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Secret Society victory for Post

A high-profile Secret Society campaign waged by the Nottingham Evening Post has played a part in forcing the Government to rethink its Freedom of Information Bill.

The newspaper had argued that the bill gave public bodies – such as the police, councils and NHS trusts – the chance to withold information.

The paper’s campaign was shown to Home Secretary Jack Straw, and the minister responsible for the bill, Mike O’Brien, by Paddy Tipping, Labour MP for Sherwood, Nottinghamshire.

Now Mr Tipping has told the newspaper that “the Government is minded to make some concessions of the kind the Post has been calling for”.

Mr Tipping added: “The Post has been influential in provoking discussion. The newspaper has run a strong campaign.”

The changes are likely to be made when the bill returns to the House of Commons next month.

The two vital concessions which the Post has campaigned for are:

  • A new information commissioner regulating the provisions in the bill would be able to force disclosure of information, not just recommend publication. This would prevent public bodies from keeping damning reports secret – if publicity was in the public interest.
  • Background papers used by ministers to make decisions should be seen by the public. A local example used by the Post is that as the bill stands the public would have no automatic right to see papers which may have led to Nottingham Prison being picked to house two of the country’s worst paedophiles in a special unit.

The Post devoted page one and page five to the u-turn, but editor Graham Glen sounded a note of caution. He said: “Our Secret Society campaign appears to have scored its first major success.

“We say ‘appear’ because we would rather see the final wording of Government amendments to the Freedom of Information Bill before making a judgement on what has hitherto been an inadequate piece of legislation.

“The two concessions by the Home Secretary are certainly, in principle, valuable ones.

“The new information commissioner would be empowered not merely to recommend the disclosure of information by secretive public bodies, but to enforce it.

“However, it remains to be seen how the ‘public interest’ requirement will be interpreted when police forces and NHS trusts try to invoke exemption clauses on issues they want kept confidential.”

The Post’s campaign is also aimed at other aspects of the Secret Society – including the Local Government Bill which, Mr Glen says, threatens to add secrecy rather than strip it away.

The message from the Post is that on all fronts, the campaign goes on…

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