said shadow work and pensions spokesman Chris Grayling.

"If Gordon Brown is serious about increasing openness, he should start by practicing what he preaches."

Shadow Justice Secretary Nick Herbert said: "Brown's speech looks like a desperate attempt to resurrect his 'new politics' which has already been discredited by his serial use of spin."

Lib Dem justice spokesman David Heath said: "One of the main threats to civil liberties over the last decade has been the behaviour of an increasingly overbearing Labour government that has transformed Britain into a surveillance state.

"If Gordon Brown is genuinely signalling a change of heart then that is good news, but authoritarianism seems to run deep in the lifeblood of this government."



SEE ALSO
UK needs Bill of Rights - Straw
25 Oct 07 |  UK Politics
In full: Brown speech on liberty
25 Oct 07 |  UK Politics
Referendum on rights 'inevitable'
25 Oct 07 |  UK Politics
Protest curbs 'will be reviewed'
25 Oct 07 |  UK Politics
Brown sets out reform proposals
03 Jul 07 |  UK Politics
At-a-glance: Constitutional plans
25 Oct 07 |  UK Politics

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