Leak shows Government wants to hobble FOI law

Senior British government minister Alistair Darling is calling for tighter restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act, The-Latest has found out.

Trade Secretary Darling is concerned that law does not sufficiently protect advice from officials to ministers. In a letter to the Lord Chancellor, his Cabinet colleague Lord Falconer, whose new Ministry of Justice is responsible for the law, he argues that "incremental harm" could be done to policy development and asks for the Act to be reviewed. There are already moves underway to limit the Act, including one from Conservative Party Chief Whip David Maclean to exempt MPs and another to restrict costs.

Prime minister in waiting Gordon Brown has been called a hypocrite by civil liberties campaigners concerned that, on the one hand he has called for more open government, and on the other privately supported Maclean's initiative. The row forced him to field one of his closest allies, Ed Balls, a treasury minister, to propose the compromise that only MPs' correspondence with their constituents should be kept secret.

In his letter, Mr Darling highlights a concern that the Information Tribunal, has ruled against the government in favour of openness. He writes: "The problem seems to stem from the case-by-case approach that the Act requires us to take to FOI requests, and a discernible trend within the Information Tribunal that decisions on the public interest test have not been falling in the government's favour in key cases." Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, in a speech to the FOI conference on Thursday, urged public bodies to adopt a positive approach to openness.

He also said that the government would have to provide "clear, specific and credible evidence that the formulation or development of policy would be materially altered for the worse by the threat of disclosure" . Opposition to the weakening of the Freedom of Information Act has come not just from civil liberties campaigners, journalists, Labour back-bench MPs and the Liberal Democrats. Former Conservative Home Secretary Lord Baker and prominent libertarian Tory MP Richard Shepherd have also fought to keep the law intact.

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