HC Deb 22 May 1984 vol 60 cc1069-76

'Within one month of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State shall publish in such form as he thinks fit all the responses he has received in response to the proposals included in the White Paper "Streamling the Cities" (Cmnd. 9063)' .— [Mr. Freud.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Freud

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause seems like a good idea to me. I am absolutely astonished that this well-constructed clause, in the names of four senior members of the Labour party, is left to me to argue, but I am pleased to do it. I have a deep interest in freedom of information. In the 1978–79 Session of Parliament, I was fortunate to come top in the private Member's Bill ballot. My Bill went through Committee and would have gone to the Report stage on the day that the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), announced that he was going to the country for an election.

This is not a Liberal new clause, but it is much in keeping with those that we tabled, which were not taken up, that sought to further and encourage access to local government information for local government electors. We believe in that. On 9 May, the Under-Secretary was asked whether he was satisfied that the list of responses to Cmnd. 9063 placed in the Library was accurately prepared by his Department. The Minister replied: Yes, sir, although it is a matter of judgment as to what might be classed as a major national organisation." — [Official Report, 9 May 1984; Vol. 59, c. 873.] On the face of it, that is a strange and convoluted reply, and the Minister was clearly several jumps ahead of his audience. I believe that what he meant was that the only replies that were published in that document were those in respect of major national organisations, and as one of those was the Liberal party, I grant that in that respect he was accurate.

Open and fair government is unlikely under the present Administration. Our commitment is clear, and the public should know that. I remember that, in 1945, after six years of letters that were date-stamped "Somewhere in England", signs that were turned round and newspapers that never gave detailed information, Herbert Morrison, the then Home Secretary, said that the people had a right to know. We believe that, and they do not just have the right to know what the major national organisations said on a command document. They have the right to know what response there is to any document. It is wrong that if an organisation writes to the Secretary of State for the Environment to give its view of "Streamlining the Cities", its view is not published because the author of the publication, letter or document is not sufficiently major an organisation.

There is much that the public should know about this Bill, the strangely named Local Government (Interim Provisions) Bill. If the Government had a Bill on castration, they would call it the Fertility Provisions Bill, because it is clear that their concept of provision is the opposite to ours. "Provision" should not mean taking away. Look where one will in the analysis of the response of the Department of the Environment, there is hardly a kind word in it. It begins early on with the criticisms, when the financial consultants Coopers and Lybrand concluded: There are unlikely to be any net savings as a result of structural changes proposed by the Government, and there could be significant extra costs. It is right that that should be published and shown to people. Not only that, but it should have been shown at the same time as it was said that "Streamlining the Cities" meant destroying democracy.

The CBI is a universally respected body. It is on record as concluding on trading standards in London: The experience … leads us to believe that devolving this service to the districts will not achieve the consistency we need and will increase costs. That, from a body that is a considerable friend of the Government. The National Association of Head Teachers, which no one could accuse of being politically motivated, said: The White Paper implies that the Government expects to make monetary savings … yet contains no firm evidence to back up this conviction. I spoke to a headmaster who was worried about the lack of publicity and the lack of information of the Bill. He made a valid point when he said that, in schools where the governors are members of the board of management for the school, if they are nominated by the district or county council they can claim no expenses for attending governors' meetings.

I believe that, when councillors are no longer elected, when they are appointed and pushed on to boards of management of schools, by virtue of the fact that they have been appointed they will be able to claim expenses for travelling and attendance. That is just one instance where no publicity has been given and where almost certainly extra expense will accrue to the Government if the Bill is passed.

Mr. John Mark Taylor (Solihull)

Can the hon. Gentleman identify a single education authority which, under the Bill, will transfer from an elected council to an appointed body? I know of none.

10.30 am
Mr. Freud

I am glad to answer that question. One not only knows of none, one knows nothing of anything. My whole point in trying to introduce the new clause is that we should know more. I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Waldegrave

There is no secret. My right hon. Friend has laid out the proposals. ILEA is the only London education authority affected and it will be directly elected. None of the other authorities concerned are education authorities. There is no secrecy.

Mr. Freud

I accept that it will be directly elected—but there will be an interregnum during which, between the abolition of the directly elected boards of managers and governors and the creation a year later of elected representatives, appointees will be involved.

The Minister says that there is no secret, having told me that there would be no unelected members. But in the interregnum there is almost certain to be a greater expense as a result of the measure—but we have not been told.

I have a document entitled "Analysis of Responses and Comments on Lack of Inquiries". We should read the comments on that. The Association of London Authorities complained, as did the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. It is a selection of responses, and I am tempted to read some of them. If someone is trying to introduce a greater freedom of information, all responses should be laid on the table and looked at by anyone who wishes to do so. We gave evidence on the way in which the Government are putting their proposals forward and the procedure for enactment, both of which are violations of the United Kingdom constitution —thanks to the Government, and no thanks to the Official Opposition, notable by their absence. I welcome their one representative. I fear that he is sitting on the Front Bench so that I might not sit there and take over.

The Leisure Studies Association has given evidence, as has the National Chamber of Trade. Although the White Paper categorically asserts that abolition of the MCCs will remove conflict and uncertainty, save money and provide a system which is simpler for the public to understand, there is no supporting evidence.

New clause 10, so ably tabled by the Labour party, was shamefully ignored by Labour Members and left to whomever happens to be responsibly opposing the Bill. I say "responsibly opposing it", because I do not believe that there is any conflict on this side of the Committee that today the Liberal party is the official Opposition. If we look now, we see a pretty sorry official Opposition, and it is time that we took over.

This is a good clause, and I commend it to the Committee. The Minister has been amazingly reticent while listening to our points of view, although at one point, about when I was going through the wall at 5.15 am or 5.30 am, I heard him say, "I shall reflect on this." To date we have had reflection, but no genuflection. We have had the odd look of contentment, but he has not given us a thing. I say to him now, more than 17 hours after we started the debate, that this is a great opportunity for the Minister to go down in his party — I use the words deliberately—as someone who listened to an argument; and I know that he would support the concept of greater freedom of information.

I accept that it is easier to govern if one does not tell people what one is doing, and one does not let people know what others think. But as the Conservative party will soon be occupying the Opposition Benches, there will doubtless soon be similar arguments coming from Conservative Members. Greater access to information is good, and I hope that he will reflect before he denies it.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I shall mention one exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. One argument that we have heard is that the Government asked for submissions and took them into account, and that the result of that process will be the substantive Bill to deal with replacement authorities for the GLC and the metropolitan authorities. A step on that road would be for the Minister to say that, after the Bill has gone through the House—if it does—we would see the information that at present is known and available only to those working at the Department of the Environment.

On education in London, the proposal is that we shall move from an elected Inner London education authority in 1984 to an appointed ILEA in 1985 — for the first time since 1870—and in 1986 to another elected ILEA. It would be helpful to know that we shall see the evidence for certain. When the debate on the White Paper "Streamlining the Cities", which anticipated this Bill, began last October, we were told that there would be no directly elected ILEA but an indirectly elected ILEA—a joint board for education in London. The Secretary of State for Education and Science told the House in February that, as a result of the arguments put to him, which had overwhelming merit, he had decided that ILEA should continue to be elected, although—these are almost his exact words—he could not say then whether the body should be elected in 1985 or 1986. It has been confirmed that in 1986, after a one-year interregnum, we will again have a directly elected ILEA.

It is widely rumoured that the concession that the Government will make on the principle of elected authorities will be made in the other place and will take the form of an announcement that there will be an elected ILEA from next year. If that has been discussed and is a possibility, I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary would do the Committee the courtesy of not denying it outright.

If that is what the Government are to do, they must be doing it because the arguments presented in the documents and in the debates in the House and in this Committee have been so overwhelming that they prove the need for that argument to be made available to the public so that the right decision will be made.

We welcomed the Government's step half-way down the road, when the Secretary of State for Education and Science announced that there would again be, in the future, an ILEA that was not indirectly but directly elected. We would welcome even more warmly an announcement that those elections would take place next year. If the Government have that in mind, even as a possibility, it must be because the arguments adduced in support of that course of action have been overwhelming and that testifies to the propriety and suitability of following the arguments that have been made to the Government in these submissions. If the Government are willing to argue the case and sometimes concede—as they have on ILEA — that they have been wrong, it would be appropriate, democratic and responsible for them to accept that within three months of the passage of the Bill, the responses to the White Paper "Streamlining the Cities" will be published. Perhaps there will not be a Royal Commission — although that is a fundamentally important way of consulting and of making the right decisions on behalf of those whom we represent—but at least we would be able to see the arguments that have been submitted to the Government and, on that basis do a better job in the future.

Mr. Waldegrave

I can certainly give the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) the assurance that I support him in his general view that it is the duty of Government to make information available unless there are very powerful reasons for not doing so. It is rather ironic that Herbert Morrison was called in aid on this point. Although he invented a good slogan, there can have been few more secretive Governments in the history of the United Kingdom than his Government, who, for example, adopted an atomic defence policy for this country without telling the Cabinet, let alone the nation.

I would argue with the hon. Gentleman about the proper approach. I believe that the idea of a freedom of information Act sits uncomfortably with British ways of doing things, and that the Select Committees of this House provide the means by which frontiers are pushed forward. We can argue about the means without arguing about the objective. The problem here is a narrower and less dramatic one. The exercise that we conducted after the publication of the White Paper was a normal consultation exercise. It was not a public inquiry, although hon. Members have argued that it should have been.

In such exercises, people write to us on the assumption that they are writing in confidence. If we had said, "Write to us for publication" we would have been involved in a different kind of operation. There might have been no precedent for it. That is not the way in which the Government normally proceed. People are free to publish their own evidence, and most of the principal interested parties have done so. The main local authority associations, many of the voluntary associations, and various trade unions have made their evidence public by sending it to honk. Members or by publishing it by means of press conferences or in other ways. The evidence remains their property. It remains their property and they therefore have the right to publish it if they so wish. We received many representations in letters, for example, that were not designed to be published. It would have been a signal reversal of the rules of the game in the Government consultation exercise if we had published such letters.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is using the debate to get some information that he wants on an important matter. I can understand why. It concerns what the Government are thinking. Publishing what was written to us last January would not be material in that respect. The lobbyists on the issue have made their stance clear. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science agreed with one thrust of argument and changed the policy. The information for which the hon. Gentleman is asking is different from that which we received last January. He might find in it arguments that support a further line, but he does not need to read it to know what that line of argument is.

10.45 am
Mr. Simon Hughes

I think that the Minister will accept that one of the major criticisms of the Government on this issue is, unusually, secrecy about the consultation process. If one set of arguments were persuasive, they must have outweighed contrary evidence. The Government's case would be enhanced if the arguments were on the table and the Government could be seen to have won.

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman is making too much of this point. I suspect that with every such Government consultation exercise the Opposition of the day have made a row. I also suspect that the row was a little hollow. I do not believe that any major argument that has been advanced by any interest group of importance is not well known. If it is not well known, that is the responsibility of the group or individual doing the lobbying. There are right hon. and hon. Members who write, journalists who write and television and radio programmes. The matter has been of intense interest. It is not for the Government to publish what is written to them in consultation exercises. There has been no unusual secrecy and we have followed precedent in this regard exactly.

The precedents that were once quoted against us were no precedents as they were based on the Government putting in the Library evidence presented to public inquiries. Such evidence is already in the public domain and is quite different. The Government do not intend to suppress—it would be futile to do so— argument on these matters, or to hide the arguments. Trying would have been a signal failure of policy. There is not one area in which the arguments have not raged quite furiously. I reject the hon. Gentleman's accusation of unprecedented secrecy. It would be wrong to change the rules of the game retrospectively and to tell people that, although they wrote to us in the usual form of consultation, their letters would now be published. I therefore ask the House to reject new clause 10.

Mr. Freud

This is a short new clause. We are simply asking whether the Secretary of State shall publish in such form as he thinks fit all the responses he has received". The Minister has told us that people write in confidence. Why should they do so? Why is it not possible to say "If you do not want the letter to be published, tell us that.. and we shall not publish it."? An analysis could then be made saying that so many letters had been received expressing a desire that they should not be published. As it might help people, it could be said for the record that so many of the letters were for, and so many were against. The rest of them could then be seen.

I have always complained that the trouble with our form of secret government is that everything is secret unless we make it non-secret. My Official Information Bill of 1978–79 sought to change that, and to say that everything shall be public unless it is deemed to be too delicate or sensitive, or prejudicial to the good running of the country, defence or industry. That is all that we are asking for. We want the response to be published as the Secretary of State thinks fit.

Mr. Waldegrave

I have intervened briefly to reply to whether it would be worth writing again to all the people. I shall not hide behind the amount of work and expense that would be involved in that, although it would be an enormous operation. But at the end we would only end up where we started. I suspect that many of those who wrote to us not expecting publication would say that their letters could not be published and that those who wrote expecting their letters to be published have already published them. Thus, we would be no further forward after a great deal of effort. I just do not think that that is practical.

Mr. Freud

With respect, I do not believe it. If people wrote to the Secretary of State saying that they were worried about this, or approved of that, they would have thought carefully about it before writing and would not mind publication, even if they minded identification. I welcome the wealth of Labour Members who have joined us since I last spoke. We now have three Labour Members in the Chamber, so they are pouring in —[HON. MEMBERS: "We have been here all night."] I pay great tribute to that.

I ask hon. Members to look carefully at new clause 10 and to vote in favour of it.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 46, Noes 210.

Division No. 329] [10.50 am
Alton, David Madden, Max
Ashdown, Paddy Marek, Dr John
Ashton, Joe Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Meadowcroft, Michael
Barron, Kevin Michie, William
Beith, A. J. Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Bell, Stuart Nellist, David
Boyes, Roland O'Brien, William
Campbell-Savours, Dale Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Clay, Robert Park, George
Cohen, Harry Pavitt, Laurie
Corbyn, Jeremy Pike, Peter
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Randall, Stuart
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Sedgemore, Brian
Forrester, John Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
Freud, Clement Wainwright, R.
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Warden, Gareth (Gower)
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Wigley, Dafydd
Howells, Geraint Woodall, Alec
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Wrigglesworth, Ian
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Young, David (Bolton SE)
Kennedy, Charles
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Tellers for the Ayes:
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Mr. John Cartright and
Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Mr. Archy Kirkwood.
Adley, Robert Couchman, James
Alexander, Richard Currie, Mrs Edwina
Amess, David Dickens, Geoffrey
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Dorrell, Stephen
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E) Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Batiste, Spencer du Cann, Rt Hon Edward
Bellingham, Henry Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)
Bendall, Vivian Emery, Sir Peter
Bennett, Sir Frederic (T'bay) Fairbairn, Nicholas
Berry, Sir Anthony Farr, John
Best, Keith Favell, Anthony
Biffen, Rt Hon John Fenner, Mrs Peggy
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Fletcher, Alexander
Boscawen, Hon Robert Forman, Nigel
Braine, Sir Bernard Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Franks, Cecil
Bright, Graham Freeman, Roger
Brinton, Tim Gale, Roger
Brooke, Hon Peter Galley, Roy
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Garel-Jones, Tristan
Bruinvels, Peter Glyn, Dr Alan
Bryan, Sir Paul Goodlad, Alastair
Butterfill, John Gow, Ian
Carlisle, John (N Luton) Greenway, Harry
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Gregory, Conal
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Cash, William Grist, Ian
Chapman, Sydney Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Chope, Christopher Hanley, Jeremy
Churchill, W. S. Harvey, Robert
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n) Hawkins, C. (High Peak)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Hawksley, Warren
Coombs, Simon Hayes, J.
Cope, John Hayhoe, Barney
Corrie, John Heathcoat-Amory, David
Henderson, Barry Page, John (Harrow W)
Hill, James Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Hind, Kenneth Parris, Matthew
Hirst, Michael Pawsey, James
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling) Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Holt, Richard Porter, Barry
Hooson, Tom Powell, William (Corby)
Hordern, Peter Powley, John
Howard, Michael Price, Sir David
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock) Proctor, K. Harvey
Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk) Raffan, Keith
Hubbard-Miles, Peter Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Hunt, David (Wirral) Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)
Hunter, Andrew Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Irving, Charles Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick Robinson, Mark (N'port W)
Johnson-Smith, Sir Geoffrey Roe, Mrs Marion
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Rowe, Andrew
Jones, Robert (W Herts) Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Key, Robert Ryder, Richard
King, Roger (B'ham N'field) Sackville, Hon Thomas
King, Rt Hon Tom Sayeed, Jonathan
Knight, Gregory (Derby N) Shelton, William (Streatham)
Knight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston) Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Knowles, Michael Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)
Lamont, Norman Soames, Hon Nicholas
Latham, Michael Speller, Tony
Lawler, Geoffrey Spencer, Derek
Lawrence, Ivan Squire, Robin
Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel Stanbrook, Ivor
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Stanley, John
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Stern, Michael
Lightbown, David Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Lilley, Peter Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham) Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Lord, Michael Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire)
Luce, Richard Sumberg, David
Lyell, Nicholas Taylor, John (Solihull)
McCurley, Mrs Anna Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
MacGregor, John Temple-Morris, Peter
MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire) Terlezki, Stefan
Maclean, David John Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.
Madel, David Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Maginnis, Ken Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Major, John Thornton, Malcolm
Malone, Gerald Thurnham, Peter
Marland, Paul Townend, John (Bridlington)
Marlow, Antony Tracey, Richard
Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Twinn, Dr Ian
Mates, Michael Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Mather, Carol Viggers, Peter
Maude, Hon Francis Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Mawhinney, Dr Brian Waldegrave, Hon William
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Walden, George
Mayhew, Sir Patrick Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Miller, Hal (B'grove) Waller, Gary
Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon) Ward, John
Mitchell, David (NW Hants) Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Monro, Sir Hector Warren, Kenneth
Moore, John Watson, John
Morris, M, (N'hampton, S) Watts, John
Morrison, Hon P. (Chester) Wheeler, John
Moynihan, Hon C. Whitfield, John
Neale, Gerrard Wood, Timothy
Needham, Richard Yeo, Tim
Nelson, Anthony Young, Sir George (Acton)
Neubert, Michael
Nicholls, Patrick Tellers for the Noes:
Norris, Steven Mr. Ian Lang and
Ottaway, Richard Mr. Tim Sainsbury.

Question accordingly negatived.

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