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Govt ditches plans to curb FOI and restrict coroners' court access

Plans to introduce new reporting restrictions in coroners’ courts have been dropped by the Government.

In a move to open up government and the justice process, Gordon Brown also announced that new curbs on the Freedom of Information Act were being abandoned, and that more public bodies may be opened up to scrutiny under FOI.

The proposed coroners’ bill could have allowed coroners to ban the publication of the name of the deceased or any interested person, and also any information which could lead to the identification of the deceased.

Editors voiced concerns over plans to allow this power to impose reporting restrictions at inquests in England and Wales. The Press Complaints Commission was also concerned. Coroners were also opposed to the proposals, saying that in practice they would be unworkable.

Ministers decided not to press ahead with restrictions on media access to coroner’s courts in the light of responses to a consultation exercise last year.

The Prime Minister said yesterday: “Last year, in a draft bill, we published proposals which would limit media access to coroners’ courts.

“Having undertaken extensive consultation we have now decided not to go ahead with these proposals.”

He also said that plans to water down the Freedom of Information Act were being shelved.

Gordon Brown said: “We do this because of the risk that such proposals might have placed unacceptable barriers between the people and public information.”

The proposals could have hiked the cost of satisfying a request for information, which would have increased the number of requests that could be rejected immediately on cost grounds, and would serve to reduce the amount of information available to the public.

The Newspaper Society, the Campaign for Freedom of Information and the Society of Editors were all against the move.

Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell hailed the pledges as “a triumph for the public and common sense”.

He said: “It remains important to continue to change the culture in government and public bodies away from secrecy to one of openness.

“The Society of Editors will be happy to work with ministers and the information commissioner to help make Freedom of Information work better for the public.

“We look forward to ministers leading the way to greater openness. Feeding the public genuine facts and information rather than trying to spin them is the way for politicians and public bodies to win respect.”

Santha Rasaiah, from the Newspaper Society, said: “The NS is delighted that the Government has abandoned the restrictions on freedom of information and open justice.

“We are pleased that the proposal for a freedom of expression audit will be pursued. We hope that the principle will be immediately applied to existing proposals and bills already before parliament.”

The Government also announced that announced it would now consider extending the scope of the FOI Act.

Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, said: “I am also relieved that the Government is withdrawing earlier proposals to change the current fees regime. The existing provisions in the FOI Act can be used to deal with vexatious requests.

“The current fees regime is working well and is simple, clear and certain. We were concerned that the proposed changes to the fees regime would have been unworkable and deterred people from using the Act.”

The announcement yesterday also promised a fresh raft of civil liberties as the PM launched a nationwide consultation on a British Bill of Rights, possibly leading to a written constitution.

The rules governing release of historical documents would also be reviewed to see if time lapses of 30 years were justified.