Government secrecy changes promised

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has presented plans to overhaul secrecy and data protection laws.

In a speech on the subject of liberty, the Prime Minister has revealed plans to extend Freedom of Information laws, review the 30 year limit on releasing sensitive government papers and to review the rights of protestors in Parliament Square.

Brown said that the Freedom of Information laws can be “inconvenient” to government, but at the same time it “is the right course [to extend them] because government belongs to the people, not the politicians.” He launched a three month public consultation on extending the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to cover private firms working on public sector projects.

The Prime Minister also promised a review to consider if the 30 year rule was still necessary as people were gaining access to more sensitive documents on a much more regular basis through the FOI Act.

He said: “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.”

Brown has appointed the editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail and Evening Standard owners, Associated Newspapers, to undertake the review alongside former top civil servant Sir Joe Pilling and historian David Cannadine to review the rules.

Restrictions on the media reporting of coroners’ court proceedings would also be scrapped, Brown said.

The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has also been assigned to hold a review into personal data sharing safeguards in the public and private sector.

Thomas will also be given powers 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, welcomed the speech but said he was “disappointed” Brown had ignored calls for independent funding for the information commissioner.

He said: “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?”

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.”