HC Deb 25 July 1979 vol 971 cc608-11

3.50 p.m.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend public rights of access to official information; and for purposes connected therewith. The Bill is a shortened and considerably revised version of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) and the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) in January 1979 and, on that occasion, given an unopposed Second Reading. That Bill fell at the general election. It has been shortened by the removal of the clauses dealing with the repeal of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911 and its replacement.

Since the Government have given a specific undertaking to deal with that matter in this Session, that part of the previous Bill has been dropped in the hope that, at last, a blot on the criminal law will be removed, as has been repeatedly promised.

My Bill concentrates on establishing a public right of access to official documents, subject to substantial exceptions which are designed to protect both public and private interests. The exemptions have been revised and extended in the light of criticisms made at the Committee stage of the Bill of the hon. Member for Isle of Ely. The schedule exempts from the public right of access documents containing information that may harm the national interest in respect of defence and security, foreign relations, the currency or the reserves and law enforcement, or threaten private interests by the invasion of privacy of individuals or the commercial position of firms through the release of confidential information.

There are, therefore, certain specific differences between this and the earlier Bill. First, the departmental authorities to which the Bill applies are limited to central Government and the National Health Service, though a power has been added to extend the list by order subject to affirmative resolution.

Secondly, regarding the exemptions, currency and reserves have been added as a ground for withholding information or refusing access.

Thirdly, the Bill gives a test of damage to a company's position and another of damage to departmental relations. I admit that those are fairly broad, but they are better tests than straight confidentiality, which would prevent any information supplied in confidence being made available, even where there was a clear public interest. I am thinking of, for example, matters relating to environmental pollution, health hazards, dangerous products and so on.

Fourthly, since prejudicial information about individuals is held and used under the system of confidentiality, the Bill allows for the correction by individuals of documents about themselves.

Fifthly, the additional five-year protection in the earlier Bill for all Cabinet documents is extended to 10 years.

Sixthly, the Bill will enable an exemption to be made—and it is an important exemption—where it can be shown that the cost of retrospection will be excessive.

Seventhly, since strong objection has been taken to giving access to policy advice subject to deferment, a provision has been added to allow copies of documents to be asked for with the deferred material deleted. The aim is to prevent Ministers from keeping back until after the event the factual and technical information on which policy decisions are made. A topical example could be the reports of the Nuclear Inspectorate into the safety record of pressure water reactors.

Lastly, the Bill would give direct public access to the Ombudsman and allow him to investigate the merits of cases. Since resort to the Ombudsman to enforce the rights of access may, as hon. Members will know, be slow, the Bill adds a judicial review as an option which would be quicker and more effective.

It is essential that access should be by right. Both the previous Government and the present Government have jibbed at that and have either promised a more relaxed discretionary policy or flirted with a purely administrative code of practice. I can see why that has been so, but neither course will do.

Parliament exists to check the Executive but it is idle to pretend that however hard hon. Members work on behalf of their constituents they can ever cope with the burden created by the extension of parliamentary activity into every aspect of national life. The only people who can fully protect and advance the interests of the people are the people themselves. In order to do that, they need to know the policies of the Government, on what advice and information they have been formed, to whom they apply, the rules for the application of policy, how the rules affect individual citizens and on the basis of what information about those citizens decisions are made.

I recognise that the availability of such information will alter the balance of the constitution. It will restrict, to some degree, the freedom of manoeuvre of Ministers and it will expose the real importance of civil servants in government to greater public recognition and scrutiny. That may be unwelcome in some quarters, but I believe that it is long overdue. It would certainly make for more responsible and accountable government and might, perhaps, allow a better-prepared Parliament to play a more effective role on behalf of a better-informed electorate.

I should like to add a word on two important practical questions on which supporters of the principle of a right of access to official information may differ, namely, retrospection and cost.

The first question is whether a freedom of information Act should apply to documents already in existence or only to those created after its enactment. In other words, should documents written in the security of the present system, with a protection that lasts for at least 30 years, suddenly be exposed to publication? On the other hand, it would be odd if access were possible to what was created 30 years ago and what is created tomorrow but to nothing in between.

Another practical consideration is the sheer bulk of files that would need to be examined and reorganised if retrospection were allowed. That is why the Bill leaves the matter open and makes the considerable concession of allowing the Secretary of State to seek parliamentary approval to exclude from the Act documents created before its enactment.

On the question of cost, the most alarming estimates have related to retrospection, and the worst horror stories, especially those from the United States, reflect retrospective rights of access.

Official estimates of costs in the United States have grossly exaggerated, in anticipation. Most important, in the light of present expenditure on the Government's information services and advertising, none of the estimates looks large. So much public money is wasted on indifferent propaganda and some dotty advertising campaigns that surely, even in this new era of austerity, we should be able to contemplate some extra expenditure to make government more accessible, comprehensible and accountable. I submit that if the Government are serious about wanting to set the people free, the Bill should be their top priority.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Meacher, Mr. Kenneth Baker, Mr. Robin F. Cook, Mr. Hugh Fraser, Mr. Clement Freud, Mr. Archie Hamilton, Mr. Christopher Price and Mr. Phillip Whitehead.