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FREEDOM OF INFORMATION - BASSAM DEFENDS 'TOOTHLESS' BILL

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The Freedom of Information Bill has been criticised for lacking teeth despite Home Office minister Lord Bassam insi...
The Freedom of Information Bill has been criticised for lacking teeth despite Home Office minister Lord Bassam insisting it will force councils to become more accountable.

The Bill, which is at committee stage in the House of Lords, introduces a statutory 'right to know'. An information commissioner will be created with powers requiring councils to disclose information to the public, but the Bill contains exemptions which some campaigners claim limits its effectiveness.

'The Bill has some teeth but is lacking a full set. We're concerned local authorities will be able to use these gaps to withhold information which the public justifiably feel they should have a right to see,' said Andrew Ecclestone of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

One exemption says information must not be revealed if it prejudices the effective conduct of public affairs, and this will be decided by a 'qualified person'. Others say the release of information must not prejudice someone's commercial interest or hinder a court case.

Lord Bassam insisted in a speech to the Local Government Association that the Bill will place extensive responsibilities on councils.

'The Bill has teeth. If an authority fails to follow an order of the commissioner, the commissioner can report the authority to the High Court for contempt. The maximum penalty for contempt is two years' imprisonment, so I would advise councils not to stretch the patience of the commissioner too far,' he said.

Local government minister Hilary Armstrong has criticised councils for maintaining an atmosphere of secrecy, but the DETR said some safeguards were needed against freedom of information.

'Politicians will always need space away from the public glare to think the unthinkable. If we do not allow them that space in a formal setting, those meetings will go back underground into informal settings with oral briefings,' it said.

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