§ Order for Second Reading read.9.51 am
§ Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
In Gershwin's opera, "Porgy and Bess", there is a jolly little song with the title "It ain't necessarily so". The song expresses scepticism about some of the myths in the Old Testament. Scepticism about myths is healthy in a democracy, but scepticism in itself is not sufficient. What is required is a free and full exchange of information between the citizen and the Government if there is to be a proper functioning of the democratic system. That was put well in the White Paper on the Official Secrets Act in July 1978. The introduction stated:In a democracy, people should have information about the workings of government. Without it, they cannot call their representatives to account and make informed use of their rights as citizens and electors.It continued:Over recent years it has become accepted that the government must pay greater attention to the needs and expectations of the public in explaining its policies and actions. In this respect a present-day Government works in a climate different from that of, for example, 20 years ago.Those statements are fair.
I do not claim any originality for this Bill. The trail was blazed by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) and my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who I hope will make a contribution to the debate later. I am greatly indebted to the Outer Circle Policy Unit, and particularly to Mr. James Cornford, who is a director of the Nuffield Foundation.
Many bodies haxe expressed full support for the Bill, including the National Union of Journalists, the Press Council, the TUC and the Library Association, and, significantly, a number of Civil Service trade unions have recently stated publicly that they are fully behind the intentions of the Bill. Valuable work has been carried out by the Freedom of Information Campaign, under the present chairmanship of the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor) and by the all-party group in this House under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook). It has carried out valuable work in this area.
What is the governmental record? Nine years ago, in 1972, we had the Franks report. Whitehall took a six-year pause for a deep breath, and then in 1978 produced the White Paper on the Official Secrets Act, from which I have just quoted. Later in 1978 we had the Lindop report on data protection, and in 1979 we had a very interesting document produced by the Civil Service Department. It was a report on overseas practice on the disclosure of official information. Later in 1979 the Government produced a Protection of Official Information Bill, only to withdraw it in embarrassment and dismay when the Blunt affair blew up. No Government have summoned up the nerve to do anything on this extremely important subject.
The cause of open government has made some progress over the past 15 years. We now have Green Papers, consultative documents, the creation of specialist Select Committees—recently organised into a coherent system, 515 which is a great advance—and the creation of the office of Parliamentary Commissioner. There are other ways in which successive Governments have made serious efforts to deal more openly with the situation. The Bill is part of that process. It is intended not to reveal or disclose juicy scandals but to prevent scandals from occurring by opening up an intelligent and informed dialogue between the Government and the citizen. That is the purpose of freedom of information. It may embarrass Governments, Ministers and civil servants, but the central objective of the Bill is to get an intelligent flow of information and opinion from the Government, on the basis of which we can put forward more intelligent social, economic and other policies.
The need for that rests on four points. First, the Government are now inescapably involved in all aspects of the life of the individual citizen. Even this Government cannot avoid that. When a baby is born, he immediately becomes eligible for child benefit. When a person dies, his family is eligible for a death grant. At every stage in between there is a mass of regulations, legislation and Government policies which have an impact on the lives of men and women—in school, out of school, in employment, at home, about mortgages, planning, on the roads, in their cars, and so on. There is no way that the individual citizen can escape the impact of Government policy on his life. That alone would justify the case for the free flow of information and access to information on the part of the citizen. He should know what the Government are supposed to be doing in his name.
The second argument is not advanced so freely, but it is extremely important. We live in an age of advanced technology—computers, microprocessors, data electronics, nuclear power and, what frightens me most, genetic, engineering and biotechnology—the manipulation of life itself. The Government are inevitably involved. We have radiation hazards—the hazards of dangerous chemicals, such as the terrible dioxin that swept Soweso in Northern Italy, and that has had an impact in this country in a factory not far from Sheffield. There is also the handling of the dangerous pathogens. I recall the tragic accident at Birmingham university. The Government are involved through the Health and Safety Executive. There are rules about radiation, and there are decisions to be made about building or not building nuclear reactors, nuclear processing materials, and so on. In no way can the Government escape this involvement and responsibility.
It is very important that the citizen should know the thinking of the Government in designing and constructing the safeguards which are absolutely necessary in an advanced industrial society, so that these hazards do not get out of control, and so that the thinking within the Government, at the top levels of the Civil Service and lower down can be matched freely and fairly against the thinking and knowledge of the thousands of highly expert engineers and scientists—men of the greatest good will, who have no desire to embarrass the Government, as such, but who have expert knowledge which can be measured against the information that is supplied to the Government—provided that the information that is given to the Government flows back the other way.
How can physicists, scientists and chemists measure whether Government policies are moving in the right direction unless they have some idea of the kind of 516 information that is fed through the State bureaucracy and is impacting on Ministers, as a result of which they produce policies?
This is not idle theory. There has recently been the very unhappy case of Trevor Brown, the man who drew attention to the appalling neglect of radiation safety at Aldermaston. He risked his career by saying that things were wrong and that things should be put right. What happened? The Government appointed one of the most distinguished scientists in this country to investigate. His findings confirmed virtually everything that Trevor Brown had said—things which had been suppressed or obstructed until that time.
What was the result? Was Mr. Brown given a CBE, an OBE, a knighthood or viscountcy? Not at all. He was harassed and persecuted for the sole reason that his disclosures had been inconvenient to the higher echelons of the Government, and, even though they were absolutely and fully confirmed by an independent and scientific inquiry of the highest integrity, he was subjected to punishment on account of the fact that he was in breach of some technical regulation concerning secrecy or disclosure of information—rule 996, or whatever it was, of the complicated code that governs these matters within the Civil Service. That is not the only case where secrecy, the holding back of information, has covered up criminal negligence. In the case I have mentioned, it was one of the most important Government establishments in this country.
I understand—clearly one cannot prove negatives—that there has been an important CPRS report on the problems of alcoholism that has not been released. There has been research on the question of deaths from hypothermia—a rather sensitive political matter in some respects—which again has not been disclosed and to which researchers do not access. There are, no doubt, other cases in which it has not been convenient, for one reason or another, for the Government to release information.
The case for legislation on the lines of the Bill is made up to the hilt. But, if the case were not thought to be made, one might regard as significant the fact that other democracies within Western Europe and North America have taken the problem seriously and have legislated on it.
I am told that the principle of freedom of information has been built into the Swedish constititution since 1766. The United States had a freedom of information Act in 1966. It did not work very well and was updated in 1974. Denmark had such legislation in 1970, Norway in 1971, France in 1978 and the Netherlands in 1978.
I am happy to say that in Canada, just a week ago, Parliament passed virtually unanimously a Bill which enshrines the principle of freedom of information. The Government of Canada have already said that the Civil Service should act, as from now, on the assumption that the principles of the Bill shall apply. Australia, likewise, has been proceeding in the same direction. So what is being advocated here is not some—
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)
Will my hon. Friend add to that list the fact that the Council of Europe has unanimously called upon the Governments of all its member states to introduce freedom of information? Our Government did not oppose it.
§ Mr. Hooley
I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for that information, which strengthens the case. The Bill is 517 not suggesting something that is way out and peculiar, or in advance of what other countries practise. On the contrary, if the Bill is passed—as I hope it will be—it will bring the United Kingdom very much into line with our sister democracies in Europe and North America.
I turn to the main features of the Bill, which is in two parts. Clause 1 creates a public right of access to official documents. This is the core and heart of the Bill; the public right of access to official documents is the central issue. As I understand the rather vague and mysterious law which exists at the moment, the very opposite is the case. The principle in our statutes is that nobody has any right of access to anything or the right to disclose anything. The Bill seeks to reverse that position and to establish by statute a public right of access to official documents.
The rest of the Bill, in a sense, is a commentary on that fundamental principle—the citizen's right to know what his or her Government are doing. The various clauses set out the practicalities of putting that principle into effect.
The Bill is a modest measure and confines the principle for the moment to the central Government and the agencies of the central Government, and to the National Health Service, but there is a clause which would allow the measure to be extended to local government or to other public authorities by order duly approved by the House.
Clause 12 and schedule 1 provide categories of information which should be exempt from the basic principle. Broadly, these categories are defence, foreign affairs—but not matters relating to the EEC—security and intelligence, currency and reserves, law enforcement, criminal procedures, commercial confidentiality and personal privacy.
Under the Bill a citizen would have a right of access to information about himself held in Government files, but not to information about other people. It would not be open to someone to demand to see the income tax returns of his neighbour, but he would be able to ask to be shown the information held in governmental files on his own personal affairs.
The exemption categories that I have mentioned are permissive, not mandatory. The Bill does not seek to create a position in which the Government would close up even more tightly in some areas; indeed, there could very well be a greater disclosure if it were felt to be necessary.
Clauses 5 to 11, 15 and 16 deal with the mechanics of making information available, and lay a duty on Departments to produce a code of guidance for the public, so that, once the measure is enacted, hon. members and individual citizens will be able to find out where particular documents are and will be told how to get at them.
Clauses 18 to 20 provide for investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—the Ombudsman—if access to documents is refused and the individual concerned considers that the refusal is not justified.
The value of giving this role to the Ombudsman is, first, that his office already exists. Therefore, there is no need to create another bureaucracy or another Department. Secondly, the Ombudsman is already familiar, through his existing work, with the ramifications of official business and official files. Therefore, it would be a natural extension of his duties to look into cases—which one would hope would be very rare—where a document was requested and was not produced.
Clause 21 goes a little further. It provides for appeal to a judge of the High Court if it is felt that the Ombudsman's 518 investigations have made the case but the Government Department concerned has declined to comply with the request for access to the document. The judge in chambers could look at the document concerned in private and would have the power to order disclosure if he felt that that was in accordance with the Act. I am aware that that aspect of the Bill has given rise to some sort of constitutional neurosis in certain quarters. However, it should be discussed in Committee.
Part II deals with the problem of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911. It would clearly be absurd to enact the principle of access to official information and to give citizens rights of access to information held in Government files, but to leave this absurd Act—which has been with us for 70 years—on the statute book. The provisions of part II are largely in line with the Franks committee's recommendations. They would repeal the notorious section 2. Indeed, the Franks report described that section most succinctly as a "a mess".
Clause 25 defines the categories of information that would be protected by criminal sanctions. Broadly, it refers to classified information in areas such as defence, security and intelligence, international relations, law enforcement, commercial confidentiality and personal privacy. However, part II contains important differences from the Government's Protection of Official Information Bill, which was produced in 1979 and withdrawn.
First, if information in these categories is improperly disclosed, it must be established that such information had been correctly classified in the first place and was likely to cause serious injury to the national interest. That is a very important principle. It means that the disclosure of trivial information—even if it were to fall within these categories—or the disclosure of some matter that could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be construed as damaging could not give rise to prosecution. Indeed, if prosecution were to occur it could hardly lead to conviction. If information is disclosed under these prohibitive categories, the prosecution would have to establish that the disclosure was likely to cause serious injury to the national interest. That is covered by clause 37.
Secondly, if prosecution is brought there will be a defence if the information disclosed is already public knowledge in the United Kingdom or abroad. The present situation is absurd. People could be—I think that they have been—prosecuted for revealing information that had been banner headlines in the press of a foreign country. That is utterly ridiculous. Under the Bill, if prosecution were initiated the defence could establish that the information disclosed was already public knowledge and had been published in the British or foreign press.
Thirdly, it would be a defence if the disclosure had been in the public interest—for example, if it revealed corruption, crime or gross negligence in the public service. The provision is very important and relates to the case of Trevor Brown. Some protection must be afforded to those who cannot, in good conscience, go along with some manifest impropriety in the discharge of public business. Such people may place their careers at risk by revealing information and may find themselves in danger of prosecution by the powers that be, under the codes or laws that govern their service. The Bill provides that if a person is prosecuted in those circumstances he can offer a defence—which obviously he must prove—that the disclosure was made in the public interest and that there 519 was no other motive. If prosecution were brought, the onus of proof would always lie on the prosecution. If prosecution is initiated, it will require the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions or of the Attorney-General, as appropriate.
Those are the principal features of the Bill. It is impossible to deal with its many ramifications. They are primarily matters to be discussed in Committee. However, I turn to one other matter that is incorporated in the text of the Bill but that is not so much a matter of legislation as of application. Wild and exaggerated statements have been made to the effect that the cost involved in terms of money and manpower would be colossal. It is said that thousands and thousands of civil servants, and hundreds of millions of pounds, will be involved. That is blatant nonsense and must be firmly disposed of here and now, once and for all.
Oddly enough, evidence to refute that claim has been provided by the Civil Service. It produced a valuable report about practice overseas and referred to the costs involved. I shall quote from Page 50, paragraph 11.10. It states:In Scandinavia, the study could identify no attributable costs. Sweden had absorbed any such cost in the operation of government long ago. Norway and Denmark acknowledged there were initial costs in reorganising file systems and registers, and in publicity, but these had not been of vast magnitude. Because there had been only a small public response, the operational costs had not been great; nor had officials been diverted from their regular duties in order to examine documents and files before release to an applicant.Someone may leap up and say that the situation in America is different. I accept that. However, the report points out:In America … for six large departments—Agriculture, Commerce, Defence, Health, Education and Welfare—costs were reported totalling 6.8 million dollars in 1975, 15.5 million dollars in 1976, and 18.6 million in 1977.It was also claimed that the starting-up costs were about $30 million, and that the costs for the first year of operation were about $36 million.
Several factors should be pointed out. First, it would appear that in the United States of America greater use has been made of the freedom of information legislation for litigation, and particularly for commercial litigation. According to the evidence that I have seen, it is unlikely that the Bill would be used in that way. In addition, the Bill ensures that commercial confidentiality and business between contractors and the Government would not be given indiscriminate access. Under the Bill, firms could not demand to see the tenders of their competitors, and so on.
Secondly, the United States of America has about four and a half times our population and about 10 times our territory. It also has double the gross national product. On any rational calculation, the figures quoted for America should be reduced to half or possibly a quarter for Britain.
§ Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that when I went to Washington to investigate the very same cries of outrage about the costs involved, I found that many of the defence costs—which had been billed to the freedom of information legislation—had been incurred by straightforward public relations by the Armed Forces? Every time the American 520 Army Air Corps opens its establishments to visitors it charges the costs involved to the freedom of information legislation. As a result, the figures are vastly distorted.
§ Mr. Hooley
That is an interesting comment, and it bears out my argument. I should not myself accept me American figures as being characteristic but, even if we did accept them at their face value, we should be contemplating a sum of about £15 million a year, and then one must in all conscience reduce that to at least half, or possibly a quarter, to arrive at any sensible comparable figure for this country.
As the Civil Service Department study itself shows, in Europe, and in Scandinavia in particular, the costs have been swallowed up in the general process of Government administration long since.
§ Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)
The hon. Gentleman has made particular reference to the cost of public relations exercises. That is precisely the sort of cost to which the Bill might well give rise, since Government Departments will indulge in public relations and quite reasonably justify those costs. The figure will rise, and is that not a cost of freedom of information?
§ Mr. Hooley
I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the way to test that is to vote for the Bill and let us see.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)
I have recently been questioning the Department of Defence on its facility trips and public relations occasions. It had 624 last year, but it has no idea of the costs. Therefore, with that ignorance, it could not possibly allocate any money whatever to this item.
§ Mr. Hooley
I hesitate to get lost in the labyrinth of Defence Estimates and spending, and I am sure that the Minister will have some sympathy with that view when he replies.
§ Mr. David Mellor (Putney) rose—
§ Mr. Hooley
I am sorry, no. Many hon. Members wish to speak, and I have given way four times already.
This is not a revolutionary Bill. It is a cautious and modest step towards more open government. Perhaps in that context I could quote the evidence which Professor Wade gave to the Franks committee:The law as it now stands shows a complete failure to understand that accessibility of information about the government of a country is of vital importance to a democracy.The Bill is an attempt to remedy that situation. I am well aware that there may be details or certain aspects of it which hon. Members will wish to scrutinise closely in Committee. There are perhaps some parts of the mechanics set out in it which are genuinely open to criticism and which the House would wish in due course to adapt. But I strongly commend the central thrust and principle of the Bill, that the ordinary citizen has a right, or should have a right, to know what the Government are doing in his name. That is the heart of the Bill. In many respects, the rest of the clauses are a commentary on that principle. In that sense, I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) on the way in which he moved the Second Reading. As the House knows, I take little of its time except on matters about which I have a certain knowledge and on which I feel great 521 conviction. In the main, those are concerned with the social services, housing, penal affairs, mental health—hardly a dishful of vote-catchers but nevertheless matters in which I have been involved for the whole of my life.
Today is unusual for me, living in the twilight areas as I do, since, when I decided that I should once again make a small contribution in support of this measure, I found that, for a change, I was mixing in good company. I was interested to read in the information so ably prepared by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor) that interest and support came from so many distinguished and eminent people—Ministers and junior Ministers, both presently in office or in office in the past, Members of Parliament on both sides of the House, the National Union of Journalists, of which I have had the pleasure of being a member for about 25 years, distinguished bodies in industry, the trade unions and others, covering the whole spectrum of our national life.
I hope that all those who, in Opposition or otherwise, have given their support to what I regard as an important Bill will not flinch today but will continue with the honesty of purpose that one expects and hopes that people in our public life will hold to.
For over 60 years the media have co-operated in a voluntary censorship scheme designed to prevent publication of information that has come into the hands of editors but may damage te country's interests if published. Freedom of information is about the citizen's right to know what is being done with his taxes, in his name and supposedly for his benefit. How, for example, could the Crown Agents do something that they were not empowered to do and lose £200 million before anyone even noticed?
The British obsession contrasts interestingly with the experience of the United States in the light of its Freedom of Information Act. That Act gives the people a positive right to obtain official information, a principle that, sadly, seems to be light-years away from the attitude of British Governments, whichever party may be in power.
I was happy to agree with and support the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) in his earlier effort. I cannot change my views. I suppose, in short, that the hallmark of a truly effective internal security system would be the maximum possible disclosure, recognising that secrecy can best be preserved only when credibility is truly maintained.
I welcome the Bill as a measure that recognises the right of citizens in a democracy to learn what their Government are doing and why and that recognises also that the democratic control of government can thus only be improved. Certainly, it could not be much worse.
The Fulton report on the Civil Service pointed out that the process of government in Britain wassurrounded by too much secrecyand added thatthe public interest would be better served if there were a greater amount of openness.The Franks committee was appointed, and parts of the Bill were closely modelled on its recommendations. Its provisions would protect information relating to State security, foreign relations, law enforcement and private individuals. There is certainly scope for argument about the precise width of the exceptions that the Bill should contain. However, there can be little argument about the need for legislation to reform the present law. It is true that 522 prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act have been few, but the law helps to create a general aura of secrecy, with the result that some civil servants are very much less forthcoming than they might or should be.
By way of contrast, local authorities, county councils—I am still a member of one—and metropolitan councils are, generally speaking, very open about their dealings and advise the press and public by law, provided that the safeguards necessary to protect the State and the individual are built into the Bill. Let us have open Cabinet meetings and ministerial committee meetings, and let us blow a breath of fresh air through the musty and stagnant corridors of power.
The Official Secrets Act has been particularly harmful to the prison service. The Act has been both a deterrent to employees in revealing information and sometimes a convenient excuse to conceal inside information from outside scrutiny.
I am pleased that recently a more open attitude has slowly begun to emerge in the prison department. Nevertheless, the traditional secrecy of our prisons has been a cause for concern to too many who work in them, including the prison governors, borstal branch, of the Society of Civil and Public Servants. David Hayward, the assistant secretary, wrote in a letter to The Guardian:The Society has for some time expressed concern at the reluctance of the Home Office to become involved in public debate when its policy or members of its staff who have the duty of implementing that policy are criticised … It is our view that public debate of policy issues can be useful in formulating policy as is the case in other areas of Government.In my view, the more public knowledge there is about the prison service's work the easier it will be to explain the need for sufficient resources to provide decent conditions and facilities in our prisons, and, indeed, to assist the staff to cope with the difficulties that they face in their daily work.
The public have a right to information about matters such as general police methods and procedures and the treatment of prisoners. These are of public interest, and Parliament and the people need adequate information to satisfy themselves that proper and effective methods are being taken and standards of behaviour are being observed. But the public have no right to information of a kind which, for example, would be of direct help in the commission of an offence or in evading detection. That is covered in the Bill, and it rightly exempts such information from disclosure.
As well as restricting and clarifying the law on official secrets the Bill would make available, on request, certain categories of information contained in official documents. That means that the prison department's standing orders and its circular instructions would be publicly available instead of remaining secret. That is a welcome change, provided that the information does not endanger security. We should be seriously and specially concerned about some of the matters relating to the rights and freedoms of individuals that from time to time are raised in the House in early-day motions but never see the light of day.
The parole system is a classic example of the inhuman cruelty of secrecy inflicted by man upon man. I know, from many ex-offenders, the distress caused by not knowing why parole has been refused. The lengthy procedure of the system only makes that agony more unbearable.
A representative of the Prison Officers Association, giving evidence to a Select Committee recently, said that 523 it was a truly terrible thing for a prisoner to be told that a decision had been made about him but that he was not to be told why such a conclusion was reached.
For all those reasons, and many others, I shall support the Bill. I hope that at long last common sense will prevail and that there will be ultimate success for those who have spent so much time and thought on preparing it.
§ Mr. S. C. Silkin (Dulwich)
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) and welcoming his use of his good fortune in bringing forward this Bill, and the clear way in which he placed it before the House. In doing that, I cannot fail also to welcome the speech made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irvine)—which added to the arguments introduced by my hon. Friend—from the depth of his knowledge, particularly of the penal system and matters in which, as he knows, he and I have a great identity of interest.
There is a principle which is so simple as to be almost axiomatic. That is that it is an essential part of the democratic system that there should be one man, one vote. That principle of one man, one vote cannot be fully and properly implemented unless that one man is properly and fully informed. If not, inevitably he will be more likely to make the essential decisions on who is to govern him, and what sort of policies that government is to operate, on the basis of prejudice or self-interest or pressure from all quarters.
I have long held the view and argued that there should be a great extension of the area of information which—I hesitate to say we entrust, as though we were doing some kind of favour to the citizen—but which we enable the citizen to achieve.
I do not wish to derogate from what my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley said. I agree with so much of it. He may have been a little less than customarily fair in his account of history. For example, he did not refer to the Croham directive as a result of which there was a great increase of information, and still is, given to the public. Nor did he refer to the Green Paper which the Labour Government produced in March 1979 in which they accepted the general principle of a freedom of information approach in the form of the code of practice which was recommended by Justice. It went on to make the proposal that a Select Committee should be set up to go into the details and decide whether it would be better to do it by administrative means or on a statutory footing. That was a great step forward.
Unhappily,Comes the blind Fury with th' abhorred shearsAnd slits the thin-spun lifebefore that Select Committee could be set up. I regret that it has not been set up since, because it seems to me—I shall comment on this later—that there are many issues in the Bill which are very proper subjects for the kind of Committee which is at present examining the Criminal Attempts Bill, hearing evidence and then, on the basis of that evidence, coming to decisions.
§ Mr. Freud
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that, whereas the Croham directive certainly gave forth a great volume of information, the quality of that 524 information was quite extraordinarily insubstantial? Going through what was thrown up by the Croham directive—the right hon. and learned Gentleman will remember that the directive was simply to provide a list of information which was provided but which was previously not being provided—one found that it included items such as ways of applying for death grant. If that was not provided previously, there was no great achievement in bringing it to the notice of the public.
§ Mr. Silkin
The hon. Member has made his point and has no doubt saved a little time in the speech which he will be giving to the House. I shall not stop to comment upon that point, because I have made my point.
There is one other matter, perhaps, where my hon. Friend the Member for Healey and I may differ a little. He quite properly criticised the Government for their tardiness in giving effect to principles of freedom of information. But I do not think that it is only Governments that behave thus. I happened to be the Chairman of a Select Committee on the law of parliamentary privilege, which recommended considerable liberalisation of the privileges, that appertained to this House. It was intended to give the press, in particular, much greater opportunities to report, to give information without fear that they would be hauled before us on charges of contempt. Government after Government gave the House the opportunity to put that into effect, but it was not until last year, I think, or the year before, that eventually the House adopted those principles. I think that the Committee of which I was Chairman can take it that it was as a direct result of that that in the course of this Parliament it was only within the last week or two that, for the first time, we had a complaint of breach of privilege.
Perhaps I may mention something more germane to this Bill, if I am allowed to do so. It is now nearly a decade since I proposed to the Procedure Committee that there was a case for having hybrid Committees which would act as Standing Committees of the House but also take evidence so that the members could form their conclusions on the basis of that evidence rather than out of preconceived ideas. At the time, that was regarded as visionary. In my view, it is a welcome step that has now taken place. It enables hon. Members, who have as much need to be properly informed as the ordinary citizen, if not more, to weigh up the issues objectively. I firmly believe that, it that is done, there is likely to be a much greater consensus of view, of informed view, emerging at the end than if that process is not gone through.
I say again that it may well be that in relation to this Bill—I do not want in any way to impede its progress—that is a better way of dealing with the detail of the Bill than the ordinary Standing Committee procedure.
I pass from that to some of the points which seem to me worthy of that kind of examination. I shall deal with them very rapidly because I know how many other hon. Members want to address the House.
First, there is the position regarding clause 3, which is the retrospective clause which provides for disclosure of documents already in existence, unless the Secretary of State, by order, excludes them. When we talk about costs and resources, we must bear in mind that the major costs and resources that impressed those of us who were agonising over these matters in the previous Government—I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley that we agonised over them—were the costs and 525 resources necessary, not for dealing with future documents as they come into existence in the future, but for those that already exist, which have been compiled upon a basis quite different from the basis that will exist when this Bill becomes law. They were compiled upon the basis of the law as it now stands. To sift through the millions of pages on the files of documents compiled on a totally different basis and to provide the public with material from those documents will be a very costly, difficult and onerous task.
Therefore, it seems to me to be very important that that provision should be very carefully considered, as to whether the burden should be in the way that the clause puts it, or whether it should be the reverse burden so that, in terms of retrospection, it can be introduced more gradually. I do not say that it should not be introduced, but perhaps it should be introduced more gradually so that resources are not used too heavily in that way.
I turn to clause 7. If I may summarise, it enables opinions and advice, including ministerial advice, to be given by way of access to policy documents. That needs to be looked at very carefully, particularly in the light of the provisions in schedule 1 relating to documents prepared for the purposes of the Cabinet or a Cabinet committee, which will include advice given to Ministers. It seems a little strange that we put a total embargo for 10 years upon documents if they happen to be produced for that purpose, by the same people, and very often for the same purposes, when at the same time we are completely opening up the same documents if they are not produced for the Cabinet or a Cabinet committee. That justifies detailed consideration. I take no view one way or another about this matter at present.
I welcome the provisions for review by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, it seems to me that this is absolutely right. I have always thought that it was absolutely right. He is the very person whose views on matters of a very similar or analogous kind are now customarily given and customarily accepted. I say only two things about that. First, I think that we are reaching a position in which there is a plethora of bodies dealing, generally, with citizens' rights, be it on matters relating to immigration, race, sex, the Health Service or local government. I have long held the view that we are approaching the time when we ought to bring these together in a proper citizens' rights commission which would deal with the whole gamut of matters of this kind. If we consider doing that, I hope that this topic will naturally fall within the ambit of the responsibility of such a body.
I have reservations about the provision regarding judicial review. I do not believe that judges want to be involved in what may often appear to be political decisions. In fact, I see no reason for the provision. Since the time when the Parliamentary Commissioner was first appointed, I cannot remember a case—certainly, there cannot have been many—in which his advice was ignored. If his decision is ignored, the High Court of Parliament can put right the defects of the Executive. Why do we need to entrust this to a "long-stop" in the form of judges whose independence on political matters they themselves regard as important? I certainly regard that independence as important.
§ Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)
I think that my right hon. and learned Friend is wrong in saying that the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commissioner, the 526 local government Commissioner, have always been abided by. There are a number of instances where that has not happened and where recommendations have been quite disgracefully ignored.
§ Mr. Silkin
My hon. Friend's recollection is different from mine. I am sure that his memory is better than mine, but that in no way detracts from the fact that if the Parliamentary Commissioner's recommendations are not given effect to by the Government he has the right—and that right will be enshrined in legislation by the Bill—to make a special report to Parliament. After all, it is here in Parliament that matters of that kind should be decided, rather than by the "long-stop" proposed in the clause. I hope, therefore, that the provision will receive very careful consideration during the further stages of the Bill.
Part II follows fairly closely the efforts made by successive Governments, both in White Papers and in legislation, to enact the recommendations of the Franks committee's report. No doubt there are matters that should be argued on the subject. There is the question of the public interest defence, which, at first sight at any rate, seems a little odd in relation to the disclosure of information which, in clause 25, is said to be of a nature the disclosure of whichwould be likely to cause serious injury to the interests of the nation".How one precisely reconciles that character of information with the public interest to disclose is clearly a matter that the Committee should consider in detail.
The inconclusiveness of the certificate, referred to in clause 34, seems to me to create difficulty. It is a problem that we agonised about when we were in Government. In dealing with information of the type that I have just mentioned, it frequently happens that the very process of proving why the information would be likely to cause serious injury to the interests of the nation is one which itself would cause serious injury to the interests of the nation. I understand the sound reasons why the defence should have the opportunity to challenge this, but if that happens the Government then have to explain by evidence why there is that serious injury.
I know from my own experience as Attorney-General that many prosecutions which ought to be brought will not be brought and that many that are brought will be stayed because a point is reached where one cannot go further without prejudice to the safety of the State. These are all matters that need to be argued, and about which evidence could and should be given if the hybrid Committee procedure is adopted for this measure.
There is a further matter that I wish to raise about part II. It contains no specific provision—any more than the Government's measure contained such a provision—to deal with the non-innocent receipt of information. The Franks committee said that the mere receipt of information should not be an offence. I agree that the mere receipt should not. But receipt of information is not always mere receipt. Sometimes, unfortunately, it is a receipt by somebody who knows perfectly well that the information ought not to be passed over, with a view to its use for some other purpose. Other legislation may correct that. Other legislation, taken together with this measure, may cure the defect. However, I shall need to be persuaded in this regard before I can accept part II.
As my hon. Friend said, the Bill, particularly part I, deals with the relatively limited area of Government 527 generally and organisations which are closely akin to Government. It is a welcome and important step forward, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on having taken that step. But we should not be blind to the fact that the ordinary citizen has an interest in knowing many things that go on apart from those that go on in Government and in local government which affect his life and which are shrouded in secrecy and will continue to be shrouded in secrecy. Such matters include what is done by large organisations, and the discussions that take place, for example, before it is decided that a large newspaper or series of newspapers is to be taken over by a particular organisation rather than by other organisations. I look forward with interest and anxiety to reading the future memoirs of Mr. Harold Evans or Mr. Rees-Mogg about what took place in the discussions that led to the recent decision to enable Mr. Murdoch to take over The Times and The Sunday Times. There are many other examples that I could give in which there is no obligation to disclose. When the pressure comes from the media, the press, who are most reticent about their own affairs, should remember the old saying about people who live in glass houses.
None the less, this measure goes a long way and perhaps it will encourage others beyond the confines of this Chamber to do likewise. I hope that the House will not hesitate to give it an unopposed Second Reading— certainly a Second Reading—today.
§ Sir Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)
When this subject has been debated in the past there has always been an all-party and almost unanimous chorus of enthusiasm for a wide extension of freedom of information. Those who are enthusiastic always come here and say so. Those who have doubts or hesitations are generally prudently silent. I notice that the Minister, who, rumour has it, will not bless the Bill with great enthusiasm, is not exactly flanked by enthusiastic supporters willing to express their views personally on this matter.
It is not popular to say that one does not believe in unrestricted, or virtually unrestricted, freedom of information. I have always understood why people become frustrated, furious and determined to open up the channels of Government. No one in the House could possibly deny that Departments, Ministers and civil servants are from time to time, if not by disposition, unnecessarily secretive and unwilling to part with information or to give explanations that ought to be given.
It should be obvious to anyone that section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911 is nonsense. It is long overdue for repeal and reform. I do not believe that tacking on to it a freedom of information section is likely to get section 2 repealed in a hurry. That is not the way in which to encourage the Government to do it.
Everybody is agreed that something must be done about section 2. The Labour Government and this Government agreed that something should be done about it. It was agreed long before the Franks committee's report. But the moment that the Government produced legislation, which did not differ in any significant respect from part II of this Bill, it got a terribly bad press and it was clear that it would not be supported with enthusiasm by anyone.
We ought to recognise that any attempt to produce official secrets legislation will not get a good press. It will 528 never satisfy the press. Anything that does or can create an offence in the publication of material that the press thinks the public ought to know or wants to publish will be unpopular with the press, but sooner or later some Government must go a little beyond simply saying "If you do not like this, we will leave you stuck with what you have already got."
I can see the argument that it is better to have a bad law that is unenforceable and is never used than a law that, because it makes more sense, may be enforced and therefore annoy people. But it is not a satisfactory state for the law to be in.
I think that before the end of this Parliament it would be right for the Government not to issue Green Papers or White Papers, or to set up more committees—we have gone through all that before—but, by reasonable discussion between the parties and with representatives of the press, to try to come to a compromise that will replace this ridiculous legislation, which we know should not be on the statute book.
Part I of the Bill deals with free access to information. It is here that I part company with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley). As I said, it is not that I do not wholly agree that Departments, Ministers and civil servants should be a great deal more willing to explain and to release information than they are now. But this is not the way to do it, because I believe that it will cause more problems than it solves.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) and others have talked about the public's right to know. I suppose that it is because of my high Tory background that I always become suspicious when people talk about rights. I prefer the concept of duty to the concept of rights. If people say that Governments, Ministers and officials have a duty to inform, I will agree with them and will be prepared to do whatever is possible to make them undertake that duty. But when people talk about a right of access to information, I am not clear from what that right derives.
§ Sir Angus Maude
I will in a moment. The right is not written into the constitution. It does not arise from law, because that is what is being attempted today. I do not even accept that there is a moral right to know everything that goes on. It is virtually impossible to disclose certain matters without nullifying the whole process of decision and government.
§ Mr. Lewis
I will give the right hon. Gentleman the reason why people have the right to know. It is because they pay the Ministers and the civil servants. I do not know of any other situation in which the person who pays the whole cost does not have the right to get the goods for which he pays. People pay the civil servants and the Ministers. Therefore, they have the right to know where their money is going.
§ Sir Angus Maude
That is not a sensible argument. We pay many people, but that does not give us unlimited rights over their behaviour, or what we have the right to demand from them. It is the purpose of Parliament to ensure that the alleged right about which the hon. Gentleman spoke is fulfilled. It is not necessary to give the individual—every individual in the country, whether he be 529 sane, insane, bigoted, prejudiced or just pure mischief-making—the right of access to virtually any document or information that he may seek.
§ Sir Angus Maude
Yes. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman can persuade his hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) to stop muttering, I will certainly allow him to intervene.
§ Mr. Silkin
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I do not intend to talk about money. Would he give any weight to the point that I sought to make at the outset of my remarks, namely, that the citizen has a right to vote but that he cannot exercise it properly unless he is as fully informed as anybody can reasonably expect to be informed?
§ Sir Angus Maude
Yes; but that is a very different matter. To say that if a citizen is to fulfil his duties as a voter and a citizen he ought to be properly informed and have as much information as can reasonably be expected—which is a very vague term—is different from putting it into legislation in this form.
The motives that prompt people to demand legislation of this kind are varied. I have no doubt that with some—present company obviously excepted—it springs from a genuine desire to make government impossible. If carried to its logical conclusion, legislation of this kind could do just that.
§ Sir Angus Maude
No. I do not want to take up too much of the time of the House. Therefore, I cannot keep on giving way.
In many cases the demand for such legislation springs from an immediate desire for information of any kind at any price. It is noticeable that we live in a totally different atmosphere and climate from that which used to obtain. Journalistic ethics have changed in a most marked way. When I started work as a young journalist, many years ago, no reputable editor, chief sub-editor or night editor would have published in his paper a facsimile document that he knew had been obtained by fraud, dishonesty, theft, or a breach of confidence by a public servant. It would have been considered unethical, unpatriotic—if that is not too old-fashioned a word—and immoral.
Nowadays, if anybody can succeed in obtaining such a document it is considered to be a triumph. It is published on the front page, quite irrespective of whether the matter is of the slightest use or interest to anybody who may read it. The very fact of having obtained something that officials are trying to conceal, and that can be headlined as a confidential document or a secret internal memorandum, makes it publishable and newsworthy. The whole reason for the existence of some journalists is to try to root out things that people do not want and to publish them for good or bad reasons. The more confidential the document, the happier they are when they obtain it.
The answer lies not in this legislation but in Ministers and officials doing their jobs sensibly, and in the House doing its job a great deal more effectively. There is no reason why Ministers, Departments and officials should be allowed to get away with secretiveness and a refusal to supply sensible information. Members of Parliament let 530 them off far too easily. If an hon. Member receives a negative or useless answer to a parliamentary question, or a senseless, evasive or unhelpful reply to a letter to a Minister, he should not pass on the reply to his constituent and accept that as being the nature of things. He should create a row, and continue to do so until he obtains what he wants. I have done that over and over again.
§ Sir Angus Maude
I have never castigated the hon. Gentleman. As far as I know, he has never done anything to arouse my ire. If the House were doing its job properly the need for the Bill would not arise. Why did we establish Select Committees, which some have called an experiment but which most agree are here to stay as a central feature of the operation of Parliament? What are they for, if they are not to extract from recalcitrant or costive Ministers and officials the explanations and policy statements that Parliament has a right to require? If Select Committees are doing their job, and if Members of Parliament are doing their job, this legislation is not required.
The whole concept of open government is founded upon a fallacy. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham said that we should have open Cabinet meetings and open Cabinet committee meetings. That shows the fantasy world into which people can be led when they take an interest in this subject. The more we try to open up decision-making meetings and bodies and decision-making processes, the less likely it is that those decisions will be taken in Cabinet or in Cabinet committee, or anywhere where they can be discovered and revealed.
If Cabinet meetings and Cabinet committee meetings are not secure, and if Cabinet documents are not secure, the decision-making process is pushed further and further back, from Cabinet to Cabinet committeess and then to two or three people. No civil servant will put down on paper a policy recommendation for a Minister if it is likely to be published, purloined or revealed within a short time. Option papers—which it is the great desire of many journalists to acquire—are the last things that should be revealed for a long time. How can people argue, discuss and take sensible decisions about a number of options if they will be called to account immediately if the options that were rejected are pilloried as ridiculous? And sometimes they are ridiculous. Options are put forward which everyone knows will not have the slightest political hope of being carried through to legislation.
There is no doubt in my mind that, in the name of open government, it is possible to make government less and less open. It is the business of Parliament to ensure that government is as open as Parliament can achieve, but to give the citizen the initiating rights opens the door very wide to something that in the end will become uncontrollable.
There is much good in the Bill, and the idea behind much of it is basically sound. But, with some hesitation, I shall feel myself obliged to vote against Second Reading. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will do so also.
§ Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) on choosing this subject for the Bill. I 531 congratulate him also on putting forward his case with scintillating clarity. I fully support him on the principle of the Bill. There may be some reservations and qualifications about detail, but there are such qualifications about any Bill. When I was a Minister I had reservations about some of the Bills that I introduced, and I decided to amend them from time to time. That is a habit in which other Ministers indulge with considerable frequency.
The right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Sir A. Maude) to some extent let the cat out of the bag. Not so long ago he was the Minister in charge of the Government's information services. He appeared to act on the precepts that he disclosed to the House in his remarkable speech. He said that there was no moral right to know everything that took place. We are entitled to know a great deal more about what takes place than the right hon. Gentleman has been prepared to disclose. He indulged in some interesting reminiscences. We have an affection for the right hon. Gentleman, but not for his declaration of history. To suggest that a high moral tone has always been the standards set by the press is fatuous. The right hon. Gentleman may remember—no doubt having been involved in politics at the time—a letter of which I have only read about—the Zinoviev letter. He will at least remember that.
The high, ethical standards of the press of which the right hon. Gentleman spoke are a figment of his imagination. However, I do not wish to dwell on his remarks; I wish to put forward a few propositions in support of my hon. Friend's arguments. I also wish to deal with a constituency case that vividly reveals the need for action along the lines suggested in the Bill.
There is a moral right for us to be told a great deal more about what goes on in government than successive Governments have been prepared to disclose. I do not believe that the freedom of information legislation in the United States—I have some reservations about it—has been to the disadvantage of the American people. I accept fully that there is a need, when information is being more freely disclosed to people, for some exclusions— exclusions affecting the security of information, matters that are prejudicial to the proper government of the country, and so on. However, essentially the burden of proof in resisting the disclosure of information should rest on those who are seeking to assert that the information should not be made available. That is the distinction to be drawn between the argument adduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley and that adduced by the right hon. Gentleman.
Let me reflect for a moment on the takeover dispute concerning Times Newspapers Ltd. and the way in which the Minister in charge of the matter sought to inform the House or failed to inform the House about relevant matters. He says that he gave mistaken information to the House about a vital matter, namely, the alleged losses being sustained by The Sunday Times. He was £300,000 out in the assessment that he gave to the House only a few days ago. Are we not entitled to far clearer, more lucid and reliable information? It is a serious matter. The House at least is entitled to be treated in a more adult fashion than successive Governments, but this one in particular has been prepared to treat it.
532 We worry tremendously about leaks. Some of the leaks from the Government have been inspired, and these seem to create as much pandemonium as those which are not. It would be an advantage to have a more open and less furtive society and were less concerned about such trivialities.
The specific case that I wish to raise touches on the point made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) in his remarkable speech. It relates to information provided from the prison services and the endeavours made by the Government to refuse to disclose information that citizens are entitled to know. The case involves a man who, unhappily, died some months ago called Mathew O'Hara. He was a constituent of mine, aged 41. He was eccentric and difficult. He was sent to Pentonville prison on 12 March last year for seven days for contempt of court during a hearing on alleged rate arrears. That might indicate the background of his eccentricity.
On 16 March, four days later, Mr. O'Hara was taken into intensive care at the Royal Northern hospital. He was found to be pale, thin, wasted and lethargic, with slow and confused answers, according to the hospital's discharge summary. He had been vomiting blood, for which he was treated, but after examination he was found to be a diabetic, in a severe state of ketosis, which is an accumulation of poisons in the body caused by lack of insulin. He had to be given infusions of several litres of liquid. Subsequently, Mr. O'Hara was discharged from the Royal Northern hospital and some time later was taken into the Hackney hospital, from where he discharged himself, and he died subsequently.
What is relevant is what happened during the four days that he was in prison. I was concerned about the situation revealed to me by another constituent of mine who was a friend of Mr. O'Hara. I wrote to Lord Belstead and received a reply that was less than frank. He told me that Mr. O'Hara had been seen by a prison doctor on arrival at Pentonville but that he had refused to answer any questions put to him, including his name and age. He said that Mr. O'Hara was sent to the prison hospital for mental observation because of his unco-operative manner and behaviour. He went on to say that Mr. O'Hara had told the prison doctor that he was not receiving treatment and denied any illness. A urine test was taken the following day, but it was negative for sugar and acetone. He was later discharged from the prison hospital.
This is the significant part of the letter. It says:On 16th March, Mr. O'Hara complained that he felt ill and had vomited a copious amount of blood and the diagnosis of bleeding from a peptic ulcer was made. He was … sent immediately by ambulance to the Royal Northern hospital … The reasons for concealing the fact that he was a diabetic from two prison doctors and the medical staff at the Royal Northern are not known.That is in dispute. It is a matter about which I have tried to find out. It is a matter that the Minister has been very anxious not to reveal—perhaps even to conceal.
Information has been given to me by my constituent completely contrary to what the Minister has said. My constituent may be wrong in saying that is discussions with the deceased Mr. O'Hara told him that he had mentioned his diabetic condition, or that information may not have been correct. However, the Minister refuses to disclose to me what occurred in the prison and what information was given. That is absolutely wrong. When allegations are made about prison treatment, generally speaking a furtive 533 atmosphere prevails. Ministers seem to be on the defensive, whereas the reverse should be happening. There should be the maximum degree of disclosure.
I am deeply concerned about what happened in those four days. There is conflict between what the Minister has said and what was revealed in the hospital report. It is almost inconceivable, according to the medical evidence that I have gathered, that Mr. O'Hara should have been discharged on 16 March unless the hospital authorities in the prison knew much more about what was going on than they have been prepared to disclose—unless they had known that there was a terrible transformation in the man's condition. I cannot find out. I am not told by the Minister what occurred. I have asked him 38 highly relevant questions. In what I believe to be a contemptuous letter, he tells me that he is not prepared to answer them. Why not? I am not an irresponsible Member of Parliament.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
The right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Sir A. Maude), who is accorded the privilege of being called early in the debate, said that we should take action in such instances. What can we do? The establishment stops an hon. Member from taking action unless he makes an attempt to get Mr. Speaker to name him or creates a disturbance. That is the only way to make progress.
§ Mr. Davis
I am hoping to make progress by drawing attention to the case. That is one of the ways in which we can take action. I have no intention of so endangering the rules of order that I will be thrown out.
My complaint is that the Minister can say to me "I have caused to be carried out an examination of the case. I am satisfied with the result. Therefore, you, as the Member of Parliament should be satisfied." That is nonsense.
I am like all hon. Members entitled to pursue a constituent's case. I am entitled to ask why the Minister is satisfied and what steps were taken to investigate the case. What medical confidentiality prevents him from disclosing basic facts about what was said to prison warders? What was said to doctors by this man? What records were kept? To all those questions, I simply get the brush-off. I am not satisfied with that, and any hon. Member faced with that would feel grossly dissatisfied with a derisory, contemptuous and complacent reply, as I have received from Lord Belstead in a number of letters which he has sent to me.
§ Mr. Davis
There is no question of bringing an action. The man is dead. He has a few friends—he has no next of kin. What sort of action should one bring? Should I bring it as his Member of Parliament? It is a nonsensical assertion that legal action should be taken.
We have inadequate opportunities to raise such matters. I have chosen this opportunity because I believe it is relevant to the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley. I have also applied unsuccessfully for Adjournment debates. If one tables a question to the Home Secretary, almost inevitably one knows that one will receive a non-answer on such an issue, to say the least. How can one develop a matter of this kind in the course of question and answer in the House of Commons?
Regrettably, I believe that this case is not an isolated one. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) will be developing his arguments on furtiveness 534 about provision of information in the prison service and the police service. The case that I have mentioned markedly emphasises the point that something is radically wrong with the prison service in this respect; it seems to feel that it has a duty not to reveal information to the public. That cannot be right in a free society.
Therefore, I make no apology for dwelling on this case at some length. It vividly illustrates the case so eloquently argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)
I hope that the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis) will acquit me of any discourtesy if I do not go into the details of the case put forward in his argument. It is difficult for any other hon. Member to make comments, because we have not seen the correspondence. It is particularly difficult when the case concerns someone who is dead or an individual whose case concerns the matter of health, the question of whether the proper medical procedures have been followed and to what extent a correct diagnosis was made. Those factors lead us into an almost impenetrable thicket, which may not have as much relevance to freedom of information as he would have us believe or the reluctance of a Minister—to use the jargon—to "come clean" with the hon. Member, as he alleges the Minister has not done. Therefore—and I am not trying to shelter behind the argument that hard cases make bad law—I should not have thought that, whatever degree of furtiveness there is in such a case, it has built up a sufficiently firm platform to warrant the full panoply of a freedom of information Act.
§ Mr. Clinton Davis
I was not arguing that. I was merely using that case as an example. I also argued about The Times and put forward certain general propositions. The hon. Member is drawing an unfair conclusion from my remarks.
§ Mr. Johnson Smith
The sympathy which the hon. Gentleman was asking us to feel on this case was inexorably leading to the conclusion that of itself the case was an example that was not isolated and was sufficiently well-based and widespread to indicate that there was a strong need for an extension of public access to Government information, because that case was such a scandal.
I could have dwelt at length on a case which involved one of my constituents and in which a Minister was also concerned. That constituent was alleged to have killed her children and had been in custody and care. She was put into a mental hospital and was subsequently released. At the time, that case involved great public interest and I was able to satisfy myself that proper care and attention were being taken by the Minister responsible. Certain things were revealed to me during my inquiries which reflected great credit on that Minister and on the processes which are open to any hon. Member to follow when such an important matter arises. I did not come up against any bulwark of secrecy.
Those are individual matters. In other words, I believe that the hon. Gentleman was making too much of the case he mentioned to support the general argument that there is a crying need for an extension of access to Government information.
My emotions and background are firmly in favour of more freedom of information. That has been so since I was 535 a young interviewer-reporter for the BBC and was prevented from discussing in television programmes issues which were to come before Parliament within the following 14 days. That was the notorious 14-day rule which inhibited the freedom and flow of information and the interaction between the public and Parliament and its Ministers. Since then, that has been changed. Therefore, with that background I have been firmly in favour of an extension of freedom of information, certain that it should happen. However, as soon as I became faced as a Member of Parliament with the practical task of achieving that objective, I became less certain how to achieve it.
I am certain that something should happen. I hope that the Minister will mention this point when he winds up. I am certain that section 2 of the Official Secrets Act should be repealed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Sir A. Maude) made that abundantly clear. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) on the way in which he presented the Bill this morning. It was right to bring the Bill before the House for debate. However, I am sorry that the issue has become mingled with the rest of the Bill. Dubiety about the practicability of legislation takes over after section 2 of the Official Secrets Act has been repealed.
My first general premise—which is therefore wildly at odds with my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving)—is that one cannot put government in a goldfish bowl. One cannot run a tennis club that way, let alone a Government. From time to time, members of the media have suggested to me, remembering my history, that they need greater access to Government information. I put the question to the BBC. Does it think that it is proper that we should always know what goes on in the inner council of the BBC when the chairman and the director-general are planning a campaign to persuade us that we should spend more on licence fees? They are entitled to consider different options without our being a fly on the wall. They are paid for, just as Ministers are paid for, out of public taxation. One cannot run a public corporation, a private tennis club or a Government on the basis that everything must be open. There must be privacy for people both in their individual lives and in their public lives.
Hon. Members who say that they are in favour of this sort of legislation say that we should consider the United States, which is a bastion of freedom. It has a great tradition of freedom. However, in this area I do not believe that it provides a valid guide. The constitution of the United States and its political conventions are different from our own. The Americans are more naturally attracted to legislation in this area because they have a written constitution, and it tends to be a legalistic constitution. They are therefore more attracted to more formal and legalistic methods. Further, their Ministers and their senior officials are appointed by the President. When President Reagan took office, not only previous Ministers but some of the top civil servants went out of office. Those civil servants owe allegiance and feel accountable not to Congress but to the President.
There is a third difference between our practice and that of the Americans. I say this as a friend of the United States. There is in that country a longer and more widespread tradition of venality in the conduct of public affairs which is bound to intensify public distrust in the integrity of the public administration. In this context, one 536 could be totally acquitted of chauvinism in claiming, as I do—and I think that I carry right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House with me—that our Civil Service and officials stand second to none in upholding standards of probity and honest dealing with the public, with Ministers and with the House.
The promoter rightly pointed out that changes in the past few years have given the public far greater access to Government information. In fairness, he mentioned these to the House and I shall not dwell on them, but we should not forget the significance of those changes—action on the 14-day rule, Select Committees, the Parliamentary Commissioner, the local government Parliamentary Commissioner, health commissioners, the Green Paper technique and the defence White Paper—and I speak as a former Defence Minister. When that White Paper outlined what the Government believed to be the need for the replacement of the Polaris system it went a long way towards satisfying—one has only to look at the policy—members of the public and the House about the arguments which led them to make the decision on the details of the equipment that it was proposed to buy.
All those changes, with the pre-legislation Committees, the directive that was issued by the head of the Civil Service, and the instructions from the Government to the effect that there should be more liberal guidelines about the release of more information, seem over the past decade or so to have made a profound change in our attitude to the extensive public disclosure of information by further legislative means. At least they should have done so.
The Bill would fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin), who has great experience in these matters, touched on these subjects as well. Clause 7 would confer a right of access to the internal working papers of Government Departments. That would seriously inhibit the role of civil servants when giving advice to their Ministers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon touched on this when he referred to the possibility of discussing option papers. We ought to allow freedom of expression within ministerial and official circles. One of the deleterious effects of the Bill, quite contrary to the intentions of its proposers, would be to prevent or discourage that sort of commitment to freer thinking which is now being encouraged in government. Clause 7, therefore, would be a disaster. Of course, subsection (2) would enable Government Departments to defer or postpone access to these internal documents, but it is clearly not intended that confidentiality should be retained beyond a fairly short period.
Clause 10 states that if a Government Department decided not to grant access it would give an applicant notice in writing of the reasons for its decision. I suppose that ray major criticism of the Bill is that that decision can be challenged in the courts. Second, national security can be put at risk. Clause 25 gives protection to security and intelligence matters where disclosure would be likely to cause serious injury to the national interest or endanger a citizen's safety. There is no blanket provision here on security or intelligence matters, and some people think that there should be.
For instance, a snippet of intelligence information may not seem of sufficient importance to justify withholding public disclosure. But we all know that the success of intelligence gathering agencies is based on securing what 537 may seem to be a series of comparatively unimportant and worthless snippets of information. That is the hard graft of espionage.
On the constitutional implications that spring from the introduction of judicial arbitration, I pray in aid the practical experience of a former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees). Speaking in the debate on the Official Information Bill in 1979, he said:Judicial review of the merits of decisions to deny documents would raise a profound constitutional issue. This is an area in which we have been traditionally reluctant to venture. We have been promised (two new new clauses on ultimate appeal to the courts. This will, no doubt, encourage judicial review of the merits of individual cases, and the exercise of ministerial discretion, with all the dangers of the politicisation of the courts.The major point that I am making is that it is this House which should take the final decision, not the Parliamentary Commissioner and not the courts."—[OfficialReport, 19 January 1979; Vol. 960, c. 2186.]Of course, some hon. Members want to change the balance. They think that it is right that there should be a right of appeal to the courts—the "politicisation of the courts". The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who I hope will be able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when asking leave of the House to bring in a Bill to extend public rights of access to official information, said: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."— [Official Report, 25 July 1979; Vol. 971, c. 610.]Of course, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to his view and he put it very fairly, and therefore I gave the full quotation, not just a selective part of that paragraph. However, I take the opposite view. This setting of the balance would cause more harm than good.
§ Mr. Raymond Whitney (Wycombe)
I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend. Before he leaves the point about judicial review, will he agree that there is a particular irony in that one part of our political spectrum, the Left wing, which is most keen on some aspects of the Bill—although I recognise that support for it goes across the spectrum otherwise—is normally that part of our political life which is most opposed to the introduction of the judiciary into our political processes? The Leader of the Opposition, for example, is loud and long in his condemnations of the judiciary. However, here in this area the Left wants to bring the courts into politics.
§ Mr. Johnson Smith
Yes, of course. Not for the first time, there is an illogicality of a serious kind in the thinking and philosophy of the extreme Left in this country.
My third main objection is that I believe that these proposals threaten the concept of ministerial accountability of Parliament and the long-established conventions by which we all know that the place for any challenge to controversial decisions about whether particular information should be disclosed is the House itself. That is our safeguard. I believe that that vital element in our constitution would be endangered if Ministers were required to conform to certain fixed rules laid down by this 538 legislation—subject to interpretation by the courts—and to explain and justify their conduct in the courts. Clause 32 allows Government officials the opportunity to prove in a court that the information that they disclosedrelated to a matter of justifiable public concern",but no firm, objective test for discerning whether the public interest is served is laid down. Here again, therefore, we have the spectre not just of Ministers but of officials being involved in legal wrangles in the courts.
In my view, ail these provisions would change the nature of the role of civil servants by putting them in the public spotlight, which is just what the hon. Member for Oldham, West wants. I believe that it would destroy the integrity of the Civil Service. In our parliamentary democracy it is Ministers who are accountable and who should accept the challenge of public accountability.
I shall not go into my many other doubts, as I know that many other hon. Members wish to take part in the debate. There are matters of cost. There is the question of whether it is right to preserve every scrap of official paper, as clause 14 requires, and whether it is right—I believe that it is quite wrong—to require a Minister personally, as clause 32 requires, to classify every document or piece of information to which protection is afforded. That is clearly impracticable. Moreover, I believe that it is highly doubtful whether confidential details concerning the varied and multifarious economic activities would be adequately protected under paragraph 4 of schedule 1.
I therefore come to three conclusions. First, I hope that the Minister will be able to give a pledge today that the Government will, in the lifetime of this Parliament, repeal section 2 of the Official Secrets Act. Let us get that out of the way. I hope, too, that the Government will consider—I put it no higher than that—the introduction of their own freedom of information Bill, which of course would be of a far more limited nature than the Bill before us today.
Secondly, I ask the Government to consider adopting a voluntary code of practice as recommended in the report by Justice, which said:There should be a predisposition in favour of disclosure even where it is not asked for".The report added:At the risk of appearing conventionally pragmatic, we believe that there are no rigid formulae which will provide for the multiplicity of situations where the public ought or ought not to be granted access to official information.I agree with that. There is therefore a strong case for a code of practice.
Thirdly, I hope that the promoter—I say this with no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman, who was not in the Chamber when I mentioned him—will consider withdrawing the Bill. If he does not, I hope very much that it will be defeated this afternoon.
§ Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)
It would be wrong not to refer to the three points made by the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith). I think that it is only right to tell him that the call for the repeal of section 2 of the 1911 Act without bringing in the most careful legislation to replace it would actually be the greatest disservice to the security of this country that one could imagine.
It seems to me unfair that, whereas in some walks of life if one achieves something three times one can keep it, when it comes to an official information Bill, by whatever 539 name—which has already been as it were "won" by the hon. Members for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) and myself—we have to fight it all over again. It is indicative that when I presented my own version of this legislation two years ago I was opposed by the then Home Secretary, which gave one some reason for joy. The fact that this Bill is being opposed by the Minister of State, Civil Service Department means that the writing is very much on the wall, because if there is one class of people to whom the Bill is anathema it is the Civil Service.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for East Grinstead that the civil servants of this country are men of the highest probity and decency, who are also charming and have nice feet. My point is simply that their work is made extraordinarily difficult if they have to practice open government.
§ Mr. Dalyell
My hon. Friend's Bill has the very strong support of the Civil Service unions, and particularly ASTMS.
§ Mr. Freud
I am delighted to hear it. The hon. Gentleman will know that I spent many months researching, putting together and arguing a similar Bill. Although individual Civil Servants frequently said how much in favour of it they were, there was great alarm collectively. That was never more realistically exhibited than when the Croham directives came out. They were directives to Government Departments not only to publish more than they had been publishing, but to publish a list of those pieces of information which they did publish but which would not previously have been published. As I said in Committee, they were farcical.
At the end of the war in 1945, Mr. Herbert Morrison basically led us to the Bill that we are now trying to introduce. The war had been shrouded in secrecy. There were no stamps on letters, no one knew where anybody was and signposts throughout the country had vanished. Newspapers were censored. Mr. Herbert Morrison said "The war is over, the people have a right to know". It was from that one statement that many of us decided to try to make this noble wish into an effective reality.
Of course, we have no constitution, and therefore we must put something on to the statute book. At present, we have information by leak, and information by leak is more expensive and sometimes not as reliable as information by right.
The present Bill is inevitably more modest. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) is to be congratulated not only on the cause which he is supporting but on the clarity and brevity with which he supported it. When a Bill comes before the House again and again, I believe that its successive motivators learn something from their predecessors and realise the pitfalls into which, with the best intentions in the world, one can fall without the support which the Government receive from their excellent civil servants in constructing a Bill.
The hon. Gentleman has given an extra exemption over and above those contained in my Bill, which dealt with security and aspects that were dangerous to the State. That is the exemption of commercial confidentiality. That is absolutely right, because the more I looked at the way in which the American freedom of information legislation 540 works, the more it seemed to me that it is used for industrial espionage, which is exactly what we did not want.
I was astonished when the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Sir A. Maude) said that people should not have a right but a duty. I cannot disagree more with any statement. Is he really saying that if a motor car manufacturer calls in his cars because of some dangerous aspect, people do not have a right to know what has gone wrong with the car? Is he saying that if a telephone is disconnected, people do not have a right to know why it has been disconnected?
§ Sir Angus Maude
I did not say that the same people, whom the hon. Gentleman claims have rights, have duties. It is the other way round. Certainly, if a motor manufacturer withdraws a model because it is dangerous or unsatisfactory, he has a duty to explain to the public what is happening and why. As to a telephone disconnection, an individual has the right to go to his Member of Parliament and to get that Member of Parliament to pursue the matter until he gets a satisfactory answer.
§ Mr. Freud
I think that I still differ from the right hon. Gentleman. He now feels that people have a right to know, but that people have only a duty to tell them. We are now talking in semantics.
I believe that people have a right to tell other people and that people have a right to ask. I am not very keen on duty, and I am not particularly keen on codes of practice. I was particularly unkeen on codes of practice when I saw how brilliantly they worked in Soho. Pornographers now have a code of practice. They can show the breast, but the code of practice says that they must put a black tape over the nipple. In pornographic pictures they can show whole photographs of nudes as long as the pubic hair is covered up. If that is a code of practice, the whole House is welcome to it. I will not have it.
We have talked about the sort of matter that the Bill facilitates. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) rightly raised the question of parole. Those hon. Members who have visited their constituency prisons will know of the misery that is occasioned simply by the secretiveness of the parole procedure, when every prisoner steadily thinks the worst when parole is not granted. He knows that it is not granted because his wife has run off with someone else and there is no longer a home to go to, or because his employer has reneged on a promise to give him a job, or because his behaviour in prison is not considered to be as good as he thought it was. By not being told, infinite damage is done.
In the Government's British Nationality Bill, it is indicative that when a person applies for British nationality and is refused, he is not told why. That is the sort of confidentiality—if that is what it is—that the Bill seeks to change—the simple case of a person who wants to become a British citizen and who is sent a letter that says "No".
With regard to the publication of reports, I have never understood why the Secretary of State or the Minister can convene a committee, accept the report and, if he does not like the findings, there is no duty on him to publish. Perhaps there is a duty, but one has no right to ask for it and no right to demand publication.
I should like to give one instance of the marvellously unnecessary secrecy that we practise in this country. The 541 Boundary Commission has looked into the boundary changes of Cambridgeshire. It came to conclusions, which it published in a letter to a district council on Friday of last week. It told Members of Parliament that they would be notified on Tuesday, and it said that the news was to be embargoed until Thursday. As a result, the clerks in the Boundary Commission knew, the post people in my district council knew on Monday, I knew on Tuesday, the Leader of the House did not know until Wednesday, but my local newspapers had known since Friday afternoon. The secrecy was such that we were not consulted. If we had been consulted, we would have been able to say something, because it mistook my constituency of Isle of Ely and made it "the Isle off Ely". It has taken away the city. As a result of the secret deliberations of the Boundary Commission, to which I was not a party, I now have the patients but not the hospital, the pupils but not the school, the vicars but not the bishop, the buses but not the depot, and the trains but not the station. Politically, I do not think that it makes a very great deal of difference, but it is still unnecessary secrecy.
I shall be brief, as I have spoken a great deal on this subject over the years. The question of finance has not yet arisen from those who oppose the Bill, but I should like them to recall that finance works in more than one direction. The implementation of the measure would cost money, but it would also save money. It would not cost nearly as much as the opponents always maintain, and it might save a considerable amount.
When I spoke on the subject in 1979, I said that the money which would have been saved by the disclosure of the Crown Agents scandal, even it it had been found out only a quarter of the way through the scandal, would have paid for the Official Information Bill to run as an Act for 15 years.
We have in this country a legal system under which we are innocent until we are proved guilty. Those who encourage and support the Bill believe that we need a legal system whereby what is done for us in our names by our nominated representatives must be open to our inspection, unless it can be proved that harm or damage will accrue as a result of giving that information. I do not mean harm or even damage or the pride or the pomposity of a Minister or of his civil servants. It is the principle for which we are going.
§ 12.6 pm
§ Sir Hugh Fraser (Stafford and Stone)
I also will make a short speech, having served with the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) for some time on the Committee that tried to get the Bill approved.
I disagree with some of the things said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Sir A. Maude). I do so on grounds which are perhaps different from those of the promoter of the Bill. If I regard him as being a dangerous agitator, he may regard me as being a dangerous authoritarian. But we come to the same conclusion, namely, that is it necessary that some sort of order should be put into the whole system of official information and the Official Secrets Act.
Since the judgment of Mr. Justice Caulfield, the Official Secrets Act has been put out to grass. No one dares to bring a prosecution under it, and the whole area is one of considerable confusion. If I give my good support to a man whom I regard as an agitator, I am sure that he is welcome to my support from the authoritarian point of 542 view. I believe that it is more and more necessary that there should be some system of order and that people should know what is the law on these matters. At the moment they do not.
My right hon. Friend referred to investigatory journalism and to getting hold of a document, shoving it on the front page of a newspaper, and saying "We have captured this". That sort of action flows more from the present uncertainty of the law than it would flow from this measure, suitably amended.
We have to face the fact, the country has to face the fact, and the democratic world is facing the fact, that with Governments now being in control of about 40 per cent. of the gross national product there are areas that neither the House of Commons nor anyone else can properly investigate or control. That is why something along the lines of the Bill is necessary.
Similar legislation has been introduced in the United States, is now in operation in Canada, will shortly be in operation in Australia, and exists in large parts of Europe. It is not a question of rights or duties but of the mechanics of government, and the main object of the mechanics of government is to have effective government by consent. That is the essence of a workable democratic system. If people know that they can gain access—whether by right or duty—to information that they regard as important to themselves, to the country, or to their fellow citizens, the machinery of government will become more effective.
One other aspect is worth bearing in mind, namely, that the level of political journalism and of political debate in public affairs is below that found in the United States of America. One reason for that is the atmosphere of secrecy. For example, the lobby system is completely wrong. It is a question of leak and squeak from Ministers. That would be obviated if a Bill such as the one proposed so ably and mildly by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) were enacted. I know that the Minister will defend the Government's position. It has been the Government's position whether a Liberal, Conservative or Labour Government have been in power. As has been said, it is appropriate that the Minister should represent a Department that ought to have been abolished long ago. It was a great mistake not to absorb the Civil Service Department back into the Treasury long ago. It would be infinitely more effective if it were absorbed within it.
My hon. Friend represents a Department whose maintenance I regret. I am sure that he will make an admirable speech. It will be the same speech as that which has been made year after year, no matter which party has been in Government. In the interests of the good government of this country, of democracy in the form of government by consent, and of more efficient government over the vast sums of money that our people have entrusted to the Government, the Bill should be given a Second Reading. There are defects, but, as the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin) said, they can be put right in Committee.
§ Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)
I very much welcome the Bill. Like many other hon. Members, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) on the clear, reasonable, comprehensive and persuasive manner in which he introduced it. I support it not least because, like two other hon. Members, I sponsored a similar Bill. Primarily, I 543 support the Bill because—this view has been expressed on both sides of the Chamber—public life should be conducted not on the basis of secrecy—unless a specific entitlement to know can be established—but on the basis of a generalised public right to know unless a specific case for secrecy can be made out. The Bill's central function is to change the onus of proof in respect of that entitlement to know. That is why I support it so warmly.
Some of the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Sir A. Maude) prompt the question why freedom of information matters. The speeches made by my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley and by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) gave some convincing answers and illustrations. My answer is that above all the citizen is entitled to know those facts that fundamentally affect his well-being and his sheer physical safety.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis rose—
§ Mr. Lewis Yes. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) asked me whether I would be called to speak. I told him that I would not be called until everybody else had been called and until all the ex-Ministers had been called. That is how the democratic system works here. With the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) and of the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud), they are all ex-Ministers. If any more ex-Ministers walk in they will be called, and then they will walk out. I might then be called.
§ Mr. Meacher
I am sure that my hon. Friend will be called—or, if he is not called, that he will make his speech anyway.
§ Mr. Meacher
How can it be justified, for example—this happens now—that safety reports are often suppressed on grounds of commercial confidence or because of what is seen as their political nuisance value? I have in mind reports concerning road tests on old-fashioned invalid tricycles. In company with many other hon. Members, I am sure, I have been pursued by those who are extremely angry about the implications of that for disabled people.
The same attitude is taken in respect of reports of factory inspections, reports on pollution, the figures of car safety defects, reports on hygiene at meat packing plants, and reports on outbreaks of food poisoning. One could give a long list of material treated in that way. These denials of information have occurred and continue to occur in our society.
There is, however, a more disturbing undertone to the question why all this matters. In my view, information control has been repeatedly used in Britain and is still being used to underpin a repressive exercise of power which, if it were revealed, could not be sustained. I shall give some examples of what I mean. How can it be justified, for instance, that a clerk in an employment exchange who reports firms that discriminate to another Government body, the Commission for Racial Equality, is threatened with the Official Secrets Act and then 544 sacked? My hon. Friend the Member for Heeley mentioned the case of Trevor Brown, at Aldermaston. That is a classic instance of the same point.
How can it be justified that an official Government committee investigating privacy and studying data protection is denied details of the Metropolitan Police computer? Again, how can it be justified that a Cabinet Minister should have cause to complain that his mistrusting officials, bent on lobbying for nuclear power stations, omitted to brief him that the Russians had had a catastrophic nuclear accident in the Urals in the 1950s or—this is of particular significance—that a nuclear leak was actually happening in 1976 at the Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant at the very time when he was being briefed to expand its activities? Yet all these things happen—and one could give many other examples.
It is secrecy that encourages dishonesty in government, because Ministers know that they have a good chance to get away with it in deceiving the public. The Suez fiasco in 1956 was palmed off at the time as a peace-keeping venture, whereas we now know that it was a venture of an entirely different kind—a plot between Britain, France and Israel. The Rhodesian rebellion was allowed to continue and flourish for 14 years because civil servants and Ministers colluded in pretending that they had no knowledge of sanctions-breaking by the oil companies. In 1976 it was claimed that child benefit welfare payments to mothers had to be cut because of the attitude of the trade unions, yet we now know that the Government—they may well have had good reason for it—simply wished to save money. So one could go on.
The result can sometimes be very frightening. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis) gave one illustration. I want to give another. In his recently published book "The Frontiers of Secrecy", David Leigh, a brilliant investigative journalist now working on The Guardian, gives details of one instance where a man in the hospital wing of a prison one night made a considerable ruckus. He was systematically beaten up by 10 officers, who tore into him in his cell. He later died from his injuries. The affair was completely hushed up. He was said to have died of asphyxiation because—it was alleged—he was assaulting prison officers. There was no police investigation.
This is Britain, not Eastern Europe. One must ask how many others, under the present rules, die violently in British prisons, or are badly beaten up, the facts being concealed, and all this happening with impunity. That is a serious question.
That leads one to ask why this smothering blanket of secrecy that so many have argued against is not swept away.
§ Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)
Is the hon. Member suggesting that if someone were beaten up in custody, or in a mental hospital, the beating would be recorded on paper?
§ Mr. Meacher
I hope that the cause of death and the facts that led to death or serious injury would be recorded, but if that were not so, members of the family, friends or members of the same organisation should have an opportunity to pursue the details until the full truth emerged. Otherwise, I do not understand what we mean by saying that we live in a free democracy in this country.
§ Mr. Clinton Davis
Is there not a great distinction between the point made by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) and the situation in which there is a campaign on the part of the authorities to disguise or camouflage the facts and prevent any elucidation?
§ Mr. Meacher
That is a fair point. One result of the present rules is that when embarrassing things happen the greater degree of secrecy in Britain—greater, probably, than in any other country in the Western world—encourages the authorities to pursue the deliberate deception of the public. They do so with impunity.
Why does secrecy continue to exist? That is an embarrassing question, but we need to face it. Freedom of information is one of those issues—there are not many such issues, and the Common Market is perhaps the nearest parallel—where the leaders of both major parties in the past have united with the Civil Service to resist the Back Benches in Parliament and the wider interests of the public at large. The last White Paper on this subject concludedwhere the policies and decision of the Executive"—I emphasise the next words paticularly—are under constant and vigilant scrutiny by Parliament and Ministers are directly answerable in Parliament it may be neither necessary nor desirable to proceed to legislation.Anyone who believes that there is "constant and vigilant" and effective scrutiny of the Executive under the present rules will believe anything.
Perhaps the best evidence of the effects of the Bill and why it is needed comes from a study which was published last year entitled "Open Government: Lessons from America" by Stewart Dresner. He found that the consequences for the United States of its Freedom of Information Act 1966 have been a more effective public scrutiny of the Executive. I should tell the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) that that is in a country where Congress already enjoys considerably greater powers of investigation than yet exist in this country.
Dresner also said that it led to an inhibition of corruption. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is probably much less of a problem in this country. However, what is relevant here is that it also led to a reduction in hidden rule-making. That is something of which we should take note.
The cost has been low. One estimate, made in 1977, was £13 million. Perhaps it is up to £15 million or £20 million now. But it has to be compared with the £750 million spent on the American Government's public relations generally. Anyway, on the question of cost, it is perhaps a drop in the ocean compared with the offsetting benefits to consumers from having proper access to information and bureaucratic procedures, which saves substantial individual costs and considerably higher public expenditure than would otherwise be incurred. It is interesting to note from America that some agencies actually made a profit out of charging for information.
Perhaps a reasonable estimate of the cost in Britain—an estimate that I do not think has been mentioned today but one that is widely accepted—is that it would cost about £5 million a year. If that is so it offers extremely good value for money, since it is only retrospectivity that generates the very much higher figures that have been put forward by some of the Whitehall opponents of the Bill.
Other fears that have been expressed, particularly by the hon. Member for East Grinstead, have not been 546 realised, according to foreign experience. Neither in America nor in Scandinavia has national security been threatened by wider access. The constitutional relationship between civil servants and Ministers—I entirely agree that there should be proper safeguards—has not been overturned in those countries. The processes of government have not been rendered unworkable or less efficient.
I hope that the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon will take note of that. There is no evidence that the things that he talks about have occurred in other countries that have followed this path. Yet all these arguments have often been employed quite fiercely, particularly by Civil Service proponents, to resist similar legislation here.
We have not yet heard from a Minister today, but I hope that Ministers will allow themselves to see the advantages that this Bill holds out for them. The irony of all this is that the most protected in Britain are not Ministers but civil servants, whose lack of productivity and efficiency, so we are always being told, is such an obsession with the Prime Minister and her Ministers. One of the most noticeable concomitants of freedom of information abroad has been a galvanising of the bureaucracy, as the spotlight has been turned on its numbers and its methods of operation. In Norway, for example—to quote again from the Dresner study—the new system led to adifferent mentality, a different state of mind among civil servants.Is that not what the Prime Minister wants here? I have always assumed that that was so.
It also needs to be said that the areas most likely to come under scrutiny—the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Sir H. Fraser) referred to these, and I am sure that he would be interested—are social security regulations, the testing of harmful products, the statistical basis for the roads programme, and many other similar items. These are precisely those items which, as the right hon. Member said, are now most subject to ill-informed public debate and to leaks and squeaks from Ministers, as he said. They are also the areas in which from time to time we hear the plaintive cry from ex-Ministers "If only we had been told at the time." They can be told, because freedom of information is an exercise in turning hindsight into foresight. Any Government might well find themselves some surprising allies if they made the thought processes of their Civil Service more open.
In commending the Bill, I deeply hope that this opportunity will not be missed.
§ Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)
It is with considerable pleasure that I follow the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), because I should like, shortly, to take issue with some of the things that he said. However, The Economist was about right some months ago when it described secrecy as the occupational disease of Governments.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley), who so ably introduced the Bill, obviously shares that view. I share it myself. Indeed, it is a view that is consistent with our positions as parliamentarians, and a view that as parliamentarians it is right and proper to take. It shows a scepticism of the powers and intentions of Governments, and that can be nothing but healthy. Equally, it does credit to the hon. Gentleman's views as a libertarian. I shall not comment on the question whether 547 those views as a libertarian are consistent with those of a Socialist, in view of the perhaps greater tendency of people of that persuasion to accept forms of paternalism and corporatism which might be distasteful to some of us.
§ Viscount Cranborne
I fear that I should be ruled out of order if I entered into an argument with the hon. Gentleman on that subject.
The views expressed by the hon. Member of Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) are more consistent with the traditions of the Liberal Party which he represents—at least, with those traditions so often voiced by Liberal Members during the days of their party's greatness.
I agree with The Economist, in principle. Our debate today has shown that there is an enormous amount of common ground among all right hon. and hon. Members that excessive secrecy in government holds considerable dangers. I do not believe that anyone would dissent from that. If I understood correctly the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Sir A. Maude), he would not dissent either, no matter what Opposition Members seek to make out that he said.
However, when I read the Bill, which I did with great interest, I found several parts which gave rise to considerable doubts in my mind. Some of those doubts may be allayed in Committee. I shall give one example. In spite of the commendable efforts of those who drafted the Bill to safeguard the interests of national security, it is by no means clear that anyone who is not a citizen of this kingdom could not ask Government Departments for information not protected under the Bill and be supplied with that information. I hope that my hon. Friend will give some guidance in that regard. Would it be possible, for example, in the view of Her Majesty's Government, for President Brezhnev to make an inquiry about a Government Department and to receive a reply? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) seeks to anticipate the qualification that I was about to make. If my hon. Friend can confirm that only a citizen of this country can make such an application, I fear that Mr. Brezhnev would have to rely on his friends within the confines of this country, no matter where they sit, move or have their being. That is one objection that I believe is capable of amendment in Committee.
My principal worries about the Bill lie more in the constitutional field. Some of those objections could be met by amendments in Committee.
I shall be grateful if, when my hon. Friend speaks, he will give me a little guidance on the relationship between the Government and the Monarch. It is vital, if the constitution is to be protected, that the Monarch should be seen to be above politics. I do not think that hon. Members on either side of the House would quarrel with that view, despite the quizzical expression on the face of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon). Do I detect an element of disagreement in the hon. Gentleman's expression? I do not know. I hazard the opinion that most Conservative Members, at any rate, would not quarrel with what is, after all, a simple constitutional assertion.
The Monarch's duties include regular contact with Ministers. That contact will no doubt take place not only in person but by way of document and letter. The sponsors 548 of the Bill should make it clear that such correspondence will be excepted from the duty to be released to the public. The disadvantages flowing from such a course of action not being followed are so obvious as to need no further elaboration by me. That constitutional consideration could be considered and amended in Committee. I see no particular objection to it.
However, a matter of equal moment causes me to doubt the very basis of the Bill, despite its manifest good intentions. The hon. Member for Heeley—I hope that I noted his words accurately and that he will forgive me if the Official Report proves me to be wrong—said that those who ask themselves about the constitutional niceties or implications of the Bill suffer from a constitutional neurosis which could well be argued in Committee.
I believe that that portrays a cavalier attitude to our constitution which those who regard parliamentary liberties as important should take more seriously than the hon. Gentleman implied that he did. I suggest that implicit in the whole tenor of the Bill, and explicit particularly in clause 21, is a serious departure from the established rules of our constitution.
Clause 21 relates to judicial review. Indeed, the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin) made some passing reference to this matter. Those who are concerned about the Bill will have realised that there is a power of appeal to the judges for those who are dissatisfied with what happens in the Parliamentary Commissioner's office. This method of procedure reopens a battle which I was under the happy illusion had been fought and won about three and a half to four centuries ago. That battle was fought between judges who, at the beginning of the 17th century, were considered and often called the lions under the throne. Under the leadership of Sir Edward Coke, the judges did their best to ensure that the powers of the Executive became answerable to the courts. It was a noble battle, which was fought by noble opponents—by great men. Perhaps one of the greatest men was the man who lost the battle. The battle was taken up again not by the courts but by Parliament, for an even nobler cause—the liberty of Britain as represented by the elected representatives of the people.
§ Mr. Hooley
The hon. Gentleman is making rather heavy weather of this clause. I am not a constitutional lawyer—I am not a lawyer at all—but as a layman I have always understood that if there were some dispute whether the law was being complied with one went to the courts to settle it. In some cases a dispute has been carried as high as the highest appeal court—the House of Lords—to settle the point of law at issue. The Bill is saying that if there is a quarrel between a citizen and a Government Department about his right of access to a certain document, and if, with the help of the Ombudsman, the dispute cannot be resolved, the judge will consider the matter and say that it is within the statute—if, as I hope, the Bill is passed—or that it is not. If it is within the statute he will say that the Department must disclose the information. If it is not within the statute he will say that it does not have to disclose the information. I do not see why we need to go back to Sir Edward Coke, the lions under the throne and all that baloney to deal with that point.
§ Viscount Cranborne
That intervention confirms my view of the hon. Gentleman's cavalier approach to 549 constitutional matters. If we are going to be historical, I am supporting the Roundhead cause. The hon. Gentleman must bear with me. The Bill questions the power of Parliament to call Ministers to account, and transfers, that power, in some small measure, to the courts. That is an important departure from principle, which must be resisted.
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon
As a humble practitioner of the law, I wish to explain to the hon. Gentleman that a doctrine already exists, which is known as Crown privilege. A Minister can certify that a document is not subject to mormal scrutiny in the court because it is protected under Crown privilege. But the judge can look at the document and decide whether it is subject to Crown privilege, and rule otherwise. On that basis, if the hon. Gentleman is to be believed, the whole structure of the 1660 settlement was overthrown a long time ago, and he might as well forget it.
§ Viscount Cranborne
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his concise lecture on the meaning of Crown privilege. This is a question not of Crown privilege but of parliamentary responsibility and Ministers' responsibility to the Crown.
The Bill breaches that important point—and we breach it at our peril. We should welcome what appears to be a remarkable conversion by the Opposition to relying on the powers of judgment and decision of the courts. That is something which has often been called into question, especially by the Leader of the Opposition. The very explicit obligation put on the courts in clause 21 is a symptom of the implicit change that the Bill represents.
During the course of this Parliament there have been a series of innovations, notably those presented by the Select Committees. If we wish to further the cause of open government, which all who have spoken today seem to favour, the right way is quite simply to increase the powers of the Select Committees and ensure that Parliament takes the powers that it needs to make Ministers responsible to it. To try to make sure that Parliament is bypassed, which is what the Bill does, merely reduces the authority of Parliament and the opportuniy that we have to change the rules to ensure that Ministers become more accountable.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham North-West)
Earlier this morning, as today's proceedings were about to commence, I had an altercation with Mr. Speaker. I have been paying the penalty ever since, but that does not worry me. I have been in the House long enough to know that if one wishes to buck the Chair, Ministers or the Civil Service, one has to pay the penalty.
I believe that Mr. Speaker referred to the customs of the House. As older hon. Members will know, it has long been the custom of the House that an hon. Member, having made a speech, should wait at least until the two following speakers have finished before leaving the Chamber. In this debate, people have made their speeches and then immediately left the Chamber. I declare an interest. I always follow the old custom, but today, because of a call of nature, which for the past three hours I have been unable to attend to, I may have to leave hurriedly to avoid putting myself in the position where I am guilty of disorderly conduct on the Floor of the House. Other hon. Members have been called and I have had to wait here for three hours in that condition.
§ Mr. John Lee (Nelson and Colne)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it fair that the House should be subject to an in-depth urinary report by the hon. Gentleman?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)
I can understand the feelings of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis). He has now been called. We are running short of time. He has made his point.
§ Mr. Lewis
I hope that I have made my point. With the exception of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley), who, as I would expect, because he is a member of my union and a good trade unionist, moved the Second Reading excellently, and the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) and Liberal Members, whom we cannot really consider, every speaker has been an ex-Minister.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West is getting close to suggesting that the Chair is not doing its job properly. That would be unfair. He knows that certain hon. Members have taken a particular interest in the subject, as he has. He is now able to make his contribution. If he continues in this way, other hon. Members will not have the opportunity to speak.
§ Mr. Lewis
I am going to make my speech my way and I am in order. I am in order when I point out that everyone, with the exception of those whom I mentioned and the last speaker, is an ex-Minister. We are having a cover-up. All ex-Ministers have something to hide.
I, too, have taken an interest in the matter. I was the first person to raise the topic in the House by way of a question and an early-day motion. I was founder chairman of the first all-party Committee dealing with freedom of information, although I may not speak as much as the newcomers.
There has been a cover-up by all parties. One would never believe from hearing the discussions that both parties are pledged to introduce more open government. Both parties are pledged to deal with the Official Secrets Act. Ex-Ministers say that action should be taken, now that they are no longer in office, but what did they do when they had the chance? They did nothing.
The matter is not party political—it embraces both sides of the House. As soon as these people come out of Government they say that of course they should have done this or that, and that now the present Government should do it. They then start criticising my hon. Friend, the Member for Heeley. It has been said that we should try to get things done on the Floor of the House, but that is impossible, no matter how hard one tries.
If the Civil Service wants to advise its Minister to block or evade any issue, that Minister will accept the advice. He will do so in 101 different ways, for example, by evading a question. The Civil Service will say that it cannot find the answer because of disproportionate time and cost. However, the next week, when it is convenient, it will find the answer just like that.
That happened only yesterday. I asked about the cost of changing the retirement age for men to 60. The civil servants could not find the cost, but later when they wanted to use that information they found it.
551 That happens all the time. The Civil Service says that the Bill will cost a lot of money, but how much will it cost in comparison to the hundreds of millions of pounds that the Civil Service has lost? The Crown Agents were mentioned—I do not know how many millions they lost. There is now an inquiry. We are told that it is costing the country millions of pounds. No action will be taken, whatever the result of the inquiry. No civil servant will be sacked and no action will be taken against him.
If information is given to a Minister upon which he can form his opinion and come to the right or wrong decision, why cannot we also have that information? Why cannot hon. Members and the general public decide whether all the information has been given or whether some was given and some concealed? If it was concealed, why cannot we decide why? Why cannot we decide if any jiggery-pokery was going on?
The hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) said that the Civil Service was beyond reproach. Of course it is, but some matters should be cleared up. When the late Lord Armstrong was head of the Home Civil Service he was clamouring for a statutory prices and incomes policy. Before it was introduced, however, he decided to increase the salaries of top civil servants by 35 per cent. Then he decided to postpone his retirement so that he could receive the index-linked pension at a higher rate. He then got a job as chairman of the Midland Bank at a salary of £20,000 a year. I should like to know what advice he gave to the Cabinet. Did he influence it in any way?
Lord Harris, a Labour Minister, was in charge of a matter relating to radio and television. He then became chairman of Westward Television. I should like to know what information he received from the civil servants on television and franchises. Did it have an effect on his getting the chairmanship of Westward Television?
The problem also relates to nuclear energy and nuclear waste, which comes through my constituency. What information does the Minister receive? Why does he decide one way or the other? Lord Beeching, rightly or wrongly, smashed up our railway system, but we were not allowed to see on what evidence he based his decision.
We are told that Concorde may have to pack up because it is a dead duck or a white elephant. It is said that millions have been spent on it and that it is a waste of expenditure. Again, who advises, and on what basis? It is said that as hon. Members we have powers to do things, but what can we do? We can do nothing. We table early-day motions which will never be debated. We table questions which may or may not be reached, and which, if they are reached, can be evaded. We therefore cannot get the information that we demand.
There is currently a controversy on the question whether the fluoridation of water supplies is good or bad. I do not know the answer to that question, but it is impossible to get the information. Why should people be compulsorily medicated, perhaps against their will? Why should a parent be denied access to the contents of a school report on its child? Does Brezhnev want to know whether Tommy Tucker is doing well or badly at school? Of course he does not.
§ Viscount Cranborne
One of the principal platforms of the Conservative Party at the last election was that parents should be given just that information.
§ Mr. Lewis
But we cannot demand, as of right, access to this sort of information.
One cannot demand access to one's personal health records. My doctor could agree to show me my records, but if he refused that would be the end of the matter. Are my health records a State secret? I know that I am not very popular in this House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish".] There are plenty of people who would cheer if they were able to read in my health records that I was about to drop dead. Of course, a doctor could advise me not to look at my health records, but the decision whether I should so so should be left to me. After all, I pay the doctor, just as the taxpayer pays every civil servant and every Minister—and pretty well at that. The taxpayer is not allowed to know why he cannot do certain things on the basis of ministerial advice.
All the lawyers on the Opposition Benches have left. What about the lawyers? They are a law unto themselves. Why should we operate a custom under which, when Law Officers retire or are kicked out because they have failed or for some other reason, and they go back into practice, fat briefs are given to them by the Government? I am not allowed to know why that happens. The same arises when Members of Parliament lose their seats. They are sent to the House of Lords and they are immediately given at salaries of £10,000, or £20,000-a-year sinecures as chairmen of the outspoken caravan commission, or the commission examining why girls cannot cohabit with boys. When I ask how many of these sinecures exist I am told that the information cannot be found. However, I have discovered one fact. About 150 peers of the realm are getting some £30 million a year in salaries and expenses.
Most of those people were democratically defeated by the electorate. Lord Hooson was one. He has now been made a judge. They then start making big speeches saying that they are in favour of a prices and incomes policy, because the Civil Service has advised some Minister or other that it is a good thing. But they do not want it themselves. Lord Thomson is another example.
A freedom of information Act might make it possible to find out why so many of those who have done well out of the Common Market were so anxious to go into it in the first place. I am told—I cannot find out officially, because they will not reveal the information—that a number of top civil servants were anxious for Britain to go into the Common Market because they saw lucrative jobs for themselves. I am told that some of those who were most actively in favour of going into the Common Market—for example, Mr. Roy Jenkins, Mr. Tugendhat, Lord Soames and, indeed, Lord Thomson; it cuts across party political lines—were anxious to get into the Common Market in order to get good jobs and fat pensions out of it. Whether that is true or not, it certainly happened.
That is why we must have the right to know. There is the question of cost. I take the example of Swansea and the road fund licence centre. For 25 years, I campaigned about the scandal of road fund tax evasion. Originally, I was told that there was not much evasion. Then I was told that there was too much of it, that it had got so bad that nothing could be done about it. Then it was decided to set 553 up the centre at Swansea. That was done at a cost of God knows how many millions of pounds. Now it is to be closed down. On what basis? Why cannot we have that information? I will tell the House why. It is because some of the top civil servants would be shown to be guilty, if not of neglect of duty, certainly of failure to be up to their jobs and to carry out the responsibility for which most of them are very highly paid and get very many backhanders—not in cash, of course, but by way of KCBs, and so forth.
The whole question of public honours should be looked into. Very often, a person is given a peerage and six months later a whole lot of scandal comes out about him. On what advice are these honours given? We have a right to know the reason for giving a peerage to Mr. X. It may be that if only inquiries had been made we and everybody else could have said that Mr. X was the last person who should be given a peerage. But the cover-up happens, because the civil servant who recommended it is on the gravy train himself.
Talking of gravy trains, the latest example is the European set-up. How many millions is it costing to have so-called European Members of Parliament swarming around the world? How many of our civil servants who are now swanning around the world recommended that we enter the Common Market because they saw nice fat jobs for themselves?
Those are the issues about which we should be able to get information. If I ask questions in the House they will be blocked. The information will not be available "owing to disproportionate cost", or the Minister will be advised to make some smart-alec reply. One cannot get the information.
The hon. Member for Isle of Ely referred to cars, and someone said that we could not deal with private organisation. That is what happens. A private car firm may find that it has a faulty model. The car has probably been on the road for a couple of years. This is reported to the Department, which advises that it should be called in. But if the Department puts a block on what has happened and why, that is the end of it. It is impossible to find out what was wrong, why it was wrong and whether there was any neglect.
I shall conclude, because I realise that other hon. Members wish to speak. I have tried for many years to get successive Governments to open up. It is worse now than it was when I entered the House some 36 years ago. Then one could ask the Prime Minister, whether it was Attlee or Churchill, questions on virtually anything and one got full replies. One was also able to ask supplementaries.
Indeed, the "old man", as we used to call him affectionately, often stopped me in the Corridor and asked "Do you have any good questions for me today?" I would say "Yes, Sir". He then asked "Have you got any good supplementaries?" I would reply "Yes, Sir", and he would respond "I have got some good replies". Even before he knew what the supplementary questions would be, he had his replies ready. One only has to look at Hansard to see that at that time there was no evasion and no question of using disproportionate cost as an excuse.
There is now a growing desire on the part of civil servants to cover up their mistakes and wrongdoings. I am talking about the top echelons of the Civil Service. I believe that freedom of information would be to the advantage of the Government. It would help Ministers and 554 the public generally if we have a Bill such as this. It would not harm the Government; it would help them to get on with their job.
§ 1.6 pm
§ The Minister of State, Civil Service Department (Mr. Barney Hayhoe)
I am glad to speak following the hon. Member forNewham, North-West (Mr. Lewis). Like him, I listened to all the previous contributions. Having looked back over the literature on this subject, I was well aware of the hon. Gentleman's long-standing interest in this matter.
I add my congratulations to the many that have been properly given to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley). He is a well-known, seasoned campaigner—a fact that flowed out in some of the things that he said, in that he brought in issues such as alternative energy and nuclear weapons. We know that he is active on those and other fronts.
We have had a good debate. Deep differences of views have been expressed, and the division has not at all been along party lines. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) referred to the distinguished company that he was in, and produced a leaflet that had been circulated. He said that a number of his distinguished colleagues were quoted as supporting the Bill. He is under an illusion, because a number of his distinguished colleagues whose names appear in that document absolutely deny that they support the Bill, and are concerned that their names should have been used in this fashion.
No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor) will put that right at some stage. Some misunderstanding must have occurred. Let it be clearly on the record that a substantial number of those whose names are quoted as being in support of the Bill are not, and they are concerned about it.
§ Mr. K. Harvey Proctor (Basildon)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I understand that the names that appear in the document represent a collection of names collected over a period and that they relate to hon. Members who agree in principle with some form of freedom of information legislation, although not specifically with the Bill. I hope that, in part, that clarifies the position.
§ Mr. Hayhoe
I think that some people will feel resentful that their names should have been used without authority or permission. However, I hope that this exchange will have cleared up the matter.
We have had something of a re-run of the debate of 1978, when a similar Bill was introduced by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud). Some of the speeches have been similar, and they are no bad thing for that. I always remember Iain Macleod's advice, which was "If you have a good speech, stick to it and make it often". I suspect that that would apply to some of the speeches that we have heard today.
I acknowledge that changes have been made in the hon. Gentleman's Bill to meet some of the criticisms that were made of the 1978 Bill on Second Reading and in Committee. Those alterations have not changed, nor would the sponsors claim that they had changed, the fundamental thrust and purpose of the legislation. However, the circumstances in which this legislation is proposed, particularly the parliamentary circumstances, 555 have changed considerably. I am referring not to the political complexion of this House and how that has changed—extremely welcome though that has been—but to the important and highly significant reforms and developments concerning the Select Committee system that have been introduced during the lifetime of this Parliament.
During the debate on what one could call the "Freud" Bill, references were made to the importance of Select Committees by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Sir Hugh Fraser), the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), the then Home Secretary, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren), all of whom said at that time that Select Committees could enhance the freedom of information if they were introduced along the lines of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee.
We must also acknowledge the important contribution that was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), the former Leader of the House, in bringing those reforms before the House and carrying them through. They have been accompanied by a willingness of Ministers—greater perhaps than ever before, and certainly better than in any other Government in recent years—to give evidence to Select Committees. The Croham directive, which was introduced in the lifetime of the previous Administration, is being implemented with support and encouragement from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
Coming recently from the Ministry of Defence, I recall very well that under this Government we had a debate on nuclear weapons for the first time. A great deal of information was given to the House. Now it is known that under the previous Administration much happened that was not reported to the House. The decision about Trident and the memorandum on the future of the United Kingdom strategic nuclear deterrent force was made available to Members. We provided more information to hon. Members and to the public than ever before.
Earlier this week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services announced that the "S" manual of DHSS instructions for social security officers would be made available later this year. Fourteen of the Rayner reports on aspects of Government administration are in the Library of the House. There has been a substantial increase in the information that has been made available. In addition, this Administration is being accused of being one of the leakiest Governments this century. I repudiate any such suggestion. People cannot have it both ways. They cannot accuse us of being secretive and excessively leaky.
The Government's record on providing information has been extremely good. It is also important to note that the development of the Select Committee system has been carried through in tune and in harmony with our parliamentary traditions. It buttresses rather than undermines the principle of ministerial accountability. It reinforces Parliament and makes parliamentary scrutiny more effective—rightly so, because Government and Ministers derive their authority and legitimacy from the House. We have known since not long ago that the House can, by a vote, withdraw that authority and legitimacy from an Administration.
Clause 1, described by the promoter as the very heart and core of the Bill, with its right of access—which would 556 be determined by the Ombudsman and by the courts—would erode and undermine our parliamentary and constitutional practices. My hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) and others made that point. It would also challenge the relationship between Members of Parliament and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the Ombudsman. At the moment, there is no direct right of access to the Ombudsman except through a Member of Parliament. The proposals in the Bill would bypass Members of Parliament and would allow individuals—presumably at home or overseas—to approach the Ombudsman direct.
Clause 21 would involve the courts in highly controversial matters in ways that could easily create problems for the courts and for Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead quoted from a very important passage in the speech of the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Leeds, South, who said:Judicial review of the merits of decisions to deny documents would raise a profound constitutional issue. This is an area in which we have been traditionally reluctant to venture … This will, no doubt, encourage judicial review of the merits of individual cases, and the exercise of ministerial discretion, with all the dangers of the politicisation of the courts. The major point that I am making is that it is this House which should take the final decision, not the Parliamentary Commissioner and not the courts."—[Official Report, 19 January 1979; Vol. 960, c. 2186.]I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said at that time. Indeed, his views have been reflected and emphasised by other interventions that we have had in the debate, not least the intervention by the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin), who, as a former Attorney-General, expressed grave reservations about involving the courts in matters of this kind.
As I said, more information is being made available by the Government. The Select Committee system, as we are now seeing it in practice, is proving effective. The promoter of the Bill said that it was a great advance. It is a great advance in the whole area of open government and availability of information. This is being done in a way that strengthens our parliamentary and constitutional practices, but an enforceable right of access, involving judicial review, could easily detract from Parliament and create many deep difficulties for good government and sensible administration.
§ Mr. Hooley
I am a passionate supporter of the Select Committee system. I have argued for it and voted for it, and I very much welcome what the Government did in that respect. But the Minister is pushing his argument very far indeed to suggest that Members of Parliament—who, it is accepted, are already overburdened—and Parliament itself—which is overburdened with a mass of perfectly proper matters—should be a substitute for the necessity of giving the individual citizen the right of access to a particular document if he feels that he has a genuine need for it. It is not a common-sense argument to suppose that the process of a right of access by the generality of citizens can be taken—on top of the gigantic load that already exists on the Select Committees—by individual Members and the House itself. It is not a sensible proposition.
§ Mr. Hayhoe
I am arguing that the Government have made considerable and significant progress towards making more information available and towards opening up government. They have done so in a manner that is in harmony with the traditions and practices of our 557 parliamentary democratic system. I question the imposition of some other method that would, perhaps, achieve the same desirable end, but in a way that would harm Parliament and would not be in the interests of good government.
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon rose—
§ Mr. Hayhoe
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I am happy to give way to those who have been in on the debate, but they should have priority over those who just wander in, ask a question, and wander out again.
As for making such changes, we must consider the manner in which we develop our normal way of going about such things. I shall quote from the Green Paper that was issued by the last Administration just before the election. It states:In the Government's judgement further steps designed to achieve greater openness must be fully in accord with our constitutional tradition and practice which have developed in this country. Nothing must be allowed to detract from the basic principle of Ministerial accountability to Parliament: and the prime aim of any new measures must be to strengthen Parliamentary democracy and public confidence in it.That was the aim of reforming the Select Committees. Two weeks ago a debate was initiated by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), which represented a further advance down that road. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House gave undertakings.
I turn to another aspect of the Bill that raises grave questions, namely, the confidentiality of advice given by officials to Ministers, the confidentiality of exchanges between Ministers and other Ministers, and the confidentiality of exchanges between Ministers and officials. Clause 7 recognises that a problem exists. The proposed deferment so that papers do not become available until a decision has been made or action taken is no solution. The hon. Member for Isle of Ely let the cat out of the bag during an intervention that he made in our earlier debate. He said:We want to find out about the anonymous advice that Ministers are given. I respect the Secretary of State's right to make decisions. That is why he is appointed. We want to have the information that he is given which causes him to make certain decisions."—[Official Report, 19 January 1979; Vol. 960, c. 2173.]Some of the sponsors of the Bill clearly desire to get into that area.
§ Mr. Hayhoe
Again, an hon. Member has asked a question although he has not done us the courtesy of being in the Chamber to listen to the debate.
§ Mr. Hayhoe
I know that the hon. Member has taken a great interest in these matters since he intervened in the debate two years ago. I read the speech that he made with great interest.
It is wrong to try to get into the public domain advice given by officials to Ministers, because that would have a considerable effect on aspects of the Civil Service that we rightly prize as being of great importance. I refer to the fact that it is politically neutral, that its members are willing to give frank advice to Administrations, and that it is loyal.
I gained the impression most sharply from the hon. Member for Isle of Ely that he sought to criticise not 558 individual civil servants but the Civil Service as a whole. He put his smear across all of them, alleging that they were totally opposed to the Bill. He was quickly corrected by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), who said that there were Civil Service unions that expressed support for the Bill. Nevertheless, I believe that the hon. Gentleman was wrong to put that smear on civil servants as a group, who, to my knowledge—I served as a civil servant for many years in the past—give loyalty to the Administration in office and do their level best to carry out the political directions and controls exercised by their individual Ministers.
I think it not inappropriate that, on the occasion of my first speech since my appointment as Minister of State, Civil Service Department, I should pay a tribute to the diligence and dedication of our civil servants. They are a much-maligned and misrepresented group. The truth is that their honesty and integrity are of the highest order, and we, as parliamentarians, should be jealous and protective of the high standard of professional conduct of our public servants. I know of none better anywhere in the world.
§ Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)
I do not think that anyone supporting the Bill would seek to question the loyalty of our Civil Service. Precisely because the Civil Service tends, quite properly and rightly, under our constitution, to identify with the Administration in power, and because it is therefore loyal and protective towards that Administration, some of us feel that civil servants should not be allowed the discretion to decide what they disclose to the public, because the information, if disclosed, while it might in no way compromise national security, might be politically embarrassing to the Administration.
§ Mr. Hayhoe
I well understand the view that the hon. Gentleman expresses, but I dissent from it, because I believe that some measure of confidentiality is at the very essence of good government. We have today been given the views of hon. Members on both sides who have been Ministers and therefore understand how matters work. I do not think that we should necessarily discount their views on this question, and I believe that they would agree that some confidentiality is required.
The same is true of Members of Parliament. I should not be at all happy if all my files of papers on constituency cases, that I have raised over the years—some of them opening up general questions—were to be available, as of right, to people who were not directly concerned. In this context, I draw attention to the American system. I note that it is the Executive who have to produce their documents. I do not believe that the same rules apply at the Hill, to Members of Congress, and perhaps it is right and proper that they do not.
I therefore take the view that some measure of confidentiality must be of the essence and at the heart of good government, and I do not believe that it can be otherwise. If one barrier is demolished, other barriers will be erected and other methods found of conducting business which will be less efficient in order to restore the confidentiality lost by the demolition of existing barriers.
I wish now to say a word about retrospection. Clause 3 gives a general power but does not spell out the details. There are practical difficulties. Reference was made to them earlier. Government Departments currently hold about 7½ million shelf-feet of files. That is a very 559 bureaucratic sort of statistic, is it not?—a shelf-foot—but that is the measure of it, and there are thousands of millions of individual documents. It is mind-boggling to think that under the provisions of clause 3 these could be brought into the public domain.
The right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich referred to this aspect of the matter, and I feel that one should take proper account of what he said. If I may, I shall refer to it later, since it reflects on the question of cost. It might be better if I say something in greater detail later.
On restrospection, the more important issue is the moral one. Is it right to disclose what individuals have written on the basis that confidence would be maintained for 30 years? The documents were written on that basis, especially the sensitive records. Is it right that we should remove that protection? What would we do in relation to documents produced by a previous Administration? It might be extremely interesting to see some of the internal documents of other Administrations in recent years, but the convention is that these documents are safeguarded. That is a good convention and comes, to some extent, under risk with the general powers of clause 3, although I appreciate that those powers can be implemented and modified by the affirmative order procedure.
§ Mr. Dalyell
More and more records will be committed to computers. Is it not a matter of urgency that the whole issue of data protection be looked at? What has become of the Lindop committee's report? Has it been forgotten?
§ Mr. Hayhoe
The hon. Member for West Lothian asked me about the Lindop report and other hon. Members have referred to personal cases. My hon. friend the Member for Cheltenham spoke about the parole system and prisoners. The hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis) spoke about a constituency case in which the individual concerned tragically died. He would not expect me to refer to that matter. The fact that he was able to speak out on behalf of a former constituent in that way is perhaps a testimony to the flexibility of our procedures and the way in which, if answers are not being obtained, as he said—I regret the rather intemperate language that he used about my noble Friend but I shall draw my noble Friend's attention to his remarks so that the matter can be carried further—
§ Mr. Hayhoe
I shall come to Lindop. As is well known, these matters were discussed by Lindop. The report on data protection from that committee was published in 1978. I have a great deal of sympathy with those who argue that the individual should have the right to see personal information and correct it if it is wrong. The growing use of computer records, among other systems of recording information, has increased public concern. Data protection policies are being developed in many countries.
The Labour Government established the Lindop committee. They were formally committed to the principle of statutory data privacy controls over the computerised handling of personal data. However, the Lindop committee did not propose an automatic and unqualified right of subject access to personal files. The recently 560 concluded Council of Europe convention on data protection also recognises the legitimacy of exceptions and restrictions on an individual's access to that information.
The findings of the Lindop committee are being looked at in the light of recent developments, including the outcome of wide-ranging consultations with both public and private sector data users, the policies of the other European countries—I have referred to the Council of Europe convention—and other relevant international texts, and the resource costs and trade implications of any statutory scheme of data privacy control. All who know the subject will agree that it is very complicated. However, I am glad to be able to tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary hopes to be able, during the current Session, to make a statement to Parliament about data protection.
I shall say something about the costs and the manpower implications of the general proposals in the Bill, but I shall first comment on part II, which seeks to repeal section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911 and to put in its place provisions protecting a limited range of official information.
The debate has clearly shown that there is common ground in all parts of the House that the "catch-all" provisions of section 2 of the 1911 Act are unsatisfactory, but, regrettably, this Bill fails to strike the proper balance between the case for restricting the application of the criminal law in this field, and the need, which all Governments share, to protect highly sensitive material. It is a very difficult balance to get right.
I need not remind hon. Members that the present Government introduced their own Protection of Official Information Bill last Session. That Bill, which received a Second Reading—[Interruption.] I am glad that hon. Members are awake and keeping pace with what I am saying. That Bill received a Second Reading in another place. It had been modelled closely on the Franks committee's report of 1972. It took account of the previous Government's White Paper and of many other proposals that had been put forward, but the proposals made did not command wide general support, and they were dropped.
Let me give some reasons why I believe that part II of the Bill is unsatisfactory. It proposes that it shall be an offence to disclose certain categories of information that have been classified by a Minister on the grounds that disclosure wouldbe likely to cause serious injury to the interests of the nation or endanger the safety of a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies".Before any prosecution could be brought it would be necessary for a Minister and for the Attorney-General to certify that the information had been properly classified at the time of the alleged offence, but a certificate so issued by a Minsister would not be regarded as conclusive. Instead, the courts would have the task of deciding whether a particular piece of information was so sensitive that it met the serious injury test. This goes against the Franks committee's recommendations and was the point referred to by the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich as raising a particular difficulty.
I remind the House that the Franks committee argued that there were strong objections to giving the courts responsibility for reviewing a Government classification as part of a criminal trial. In the view of the Franks committee, the question of injury to the nation was essentially political and not judical, and the committee 561 argued, therefore, that it was for the Government, who are responsible to Parliament, to this House and to the electorate, to assess the importance of any given information.
§ Mr. Hayhoe
The Franks committee considered that it was not appropriate to give this sort of task to the courts, and, as I have explained, the Government entirely agree with that assessment.
If it is argued—as, indeed, it is by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham)—that there are details that can be dealt with in Committee, let me explain that part II is also deficient in the protection that it affords to official information. It relies upon classification as a prerequisite of prosecution, but this really would not work in practice. A person could be prosecuted for disclosure of official information only if a Minister certified that at the time of the alleged offence the information had been properly classified, to indicate that its disclosure would be likely to cause serious injury to the interests of the nation or to endanger the safety of a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies.
Such a system might work so long as the information was contained in a document that could be physically marked. But what about conversations, meetings, telephone calls and radio exchanges? These can involve very classified and sensitive material. Moreover, it is simply not practical to insist, as the Bill insists, that each piece of information must be assessed by a Minister personally, so that he may decide whether it should be classified.
Then there is the information that the Minister has not yet had an opportunity to assess and classify. It cannot be right that a person who discloses information that he knows, or has good reason to believe, should be classified, should be immune from prosecution on the ground that he disclosed the information before there was an opportunity to consider the appropriate classification.
There are glaring and gaping loopholes. I am therefore convinced that part II does not provide an adequate or workable system for the protection of official information.
§ Mr. S. C. Silkin
I see the force of the Minister's arguments—indeed, I adduced some of them myself—but does he not agree that they are eminently suited to the kind of Select Committee examination procedure that I suggested?
§ Mr. Hayhoe
Certainly, the points could be looked at in that way, but we are discussing one part of the Bill. I shall express my views about the Bill as a whole in a moment.
Part II contains other serious weaknesses in the way that it is framed and in the defences that are provided. The Bill provides, as did the Government Bill, a defence of previous availability, of prior publication, although the defence is more widely available in this Bill than it was in the Government Bill. Disclosure in the public interest is very widely drawn—for example, information that is said to be of "justifiable public concern." I am told by lawyers that it is not clear how the courts would assess whether a matter was of justifiable public concern. They tell me that it is difficult to reconcile a defence of public interest with the "serious injury" test.
562 It is clear to me that if information is of such a nature that its disclosure would be likely to cause serious injury to the interests of the nation it cannot be reasonable to say at the same time that its disclosure would be in the public interest.
As those who have read The Guardian will know, the Civil Service Department has been investigating the likely costs and resources needed to implement the Bill. I shall give some of the basic information. There are more than 7½ million shelf-feet of files and records in Government Departments. That compares with under ½ million shelf-feet of files in the Public Record Office. So we have 1,000 miles of files in the Government machine at present. Files are being created at an annual rate of about 15,000 a year in small Departments, and perhaps 1 million a year in large Departments.
It is interesting that the information is revealed to the House in this way. I am sure that there will be questions whether all these files are necessary. The current practice is that over 90 per cent. of those files are destroyed, and it is only the rest that are housed in the Public Record Office.
The effect of the Bill would be that all those files would have to be preserved. The costs would be considerable. In order to meet the requirements of the Bill we would need, over our present requirements, the equivalent of a new Public Record Office—that size of building—perhaps once every two, three or four years.
The costs involved are frightening. The right hon. Member for Leeds, South spoke of an estimated £5 million to £25 million. It has been estimated that it would cost between £7 million and £8 million to examine a personal file to remove material that is exempted under the general provisions of schedule 1, and then to provide access to that file, quite apart from the question of accommodation.
The files dealing with policy, administration or major subjects vary in their size and sensitivity. Perhaps £70 per file, or two or three times as much, would be required to deal with that material.
The right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich said that the files about which we are talking, retrospectively, were created under the then conditions. If the Bill became law new systems would of course be brought in.
§ Mr. Hayhoe
I think that I should go on, as other hon. Members still wish to intervene in the debate. I want to finish my remarks about costs. Viewing areas would be required. We would need new indices. Therefore, a great deal of staff time would be required to bring the system into operation.
The Department of Health and Social Security already has 25 million personal calls at its offices during the course of a year. If only one in 20 of those who called said "I want to see my file", extra time would be absorbed, because an official would have to stay with anyone who was looking at his file. First, the file would have to be gone through to see whether any material was exempted under the provisions set out in the schedule. We can begin to see that a great deal of time would be involved.
I repeat, these are only estimates. Some of the costs could be met by charges, but—and it is a very big "but"—many members of staff and much money would 563 inevitably be diverted from other matters. Many Ministers and hon. Members believe that there are other higher priority areas in which available resources should be used.
I do not rest on the cost-and-resource argument as the reason for suggesting that we should not proceed with the Bill, but it is an element that must be taken into consideration.
I have been critical of many of the fundamental aspects of the Bill not because I want greater secrecy in Government, and not because I believe that the gentlemen or gentlewomen in Whitehall know best, but because I am deeply and passionately committed to the House and to all that it represents in our constitutional and parliamentary practices and traditions.
The Government are more open with information than were their predecessors. They have championed a major development in our Select Committee system, which will increase parliamentary scrutiny and ministerial accountability. I do not believe that the Bill would improve matters; indeed, quite the reverse. It runs counter to our system of parliamentary democracy and could have major constitutional implications. It would almost certainly involve a new, costly piece of bureaucracy to implement the proposed right of public access to some official documents at a time when we are seeking to reduce the size of the Civil Service. The Bill fails to provide a satisfactory solution and framework for the repeal of the "catch-all" provisions of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act that could attract general support.
I do not question the motives or the intentions of the sponsors and supporters of the Bill. I assure them that the Government have given it the most careful consideration. But, as a result of that consideration, I must advise the House not to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) both on bringing forward the Bill and on the impressive way in which he presented his argument for it.
I emphasise that we are discussing whether the Bill should have a Second Reading and be allowed to go forward for detailed consideration in Committee. As I listened to the Minister, I became increasingly convinced that there is a need for the detailed analysis that can be achieved in Committee.
It perhaps says something that we do not want to recognise about the concept of the sovereignty of the legislature that half-an-hour's work in 1911 has withstood 70 years during which its inappropriateness, arbitrariness and oppressiveness have become more clear. It withstood a decade during which, at election time, all parties represented in the House committed themselves to changing the law. For pragmatists outside it is difficult to understand why such a system is inoperable in the United Kingdom context, when it appears to work adequately in other well-established democracies, where the opening up of information has been carried out without disruption, without subversion or rebellion, and even without the collapse of communication within government—nearly all of which we have been threatened with today.
If democracy means anything, it means trying to secure an informed consensus on policy issues. It follows that there should be a basic democratic right to information 564 subject to certain safeguards. The availability of information should not be an act of Executive grace. Especially, it should not be an act of Executive grace by an Executive that first keeps to itself the right to select and censor what information is to be given to the public. It is more important now that we emphasise and exert that right than it was in 1911 when the original Act was passed. In the intervening time, whether for good or bad reasons, and whether or not we wanted it to happen, the scope of government has been extended, the collection of data has mushroomed and the emergence of public sector industry has led to the extension of the 1911 Act into sectors and areas where it was never envisaged it would apply.
Fear of revealing too much background data is not only a Civil Service phenomenon, as has been suggested. Ministers are equally at fault. At the end of the day, they have the final word—whether they be Labour Ministers or Conservative Ministers. But that is a feature of all bureaucracies. We find the same feature in industry when we try to talk about the concept of industrial democracy. That is often not for invalid reasons, Machiavellian reasons, or for the sake of being awkward. Sometimes there are fears, such as the fear that what can be revealed may be only partial information, and the part that cannot be revealed is actually more conclusive in deciding how the policy will be evolved.
There is sometimes a fear that revealing partial information prematurely can lead to strong and effective lobbies taking up positions before all information is available, and from which it is difficult to budge them. For example, if a study is being carried out and certain information is available, there may be a pre-empting of publication of that information because of a demand for partial information. We understand those legitimate grievances and concerns, but they do not detract from the fundamental objective that my hon. Friends and some Conservative Members are trying to pursue.
In the present position, possession of information puts the possessor in a position of patronage. The availability to release selectively, to people selectively—especially in the media—information on topical issues, gives the Government and Ministers some degree of influence and leverage in the way in which the information is subsequently used.
One tends to respond to the debate in the light of personal experience. I have served in several Government economic Departments. I have not served in a social, defence or foreign policy Department. Therefore, all my experience relates to economic Departments. My experience is that public debate has invariably been enhanced by the availability of the facts and by the awareness of maximum information. Indeed, sometimes the problem is getting the necessary information disseminated to the public by the press and the media.
The Minister spoke about confidentiality. I am sure that we all agree that it is essential to the relationship of the Government with industry, trade unions and other organisations that what Ministers are told in confidence must be treated in confidence. One can understand the concern of officials about confidentiality, but I cannot believe that in Committee, with good will, it will not be possible to resolve that problem.
On occasions, outside organisations use Government confidentiality to their own ends. When I was in the Department of Industry, when we dealt with rescue cases, companies would tell us things in confidence when they 565 perhaps wanted money but would often give a different version of events to the press to show how terrible the Government was. We were debarred from saying what we knew about the reality of the circumstances. However, it was imperative to sustain confidentiality. When I saw the minutes of some of my colleagues when we were in Government, I sometimes felt that they were written with history and the possibility of a Bill such as this in mind.
I, too, believe that it is important for individuals to have access to files about themselves. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin) made the point about industry generally. In 1974, with that purpose in mind, I amended the consumer credit legislation that I had inherited from the previous Administration. Hon. Members will recollect the black lists that were run by consumer credit agencies. It was not enough for people merely to see the entry on the black list and ask that it be amended. If the credit reference agency had disseminated that information, it was equally the right for the individual to be able to take libel action against the company. I also insisted that it should be a duty on the agencies to notify corrections to all those to whom they had disseminated the false information. If that is valid for private companies, surely it is acceptable to require the same of the Government. It is a basic provision that should be included in legislation and the Bill makes that possible.
We have heard about costs and the acres of files. The fact of acres of files endorses our case. If up to 1 million files are being created every year in individual Departments, what hope is there of Parliament finding out what is going on? I was astonished at the revelation. It showed how utterly inadequate are our Select Committee procedures, parliamentary questions and so on, because of the sheer volume of information to which we are being denied access.
The question of costs would also benefit from discussion in Committee. The Government can kill the Bill on Third Reading with their dragooned votes. However, if they have the good will to allow it to go into Committee the arguments can be evaluated.
I support the principles put forward in the Bill, but there may be nuts and bolts that need adjustment or replacement. The debate on open information has been long drawn out, and it would be a service to us all to have a detailed exploration. It is not enough for the Minister to throw two sentences of doubt across the Chamber on one clause and believe that he has demolished the case. I do not suggest that he did that with ill will or with an intention to mislead the House, but we want a chance to examine the matter in more detail.
I know that the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Mr. Johnson Smith) cares deeply for the sanctity of the House. He said that Ministers should be accountable to the House, but he was worried that the Bill might detract from that accountability. I do not understand that. The more informed hon. Members are, the more accountable we can make Ministers. The Bill will enable us to carry out more effectively the limited job that we are able to do under our procedures.
Parliamentary questions are one form of check on Ministers. It has been said that nearly everyone who has spoken in the debate is an ex-Minister. I wonder whether any Minister would deny that with a little adroitness it is possible to stonewall any question put in the House. Parliamentary questions will not open up one million files in Department X every year.
566 Select Committees are a welcome innovation. However, there are limits to how much Select Committees can investigate in one year. Only a limited number of investigations can be taken on. They have already complained that Ministers are reluctant to disclose information even to the Select Committees. The Government have rejected the recommendations from the Procedure Committee on access of information.
We are told that we have White Papers and Green Papers. We are told that we can introduce extra coloured papers if we wish. However, in the ocean of submerged information within Government, they are scattered icebergs of information which are allowed to be seen by Parliament and the public.
Some people favour a code of conduct, but frankly, a voluntary code of conduct offers no more than was offered by Croham, although that was a help. I do not believe that a code of conduct would achieve anything further.
The Minister of State rightly said that we had had debates on the Trident nuclear issues. He gave the Government credit for the information which they made available. One accepts that extra information was made available. However, the hon. Gentleman missed the fundamental point that information was made available at the whim of Ministers. If different Ministers had been involved, or if a Minister had a row with his wife before he went to the office that day, a different decision might have been taken and the information might not have been available. We are left wondering what other issues there are on which we would welcome information but on which Ministers have decreed that it should never be made available.
I understand that the Government have two channels open—first, to mobilise its payroll vote for 2.30 this afternoon. Secondly, we know that covert pressures have been applied—perfectly in keeping with the traditions of secrecy and furtiveness which the Bill is intended to remove—on certain new hon. Members who have aspirations to ministerial office, that they should be present in order to show their good faith in the honour of the Government.
§ Mr. Williams
That is right. If that is so and if, at 2.30 pm, when the bell goes, the ministerial cars come zooming into New Palace Yard, there will be resentment that we are discussing the legislature's control over the Executive, yet the Executive is drumming up its payroll vote in order to defeat the legislature. I hope that that will not be the case. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 2.5 pm
§ Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)
As one of the two Conservative sponsors of the Bill, I am grateful for an opportunity to participate briefly in the debate. First, however, I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) for bringing the Bill before the House. My sponsorship of the Bill is justified, if for no other reason in that it has provided the House with a valuable opportunity to discuss the matter.
I cannot help wondering whether the increase in the availability of information to which my hon. Friend the Minister of State referred would have occurred but for the series of Bills that has come before Parliament in recent years. I wonder whether we should have had so much 567 information in the debate on nuclear weapons about the Trident system, or whether we should have had the DHSS manual this year were it not for the fact that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench are sensitive to the desire of the House to be better informed. I congratulate them on providing that information, but the debates that have taken place on Bills sponsored by other hon. Members over the years have contributed to the climate of opinion, which is an important factor.
I speak as a former chairman of an all-party organisation called the Freedom of Information Campaign. I occupied the post of chairman of that campaign during the last session of Parliament, and I have been succeeded by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor). During my tenure of office I was extremely interested to note the many and varied groups of people who support the notion that the greater availability of official information is a good thing. I think that the campaign can take some credit for the fact that the House of Commons has debated this issue again today, and that in the years to come there may be a greater improvement in the position.
I took on the job of chairman only because I believe in open government and in the right of the individual citizen to have reasonable access to official information which is the basis of decisions which affect his life. As a Conservative I welcome the major decisions by the Government that are designed to ensure more open government and the greater access to official information on which Government decisions are based. I am particularly keen on the setting up of the departmentallyrelated Select Committees. There is no doubt that through the membership of those Committees hon. Members have greater access to official information.
I was surprised, however, that my hon. Friend did not refer to what I regard as one of the landmarks in this Parliament in the provision of official information. It is contained in section 44 of the Housing Act 1980. I wonder whether hon. Members are aware that that section places a duty on local authorities to provide information about the rules that are laid down governing the procedure to be followed in allocating housing. I wonder whether hon. Members are aware thatAt the request of any person who has applied to it for housing accommodation a landlord authority shall make available to him, at all reasonable times and without charge, details of the particulars which he has given to the authority about himself and his family and which the authority has recorded as being relevant to his application for accommodation.If that is not a good illustration of the kind of wider freedom of information in legislation for which members of the Freedom of Information Campaign have been pressing for so long, I do not know what is. An Act of Parliament, passed by the Conservative Government, lays upon local authorities the duty to provide information to individualsat all reasonable times and without charge".I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Minister did not mention that. He could at least have taken credit for the fact that the Government have moved along this path in the present session of Parliament with the Housing Act 1980.
§ Mr. Hooley
The hon. Gentleman is referring to a new right being given to about 10 million people. Yet no one has suggested that local government will collapse as a result of that duty.
§ Mr. Shersby
I am grateful to the hon. Member for making that point. During the passage of that legislation, a number of councillors asked me whether we really knew what we were doing. They feared that their civic centres would be inundated, during all reasonable hours, with people seeking information concerning their personal housing records. I do not believe that that has happened. The average person requiring such information may obtain it if he so wishes without unduly disturbing the workings of local government, causing any threat to it or imposing any great public expense. The Government have therefore already demonstrated their commitment to more open Government, both in the way described by my hon. Friend and also in the Housing Act 1980.
The question before us today is whether Parliament should go further by giving a Second Reading to the Bill, which would give a statutory right of access to a wide range of information held by Government Departments.
It is important to recognise that the Bill excludes information which is secret or of a confidential nature, which affects the defence of the realm and other similar and obvious areas of exclusion. There is certainly no suggestion in the Bill that the confidentiality of any exchange between Ministers of the Crown and the Monarch should be imperilled.
The origin of the campaign which is reaching its temporary conclusion today lies in the Access to Information and Privacy Bill, which was presented to the Canadian Parliament under the Conservative Government of Mr. Joe Clark and reintroduced by the present Liberal Government headed by Mr. Pierre Trudeau. The Canadian Government, therefore, following the example of other enlightened Governments, have before them a Bill designed to give greater access to information by the individual and also to protect individual privacy.
It was for that reason that the Freedom of Information Campaign decided in the last session of Parliament to ask me to ascertain from the Government whether they would be willing to consider giving a favourable passage to such a Bill in this House. I consulted my right hon. Friend who was then Minister of State, Civil Service Department, and also my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I should like to refer briefly to their reaction because it is important in the context of the Bill.
My right hon. Friend, the then Minister of State, pointed out that the Canadian scheme has two main features. First, it covers a statutory right of access to records held by Government Departments and other bodies. Secondly, it provides an ultimate right of appeal to the courts against a decision to withhold particular public records. My right hon. Friend pointed out to the Freedom of Information Campaign that, with regard to the second point, there would surely be the gravest constitutional objection to giving the courts in this country the power to override decisions of Ministers about the disclosure of information. I agree with my right hon. Friend on that. I also agree with him that the position of Parliament is the crux of the matter. Indeed, my hon. Friend the present Minister of State mentioned that again in his speech today. As one of the members of the Freedom 569 of Information Campaign, I do not believe that the courts should have the right to overrule the High Court of Parliament.
With these objections in mind, the Freedom of Information Campaign decided to abandon its attempt to introduce legislation along the lines of the Canadian legislation and went back to the drawing board. Instead, the hon. Member for Heeley, being fortunate in the Ballot, was able to introduce the revised Bill that was drawn up by the campaign with the help of the Outer Circle Policy Unit. That measure was based on the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud).
The Bill that we are now discussing represents a considerable improvement on the former measure. It still contains a number of points that are controversial. The right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin) rightly referred to them. I believe that a number of members of the Freedom of Information Campaign would share the views that he has put forward. I also share them. However, that does not mean that a Bill of this kind should not receive a Second Reading. The points made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the reservations that I have made and the proper reservations which my hon. Friend the Minister of State made are all important points. However, they are Committee points, and I believe that the Bill deserves a Committee Stage.
I must ask myself whether the Government's objections to the Bill are sufficiently valid to warrant my going into the "No" Lobby this afternoon. I have come to the conclusion that they are not. I do not feel that Select Committees, valuable though they are, are enough. There is good reason for the individual to have more access to information along the lines of the Housing Act 1980, to which the Government have given their full support.
One of the objections that has been raised relates to the question of cost. It has been said that the cost of the mistakes made by the Crown Agents amounted to some £200 million. If that, or a small part of it, could have been saved, the whole question of the cost of this operation might look somewhat different. In any case, it has always been part of the Freedom of Information Campaign's case that a charge should be made for the provision of information in order to deter frivolous inquiries and to help meet the cost of running the scheme. That is something which should be looked at in Committee.
I cannot believe that Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the United States, Canada and Australia can all introduce legislation of this kind and yet we in Britain cannot manage to do so.
I turn to the question of whether or not the Bill should be retrospective. I do not believe that it should. It would be much better if this legislation came into operation six or 12 months after the enactment of the Bill so that everyone concerned, including the Civil Service and Ministers, would know the new ground rules. In that way, the cost would be greatly reduced, and over a period of time information which should be made available could be made available in a form which was easily accessible to members of the public. That is another point which should be taken into consideration when considering a scheme of this kind.
I now turn to the question of the Official Secrets Act. I am strongly in favour of the House making another attempt to amend section 2 of the 1911 Act. There is too much secrecy in Government. The fear of contravening section 2 permeates throughout the Civil Service to such 570 an extent that civil servants are often unwilling to divulge quite harmless information. I have met civil servants who are afraid to talk about their work to their friends, to an extent where even an internal telephone directory in a Government Department can be regarded as top secret.
That helps to breed an attitude in civil servants that places them in danger of becoming more remote from the people they serve. The Government should understand that. I had hoped that we would receive from my hon. Friend a firm commitment to legislate during the present Parliament. We all recognise that it is not easy, but with good will on both sides of the House some progress could be made.
I do not wish to detain the House any longer because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, but I felt that it was right to place on record the reasons why I, as a Conservative Member, allowed my name to be added to the Bill and why I support the hon. Member for Heeley. This has been a valuable and worthwhile debate. It has not been a waste of the time of the House of Commons. Whatever the outcome of the Division today, the debate will contribute towards an attitude of mind that makes information more freely available in the future.
§ Mr. Robin F. Cook (Edinburgh, Central)
We have had a good debate today, in which there have been a number of excellent speeches on both sides of the House. It is worth recording that the overwhelming majority of the speeches have been in favour of the principle of the Bill, whether they were made by Labour, Liberal or Conservative Members.
I should like to join all the previous speakers in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) on having given the House the opportunity to debate this measure, and I hope that it will come to a favourable decision. I do not know what will be the outcome of the Division, but, whatever it is, those hon. Members who have heard the discussions during the past five hours know that my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley has already won the debate.
The only really depressing speech that I heard was that from the Treasury Bench. In mitigation to the Minister in that regard, if in no other, it must be said that this debate has been rather like the debate on this matter that took place two years ago. I invite Back Benchers, on whichever side of the Chamber they sit, to notice the instinctive attraction that Ministers on the Treasury Bench suddenly feel for the secrecy that protects them and their Administration. The defence of secrecy and opposition to the freedom of information from the Treasury Benches is one of the main reasons why we should vote for the Bill today.
As he knows in his heart of hearts, the Minister read out a Committee brief. He made a number of valid Committee points. Undoubtedly, the points that he raised are matters that a Committee would have to consider, take on board and make concessions on. But they were Committee points and they did not trench on the principle that confronts us today.
There are two basic principles to which the House must address its mind. First, should section 2 of the Act survive on the statute book one minute longer? This is not a new debate. This is the sixth Bill of which I have been a sponsor, to be introduced in the House. We have been over this ground many times in the past six years, and even 571 before. It is now 13 years since the Fulton committee recommended that section 2 should be reviewed. It is now 11 years since Mr. Justice Caulfield suggested that the time had come to pension off section 2. Yet in 1981, it is still on the statute book, and no one is prepared to defend it.
My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench are against it. In three manifestos we called for its replacement. Conservative Members are against it. No one is prepared to defend section 2. Why should it be allowed to linger on, unloved, undefended and useless? That matter should be of concern, not only to hon. Members who would like to see more access to information, but to hon. Members who are concerned about national security. There is no way in which we can defend a situation in which our security legislation is so discredited that the Government hesitate to use it. That is the first major principle to which the House must address its mind.
The second major principle on which we have to vote is whether there should be more open access for the public, for Parliament and for the press, to the information held by the Government.
A number of speeches have referred to the constitution as if constitutions were some immutable artefact fixed in aspic and unchanging. Constitutions have to change with society. If they do not change with society, intolerable strains and stress are set up within that society.
One of the biggest challenges of change that we face in our society today is the growing mass of information which is made possible by modern technology. As I listened to the Minister relaying the enormous amount of information collected by the Government on the ordinary citizen and on the ordinary activities of the citizen, I began to get the impression from him that his view was that the more information the Government held, the less they should grant the principle of access to that information. Presumably, the less information they held, the more willing they would be to grant open access to it.
That is entirely perverse. It is precisely because modern Governments in modern society have to keep such a large amount of information which trenches on our daily lives, and precisely because they now have the technology to amass information in a way that previous Administrations could not, that we must import into our constitution new safeguards which protect the privacy of the individual and give him the right to scrutinise the information held by the Government.
The Government are not Shell-Mex; they are not ICI. The Government are a public body who are elected by the electorate and have to be accountable to the electorate. Therefore, Government information ought to be available to the public, except where there are specific cases in which there are compelling grounds against giving that right of open access.
Unless we give that right of open access, the Government cannot be properly accountable and we restrict both the democratic debate in our society and the principle of public accountability. That is the fundamental principle at issue in the vote this afternoon, and I hope that the House will give that principle resounding affirmation by giving a large majority to the Second Reading of the Bill.
§ Mr. Hooleyrose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
§ Question put, That the Question be now put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 111, Noes 172.574
|Division No. 64||2.27 pm|
|Abse, Leo||McDonald, DrOonagh|
|Anderson, Donald||McKay, Allen (Penistone)|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||McKelvey, William|
|Atkinson, N. (H'gey, )||McNally, Thomas|
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)||McWilliam, John|
|Beith, A. J.||Marks, Kenneth|
|Benn, Rt Hon A. Wedgwood||MarshalI, D (G'gowS 'ton)|
|Bennett, Andrew (St'kp'tN)||Martin, M (G'gowS'burn)|
|Booth, RtHon Albert||Maynard, MissJoan|
|Bowden, Andrew||Meacher, Michael|
|Buchan, Norman||Mikardo, lan|
|Campbell, Ian||Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby)|
|Carmichael, Neil||Morton, George|
|Cartwright, John||Mulley, RtHon Frederick|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S)||Newens, Stanley|
|Cohen, Stanley||Ogden, Eric|
|Cox, T. (W'dsw'th, Toot'g)||O'Halloran, Michael|
|Craigen, J.M.||Parker, John|
|Crowther, J.S.||Pavitt, Laurie|
|Cryer, Bob||Prescott, John|
|Cunningham, G. (lslingtonS)||Price, C. (Lewisham W)|
|Dalyell, Tam||Proctor, K. Harvey|
|Davis, Clinton (HackneyC)||Race, Reg|
|Davis, T. (B'ham.Stechf'd)||Richardson, Jo|
|Deakins, Eric||Roberts, Allan (Bootle)|
|Dobson, Frank||Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)|
|Douglas-Mann, Bruce||Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)|
|Dubs, Alfred||Roper, john|
|Dunwoody, Hon MrsG.||Sandelson, Neville|
|English, Michael||Sheldon, RtHon R.|
|Evans, John (Newton)||Shepherd, Richard|
|Field, Frank||Shersby, Michael|
|Flannery, Martin||Silkin, RtHonJ. (Deptford)|
|Fletchen, Raymond (llkeston)||Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)|
|Foot, RtHon Michael||Silverman, Julius|
|Fraser, J. (Lamb'th.N'w'd)||Skinner, Dennis|
|Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald||Soley, Clive|
|Freud, Clement||Stainton, Keith|
|Ginsburg, David||Stallard, A. W.|
|Golding, John||Stoddart, David|
|Grant, John (IslingtonC)||Straw, Jack|
|Hamilton, W. W. (C'tral Fife)||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)|
|Hardy, Peter||Tilley, John|
|Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Townsend, CyrilD, (B'heath)|
|Heffer, Eric S.||Wainwright, R. (ColneV)|
|Holland, S. (L'b'th, Vauxh'll)||Welsh, Michael|
|HomeRobertson, John||White, J. (G'gowPollok)|
|Hooley, Frank||Whitehead, Phillip|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)||Willey, Rt Hon Frederick|
|Janner, HonGreville||Williams, Rt Hon A. (S'sea W)|
|Kaufman, RtHon Gerald||Winnick, David|
|Kerr, Russell||Young, David (Bolton E)|
|Lestor, MissJoan||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Lewis, Arthur (N'ham NW)||Mr. J. W. Rooker and|
|Lyon, Alexander (york)||Mr. Robin F. Cook.|
|Adley, Robert||Boscawen, HonRobert|
|Alison, Michael||Bottomley, Peter (W'wichW)|
|Arnold, Tom||Boyson, Dr Rhodes|
|Atkins, Rt Hon H. (S'thorne)||Bright, Graham|
|Atkins, Robert (PrestonN)||Brittan, Leon|
|Atkinson, David (B'm'th, E)||Brooke, Hon Peter|
|Baker, Kenneth (St.M'bone)||Browne, John (Winchester)|
|Baker, Nicholas (NDorset)||Bryan, Sir Paul|
|Bell, SirRonald||Buchanan-Smith, HonAlick|
|Berry, HonAnthony||Butcher, John|
|Best, Keith||Butler, HonAdam|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Cadbury, Jocelyn|
|Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (R'c'n)||King, Rt Hon Tom|
|Chalker, Mrs. Lynda||Kitson, SirTimothy|
|Chapman, Sydney||Lamont, Norman|
|Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Lawson, RtHon Nigel|
|Cope, John||LeMarchant, Spencer|
|Cormack, Patrick||Lennox-Boyd, HonMark|
|Corrie, John||Lester Jim (Beeston)|
|Costain, SirAlbert||Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)|
|Crouch, David||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Douglas-Hamilton, LordJ.||Luce, Richard|
|du Cann, Rt Hon Edward||Lyell, Nicholas|
|Dunn, Robert (Dartford)||Macfarlane, Neil|
|Durant, Tony||MacGregor, John|
|Dykes, Hugh||McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)|
|Eden, Rt Hon Sir John||McNair-Wilson, P. (NewF'st)|
|Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)||McQuarrie, Albert|
|Elliott, SirWilliam||Major, John|
|Eyre, Reginald||MarshallMichael (Arundel)|
|Fairbairn, Nicholas||Marten, Neil (Banbury)|
|Fairgrieve, Russell||Mather, Carol|
|Farr,john||Maude, Rt Hon Sir Angus|
|Fell, Anthony||Mawhinney, DrBrian|
|Finsberg, Geoffrey||Mayhew, Patrick|
|Fletcher, A. (Ed'nb'ghN)||Mellor, David|
|Forman, Nigel||Miller, Hal (B'grove)|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Norman||Mills, lain (Meriden)|
|Galbraith, Hon T. G. D.||Mitchell, David (Basingstoke)|
|Gardiner, George (Reigate)||Molyneaux, James|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Monro, Hector|
|Goodhart, Philip||Moore, John|
|Goodlad, Alastair||Morris, M. (N'hamptonS)|
|Gow, Ian||Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)|
|Grant, Anthony (HarrowC)||Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)|
|Gray, Hamish||Nelson, Anthony|
|Greenway, Harry||Newton, Tony|
|Grieve, Percy||Normanton, Tom|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'thN)||Onslow, Cranley|
|Gummer, JohnSelwyn||Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.|
|Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)||Page, John (Harrow, West)|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Page, Rt Hon Sir G. (Crosby)|
|Hannam, John||Parkinson, Cecil|
|Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael||Patten, Christopher (Bath)|
|Hawkins, Paul||Pattie, Geoffrey|
|Hayhoe, Barney||Pawsey, James|
|Henderson, Barry||Percival, Sir lan|
|Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael||Powell, Rt Hon J.E. (S Down)|
|Hill, James||Prentice, Rt Hon Reg|
|Hordern, Peter||Prior, Rt Hon James|
|Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Pym, Rt Hon Francis|
|Hunt, David (Wirral)||Raison, Timothy|
|Hurd, HonDouglas||Rathbone, Tim|
|Jenkin, RtHon Patrick||Rees, Peter (Doverand Deal)|
|Jessel, Toby||Rees-Davies, W. R.|
|JohnsonSmith, Geoffrey||Renton, Tim|
|Jopling, RtHonMichael||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Joseph, RtHon Sir Keith||Ridley, HonNicholas|
|Kimball, Marcus||Ridsdale, Julian|
|Rifkind, Malcolm||Trippier, David|
|Rippon, RtHonGeoffrey||Vaughan, DrGerard|
|Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW)||Viggers, Peter|
|Roberts, Wyn (Conway)||Waddington, David|
|Rossi, Hugh||Wakeham, John|
|Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)||Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)|
|Sims, Roger||Waller, Gary|
|Speed, Keith||Ward, John|
|Speller, Tony||Wells, John (Maidstone)|
|Squire, Robin||Wells, Bowen|
|Stanley John||Wheeler, John|
|Stevens, Martin||Whitelaw, Rt HonWilliam|
|Stewart, lan (Hitchin)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Stradling Thomas, J.||Young, SirGeorge (Acton)|
|Tapsell, Peter||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|Taylor, Robert (CroydonNW)|
|Tebbit, Norman||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Thompson, Donald||Viscount Cranborne and|
|Thome, Neil (llfordSouth)||Mr. John Lee.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ It being after half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed upon Friday 13 February.