HC Deb 19 February 1993 vol 219 cc583-654

Order for Second Reading Read.

9.34 am
Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

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

Sir Humphrey, permanent secretary to the right hon. Jim Hacker, said in the very first edition of "Yes Minister": Open government is a contradiction in terms. You can have openness. Or you can have government. You can't have both. The Bill seeks to prove Sir Humphrey wrong. It asserts that openness and freedom of information are essential if we are to have an efficient democracy in which people can be involved.

Recently, the public learned that some apple juice made from windfalls contained a chemical, patulin, which is toxic and could cause cancer if taken in enormous quantities. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had known that information for some months, but had not published it. It was a small earthquake in the history of public information and, as far as we know, no one was hurt—but the reactions of the Government and of the public were contrasting and rather interesting.

The Government could see nothing wrong in keeping that information to themselves. "Leave it to us," they said. "Trust us—we decide what is good for you. Only we really understand the scientific evidence, and to have published it would just have stirred up anxiety." The press took a different attitude and were fairly angry: "If that information was so innocuous, why not publish it? Let us know what is and is not in apple juice. Let us judge whether to buy it for ourselves and our children."

That incident encapsulated some of the attitudes and concerns behind the Bill, which focuses on two key questions. The first is, who should know? Should it be the Government and civil servants, or all of us? The second is, who should decide what we know? Should it be Ministers or a form of independent arbitration?

The principle behind the Bill is straightforward and simple. In a democracy, free access to information should be a basic, fundamental right. That principle is enshrined in the United Nations declaration of human rights and in the European convention on human rights. It was well expressed by the early American President, James Madison: A people who mean to be their own Government must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. The Bill is based on the belief that we, the public, have a right to know what the Government are doing in our name, with our money, on our behalf.

That is necessary because Britain is still one of the most secretive societies in the western world and one of the few democracies not to have some form of freedom of information legislation. Neither the public nor Members of Parliament have an absolute right to information. We receive it by the grace and favour of Ministers and civil servants, and right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House will have noticed the increasing use, when parliamentary questions are answered, of replies such as "This information is not available," or "This information is too expensive to compile," or "This information is no longer centrally collected". Usually, the questions are reasonable, and the answers would be of assistance to the quality of understanding and public debate. But Ministers and civil servants decide what is good for us—not our needs or rights.

The Bill tries to correct that, in a practical, legislative form. It has its origins in the Official Information Bill introduced by a former Liberal Member of Parliament, Sir Clement Freud, in 1979, and in several Bills introduced by other hon. Members—some of whom, I am glad to note, are present in the Chamber. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) and, most notably, the hon. Member for Aldridge and Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) who has often carried the flag for the issue on the Government Benches—if not alone, at least with enormous tenacity and conviction.

They also include my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), whom I am glad to see in his place, and for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). Birmingham Members have an extremely good record of introducing in the 1980s freedom of information measures that, although small, made important gains.

The Bill owes much to the work outside the House of journalists such as Mr. Peter Hennessy and Mr. Richard Norton-Taylor. Above all, hon. Members will recognise that it owes its present shape and existence, which has grown gradually throughout the 1980s, to the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which was established in 1984 as a result of the generosity of Mr. Geoffrey Bradman, and particularly to the director of the campaign, Mr. Maurice Frankel. When—I emphasise when rather than if—the people of Britain get the right to know, they should thank Mr. Frankel above all others. The House and the public owe him a considerable debt.

The Bill is sponsored by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I am grateful for their support, which I value. In going to the heart of our democracy, this issue should, and indeed does, go beyond party politics. It should appeal to libertarian conservatives who wish to empower the individual against the corporate state as much as it does to liberals who want to attain greater freedom and to socialists who want to give people stronger rights and to provoke them, through information, to question those in authority, and thus perhaps to change society.

The Bill leans heavily on the experience of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, all of which introduced freedom of information legislation in 1984 and which have similar parliamentary and judicial systems to ours.

In a press release, the Minister said that the Bill is lengthy and complicated. It is somewhat long for a private Member's Bill, but it is not very complicated. The essence of the Bill can be described quite simply and straightforwardly. It gives people access to all the information and records that are held by Government Departments, local councils and bodies that are financed or regulated by the state.

Those bodies will be obliged to publish schedules or directories of the information they hold, so that the public know what is available and can apply to see the information they want. That should be produced within 30 days. Individuals will be able to see all their medical records, including those before 1991, and personal files such as employment records. At present, Ministers and civil servants decide and control what we should see. The Bill will transfer that power to the public and give them the right to know.

Certain categories of information are exempted if publishing them would cause significant damage, particularly to national security, defence and international relations, the enforcement of the law, personal privacy and commercial confidentiality. The strategic policy advice given to Ministers by civil servants is also exempt, but not the information or material by which ministerial decisions are made, or expert and technical advice.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I recognise that there must be exemptions, but my hon. Friend mentioned commercial confidentiality. Who will decide whether something is commercially confidential? I am thinking particularly of something that makes me very angry indeed. Government money is provided to training and enterprise councils and local enterprise companies for training purposes, but we have no right to know what is being offered, to whom or at what price. The public have no right to know what the TECs and LECs are doing to train our young people. Would the Bill deal with that issue?

Mr. Fisher

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The exemption of commercial confidentiality will probably be tested more than any other. Experience in Australia shows that legislation is most used to gain access to personal files and records, but probably the most contentious area is commercial confidentiality, because it is so difficult to describe.

There is quite proper commercial confidentiality, but it can be used as a smokescreen. I am thinking of the time that my hon. Friends and I went to try to talk to the chariman of British Coal about the pits that are in danger of being closed. We asked for detailed information pit by pit, but were told that it was impossible, because it would be commercially confidential. It is hard to understand that, in an industry that has a virtual monopoly, there may be some concern about the negotiation of gas prices and contracts.

"Commercial confidentiality" is an elastic phrase; to answer the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), adjudication would be by an independent tribunal and commissioner, but I shall elaborate on that in a moment.

Policy advice by civil servants is properly exempt, although not the technical and expert advice that they may receive. For instance, the various legal opinions that the Government sought this week on the interpretation of the Maastricht treaty would be made public and would not be exempt under the Bill, but the advice given by civil servants to the Attorney-General or the Foreign Secretary about how and when best to release it to cause the minimum embarrassment to the Government—if such a thing were possible after Monday—would be exempt. The advice that a Minister receives on how to use information is a matter for Ministers and civil servants, but the technical advice that the Government receive is not.

It is proper that we should see those contrasting legal opinions, and I regret that the Prime Minister has written today to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition saying that he is not prepared to release them. What could we lose? They are interesting and proper opinions, which concern all hon. Members. Perhaps the House does not need to see that advice, certainly not so far as embarrassment goes, as its results were written clearly in the blushes of the Foreign Secretary on Monday night. But for the greater understanding of what is going on, it would be good to see that advice.

Hon. Members may consider—my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie does—that the exemptions, which are modelled on those in operation in other countries with freedom of information legislation, provide considerable opportunities for loopholes to evade at least the spirit of the Bill; they certainly do that, but it is impossible to draft legislation that closes those loopholes. Therefore, the enforcement of the Bill—the adjudication mechanism when the disclosure of information is challenged or withheld—is crucial if it is to have any meaning.

The Bill provides, first, for a process of voluntary internal review. If that is not deemed satisfactory, it establishes an independent tribunal and commissioner appointed by Her Majesty on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and a Select Committee. The commissioner and tribunal shall have the powers of the court to call for information or records and their findings will have the same force as a court order. The commissioner will lay a report before the House annually.

The creation of a tribunal and commissioner is important, as the power and responsibility for deciding what the public should know should be taken away from politicians and given to an arm's-length, independent body. Information is too powerful and important to be left in the hands of any politicians. When Ministers make a mistake, whatever party is in office, there is always a temptation to save their embarrassment. I know that a Labour Government have taken that route in the past and that, if Labour were in power again without this legislation, it would take that route again. It is right that that power should be taken away. Otherwise, the essence of the legislation falls.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but is he aware that he may be taking from Parliament a power that he would not wish to take —the power to assess, monitor and question the tribunal? If the Bill became law, how would Parliament monitor the workings of the tribunal to ensure that the system was working properly if we could not question it?

Mr. Fisher

As I said, the commissioner will lay an annual report before Parliament and we hope that the Leader of the House will provide an opportunity for us to debate it. However, the workings of the tribunal arid the commissioner would also he subject to the scrutiny of the Select Committee which appoints the commissioner in the first place. Those provisions and ministerial accountability would mean that the House had plenty of opportunity to scrutinise, and to maintain the House's scrutiny of, the workings of the tribunal.

The Bill would also reform the Official Secrets Act 1989, which is perhaps getting into more controversial territory, by ending the absolute offence of any disclosure, however justified, and by providing the possibility of a public interest defence such as that allowed by the courts to Clive Ponting, and a defence, when necessary, of prior publication.

Finally, the Bill would amend the Companies Act 1985. For this part of the Bill, I am especially indebted to the pioneering work of my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr. It would require companies to publish in their annual report all instances of their being found to be in breach of legislation on environmental protection, health and safety, discrimination, trades description and other consumer protections listed. In addition to the annual accounts that they lodge with Companies House, companies would be required to provide a list of injuries and fatalities to their work force during the year.

It seems right and proper that, when the private sector is becoming more and more powerful–75 per cent. of world trade is dominated by 500 multinational companies, probably giving them far greater power than most Governments—there should be a rudimentary social audit so that the public, shareholders and the press can know which companies deliberately and flagrantly breach the law and find it cheaper to pay the fines than to amend their actions.

I hope that all hon. Members will consider that such provisions show good common sense and, I trust, sweet reason. However, there is no doubt that they would change things—I believe, for the better. They would lead to better public debate, because it would be based on information and informed choices. Information would be shared generally by the public and by all hon. Members, and not only by Government Departments and Ministers.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

My hon. Friend refers to the need for and importance of public debate. Does he agree that the public's right to know must be accompanied by the means to know? Although a great deal of information can be communicated between an authority and an individual on a personal basis, the dissemination of much information to the public also depends on free and rigorous media, especially a free and rigorous press. Does he agree that, to be effective, the Bill, which I strongly support, needs to be accompanied by changes that would make it possible to create a freer and more pluralistic press, whereas, at the moment, there is a tendency to move in the opposite direction? I am thinking especially of the most discouraging actions of Mirror Group Newspapers.

Mr. Fisher

I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says. There is a commonly held view—a misapprehension —that we have a very strong press in Britain. In fact, the reverse is true—we have one of the most constrained presses in the western world. Our laws of libel and contempt of court hedge around the press to restrict their commenting in the way that other presses can in the public interest. Our press's lack of ability to get the truth of a story means that much of its investigative role is blunted. The Bill would undoubtedly strengthen the press, which I agree is desirable and necessary.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

My hon. Friend and the House have surely taken note of the important judgment yesterday that public authorities, especially elected authorities, cannot use the laws of libel against those who seek to criticise them. The fact that such a case was brought in the first place by Derbyshire county council means that there is a climate in which such an action to try to muzzle the press or individuals would be acceptable. The Bill would contribute to the opening up of the press, but the House must also send other signals to the Government and other elected authorities that the press is entitled to comment freely and openly on the actions of democratically elected authorities.

Mr. Fisher

I agree with my hon. Friend. I was relieved to learn of yesterday's judgment that an elected authority such as Derbyshire authority cannot win such a case. It is an important and interesting precedent.

I was talking about the improvement in public debate on an informed basis, so that we have a level playing field of information. I referred to the pit closure programme. Those of us who have been fighting for the pits have been frustrated by not being able to get detailed information pit by pit. It has meant that public debate on a key industrial issue has, on the whole, been conducted by assertion from the Government and counter-assertion from the Opposition, not on an informed, detailed understanding and knowledge of the pits. If we, as a society, are to judge and make a decision on such a key issue, it surely makes sense for us to have all the figures on each pit, so that we can make up our own minds. However, that is not the case at the moment.

The Bill would lead to better decisions being taken by Ministers and local authority departments. The minds of Ministers, civil servants, local government officials and leaders would be wonderfully concentrated by the thought that the public had access to the information and records on which they made their decisions. Surely there is nothing wrong with that, if the information was not exempt. It would imbue caution and thought, which are not always present. At the moment, Ministers merely have to come up with answers to political problems, but, to return to mathematics lessons at school, if they had to show their workings and knew that the information on which they based their decisions was open to scrutiny, things would change considerably.

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would also be very useful from the point of view of shining the rather tarnished image of politicians? We are going through a period in which people are fearful of what will happen to legal aid, but they are witnessing what appears to be a plot when three of the most senior civil servants in Whitehall did not tell the Comptroller and Auditor General that they were going to pay the legal fees of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We found out only because a whistleblower contacted a newspaper. Surely that does nothing for the reputation of Government or for open government or the citizens charter.

Mr. Fisher

My hon. Friend anticipates my next point, and makes a telling point himself.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

He lowers the tone.

Mr. Fisher

No, he does not lower the tone. With greater accountability and shared information will inevitably come greater credibility for politicians, not only in such high-profile and contentious cases. When they return to their constituencies at the weekend, all hon. Members must be only too painfully aware that the standing and credibility of politicians of all parties are probably at an all-time low. People feel alienated from the political process and unless we understand that, I suspect that we are deluding ourselves. It is not a question of which party they support; I believe that the credibility of the Government and politicans, local and national, is at an all-time low.

Freedom of information cannot in itself change that, but it would alter the fact that, when people turn on their television and watch the proceedings of the House, they get bored by assertion and counter-assertion, the "yah-boo, sucks" of politics, and the lack of detailed and serious debate. If it improves the quality of that debate, freedom of information will mean that it will be less a case of prejudice battering against prejudice; it will considerably improve the credibility of politicians and the political process, and we should all be better off for that.

There is a further way in which the Bill would help. This is a rather Thatcherite argument, which may be surprising from an Opposition Member. Freedom of information would undoubtedly help to make a better and more efficient use of whatever Government expenditure was available.

Health is an example in my constituency. The constituency has an industrial profile, so many constituents have lung disease from working down the pits or in the pot banks. Every man of my age or older has his lungs full of dust. When the men come to my surgery on Friday nights, they breathe through volumes of water. Both the local authority and the health authority have general policies to try to deal with the problem, and they work with employers for better conditions at work.

It was only three years ago, when the university of Leeds was commissioned by the health authority and by the local authority to carry out a detailed study, that we suddenly knew information that we did not have before. A ward-by-ward profile revealed that, in one ward in my constituency, 52 per cent. of men died before they reached retirement age.

It was only when the huge variations around the city were seen that public opinion and the policy-making process began to be galvanised. The health authority, the housing department and others were brought together. We realised that the problem was related to the dampness of the houses and to our attempts to modernise them by putting in central heating, which increased condensation and made the problem worse.

It was only the information that triggered the determination and the resourcing. We did not get any money, and we could not find any more money, but we are now using the money more efficiently because we know more about the incidence of a problem about which we have known for 100 years, but which we have never understood in detail. The efficient use of money as a result of information is a key point.

I have talked about macro-issues, such as the press, democracy and credibility. More than anything else, the important point is that the Bill would empower individuals. When I began to promote the Bill, and went round the country listening and talking to people, I did not appreciate that point enough. It has been the point that has most impressed me during the campaign.

The Bill would give greater choice to people and it would give them greater knowledge with which to make the choices in their lives. It would also give people more ownership over their lives. [Interruption.] Does the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) want to intervene?

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)


Mr. Fisher

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was rising in his place. I say the words "choice" and "ownership" to him, and he leaves his place immediately. I am sad to see him go.

Choice does not apply simply to matters of food and food safety, important though they are. There are sometimes tragic consequences from not having information and from not making choices. Hon. Members will recall the fire at Bradford football club. It was only after the fire, in which more than 50 people died, that it was learnt that the local authority had been in correspondence with the football club for some months and had pointed out to it that the stand was an unacceptable fire hazard. We cannot guarantee that the fire would not have happened if the information had been in the public domain, but it would have been surprising if the media in Bradford had not put pressure on the Health and Safety Executive, on the fire authority and on the club. Things would have changed.

The people who went to watch their football club and who died did so without making an informed choice. They might have gone even if they had known the risks, but at least they would have had a chance to make a choice. They did not have that choice, and they died. The same is true of the King's Cross fire, of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster and of many other tragedies in which people did not know the risks involved.

In the case of King's Cross, the Fennell report shows that the risks were known to the various authorities long before the fire and were debated between them. However, the information was never in the public domain. It cannot be right that our constituents risk their lives in ignorance of the safety record of places such as British Rail stations and London Underground stations.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

There was another fire in Bradford recently, in which, mercifully, no one was killed. There is a major chemical works in my constituency called Allied Colloids. There was a conflagration there for which, to give my hon. Friend and idea of the scale, 35 appliances turned out. Several hundred firemen combated a serious chemical fire.

Many of my constituents are concerned that the composition of the, chemicals stored on the site is not known. One of the reasons why I am a strong supporter of the Bill is that such information needs to be known not only by the workers, who have the right to knowledge, but by residents in the surrounding area. They are apprehensive about the risks involved.

Mr. Fisher

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, because he makes a telling point. I expect that many hon. Members would find similar circumstances in their constituencies. It is wrong that our constituents should be ignorant of potentially lethal dangers in their communities.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

The nuclear industry provides a fairly controversial example of what the hon. Gentleman describes. The nuclear industry has done damage to itself by being unnecessarily secretive at times. That has led people to be suspicious even if there has been no need to be.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the main arguments in favour of the Bill is the need to get away from the style of management in which management have information that other people do not have? Management tend to make decisions on the availability of information, and they keep information to themselves. Far better decisions will be taken when information is generally available.

Mr. Fisher

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Nuclear power raises a crucial distinction, at the heart of the Bill, between information and public relations. Sellafield has done a superb job, in its terms, of opening itself to the public, inviting people to come to the visitors' centre and advertising on television. All that is to be welcomed.

However, the public should be aware that there is a great difference between knowing all the facts and being presented with a public relations exercise which includes a lot of welcome facts. That is rather different from having a wide range of information which would allow the public not only to go to Sellafield and to hear the case put by British Nuclear Fuels, but to put the information into context so that they can make their own judgment in a more informed way. The distinction between public relations information and the whole range of information is the key to our assessment of our children's schools, of health authorities, of hospitals and of many other matters. Hon. Members will understand that key distinction.

The Bill would affect individuals in terms of choice and in terms of ownership. The question of medical records and of employment records has especially changed my attitude when working on the Bill. Hon. Members may have seen a recent edition of Ms. Joan Bakewell's television programme "Heart of the Matter", in which she studied terminally ill patients and their knowledge of their health and life expectancy, in relation to the Bill and to freedom of information.

One especially moving and tragic case was that of a woman who had had slowly creeping multiple sclerosis for 20 years. Her husband and her general practitioner had got together to keep that fact from her. When she eventually found out the truth, she had to rethink her whole life. She had believed that she was less than competent as a mother, as a housekeeper, as a wife and as a friend. Each year, she could do less, and her self-esteem went down. She thought that she was stupid, incompetent and not very able. When she discovered that she was ill and that the information had been kept from her, she suddenly felt that she had lost all control over and ownership of her life. That story can be replicated around the country, and it is extremely worrying and tragic.

The same is true of employment records, because our identity as people is so much tied up with work. If there is wrong information on an employee's file, he has no control over his work life. Self-esteem and the judgment of one's own ability may be affected by the inability to win promotion, although what is blocking an employee may be simply wrong information, which, if made available, could be put right. That is wrong and must be put right.

Better decisions, better understanding, the more efficient use of money and an improvement for individuals add up to a case for saying that the Bill will change the culture of decision making and will begin to put an end to secrecy, which is a creeping British disease.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the culture in which decisions are made, and thereby to the quality of public debate. Does he agree that the great prize to be had from freedom of information is the better opportunity and encouragement that it would give the press and broadcasters to engage in serious and substantial discussion of the important issues concerning the state of society and public policy? They would be better able to resist the pressure to trivialise placed on them by competition, and all too often, as has been mentioned, by the circumstances of the ownership of the media.

Mr. Fisher

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I welcome an observation of that kind from the Conservative Benches. His views are probably shared on both sides of the House.

Although I have outlined a fairly substantial case, how can anyone object to the sweet reason of that case? Judging from the press release that the Minister's office issued on 9 February, I fear that he will argue against it. As he will speak after me, I shall try to anticipate some of his reservations, criticisms and arguments.

I fear that the Minister will try to claim that the legislation is too bureaucratic. He will say that it may be well intentioned, but that it is too bureaucratic and a typical Labour initiative.

As the Minister will be aware from his research, there is no evidence of too great a bureaucracy in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. When Australia introduced its freedom of information legislation, it allowed for about 800 civil servants. It did not appoint half that number, and, within months, it reduced the number by 200 or 300. There are now about 200 or 300 civil servants in total. There is no evidence that the legislation is hugely bureaucratic. The office of Sir John Grace, the information commissioner in Canada, is very small. The Minister is aware of that, and he will be hard put to justify criticism on those grounds.

The Minister may claim that we cannot afford the legislation. Again, the figures are not on his side. In 1990–91, the legislation in Canada cost £11.5 million. As that figure includes the cost of administering the Canadian privacy legislation and all its ramifications, it is probably an over-estimate. In 1991–92, the legislation in Australia cost £5.8 million.

If we aggregate the figures on that basis to a country the size of ours, we could anticipate that legislation in this country would cost between £20 million and £30 million a year. That figure seems to be in line with the estimates of Mr. Robert Hazell who, when he was a civil servant, carried out research in the countries that I have mentioned and in this country for the Home Office. If that figure is correct, that £20 million or £30 million would be very well spent indeed.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Would that figure not be a very small fraction of the cost of the decisions that have been taken? If the decisions are better made, there may be a considerable net saving and no cost at all.

Mr. Fisher

There is anecdotal evidence in Australia that some major public initiatives or large infrastructure initiatives affecting the environment have, as a result of the Australian legislation and public scrutiny, proved unnecessary and undesirable and were therefore dropped. The anecdotal evidence is that that saved hundreds of millions of pounds. I believe that that experience would be replicated here.

The legislation can save money and make more efficient use of money. It will cost money. However, there is perhaps the more trivial and party political case that, in respect of initiatives such as the citizens charter—costing £7 million in advertising this year—the citizens charter unit—costing an estimated £23 million over the next three years—and, quite rightly, the Central Office of Information, which costs £150 million, the £20 million or £30 million which the legislation would cost would be one of the best investments that the Government could possibly make in our future.

The Minister may also claim that the legislation is a lawyer's charter, but there is no evidence for that. In Australia, 74 per cent. of applications every year are granted in full; 22 per cent. are granted in part, and only 4 per cent. are denied. Of 25,000 applications for information, only 68 go to appeal. Admittedly, at the appeal stage and particularly with an independent tribunal and commissioner, the case against the Government Department or local authority should properly be argued by lawyers. However, if there are going to be only 60 or 100 cases a year in Britain, that can hardly constitute a lawyer's charter.

Finally, the Minister may say that the legislation might be a barrack room lawyer's charter, and that there will be a huge number of voluminous, frivolous and mischievous applications—people might come along and say, "I want to see everything you've got under that heading."

However, the Bill anticipates that. Clause 27 states that when there are substantial and unreasonable demands on an authority, that can be a reason for refusing to give information. If that were challenged, the case could be taken to the independent tribunal or commissioner. I do not believe that that body would have any truck with frivolous and mischievous applications.

The nub of the Minister's case against the Bill will be that, in his view, it is the wrong methodology and wrong type of legislation. When the Minister finally negotiates his White Paper, I suspect that he will propose some form of voluntary means of releasing more information, perhaps supported by an ombudman. Essentially, the power of whether information should enter the public domain will still remain with Ministers and Government. There is in that respect a substantial and fundamental difference between the Minister and me.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

The hon. Gentleman paid tribute earlier to Mr. Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Will he acknowledge that last July in The Guardian, Mr. Frankel paid tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for his open government initiative?

Mr. Fisher

He certainly did. I welcome the Prime Minister's rhetoric. I believe that he is the first Prime Minister in this country to say on the record that he wants to blow away at least some of the cobwebs of secrecy in our society. Many of us feel that that is a rather timid remark, from a rather timid Prime Minister, but the remark is welcome. I welcome the Chancellor of the Duchy's statement that he is not in principle against legislation, although he may not favour the recommendations in my Bill.

The comments of the Prime Minister and of the Chancellor of the Duchy are a huge improvement on the attitude of previous Governments, but their words have yet to be substantiated by deeds. They have not yet been susbstantiated by a White Paper. I believe that the Chancellor of the Duchy is having difficulty negotiating with some Departments.

There is a big difference between a genuinely open system that takes power from the hands of Ministers, and the voluntary system, which I suspect that the Government favour, which will still maintain the essence of the present situation, in which Ministers control and tell us what we ought to know.

The Minister will say, "Trust us. We will be a better Government." He may demonstrate that with some small, but welcome, initiatives, but that is no longer enough. The public no longer want to trust politicans. They want an absolute right to know. With sensible exemptions and caveats, the public should have the right to know.

I suspect that there is a major difference in methodology between the Minister and the Bill. However, the right hon. Gentleman will concede that there is much common ground in principle, in direction and in much of the detail in the Bill. That leaves him with a rather interesting problem in responding.

I suspect that the Minister's rather large brief will say, in effect, "Be kind, but kill it." I suspect that his civil service advice, which of course would be exempt under the terms of the Bill because it is private between the Chancellor's civil servants and himself, will state, from the Minister's own favourite Sir Humphrey, something along the lines of: "The Government doesn't want to be seen to be against the principle of the Bill. To do so would make nonsense of an oft-repeated claim by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to be serious about openness and 'blowing away some of the cobwebs of secrecy.' However, Sir Robin Butler in No. 10 Downing street has made it quite clear that this Bill shall not become law"—underlined several times—"in any form"—underlined several more times. "The Permanent Secretaries at the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food insist on this. The Bill will be allowed, or may be allowed, a Second Reading today, but its progress into Committee must be impeded and, at worst, delayed, until it is too late for it to have any chance of completing its stages through Parliament. If it gets into Committee, it must be filibustered. If it gets to Report and Third Reading, it must be sunk by a mass of friendly and constructive amendments. If it gets to the Lords, heads will roll in this Department. This Bill must have no right to go any further."

I suspect that the advice is something along those lines. It may also say, "However, the Minister may usefully use the threat of this further progress to encourage the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to ease their opposition to the White Paper and resistance to the Minister's preferred option of a voluntary system and an ombudsman." I am not sure whether I have got all the words right in the Minister's brief, but we shall hear in a minute whether there has been a leak. I assure the Minister that there has not. Mine is an active imagination, but not a great one.

If that is the gist of the Minister's case, it is not good enough. He knows in his heart of hearts that he has lost the argument. Times have changed. Now that we can see the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand examples, many of his fears have been proven practically in those countries to be groundless. There has been a campaign around the country, with thousands of postcards and letters sent to hon. Members on both sides of the House, and there has been a wide debate in the national press recently, as well as public meetings all over the country, in which hon. Members have participated. We have seen the campaign of Charter 88, the Campaign for Freedom of Information, article 19 and Liberty.

The Minister knows that he has lost the public argument and that people want the right to know. It is not that people do not want to trust Ministers or be dependent on Ministers or local government officials any longer. The Minister knows that the game is up and that things must change. In doing so, we will end the nanny state and begin to open up government—I think that the Minister sincerely wants that—and end secrecy. Secrecy is genuinely a corrosive disease in us, both as individuals and as society. It is not only dark secrecy. It is difficult and painful when one tries to hide things.

As children, we find that one of the processes of growing up is coming to terms with secrets and dark and unknown areas in people, facing difficult areas and opening them up to the light, and gaining control and ownership of oneself. If that is a description in part of the experience of many people going from childhood to adulthood, it should also be an adequate description of a democracy going from childhood to adulthood. Surely it is time that we grew up in this society and had the right to share information which is paid for with taxpayers' money and collected in our name but withheld from us.

Let us be brave today as we begin to open up democracy and government. After all, this is only a small step. The debate today is about the principle, but the public debate should not be about the principle of whether we have freedom of information in the United Kingdom: the intelligent debate for an intelligent democracy is about what form, what controls and what administration we should have. That is the serious debate on the issue—it is not whether we should have it.

Surely it is manifestly true that we should have freedom of information. The real challenge is not getting freedom of information—it will come whether the Minister allows us to have it this year or next year—but how we use it when we have it. Mr. Robert Hazell, in his assessment which is in front of the Minister and in his published articles, made that clear, when he said that probably the worst thing that could happen would be if it were forced on a reluctant Government who did not back it, were not enthusiastic about it and killed it with neglect.

If we are to have freedom of information, as we will and as we must, we must have a Government who are enthusiastic about it. I suspect that the Minister is enthusiastic about freedom of information and goes out and promotes its opportunities as enthusiastically as he promoted his citizens charter initiatives. That is what the Government and the country need. We must begin to open up democracy, stimulate people to ask questions and begin to change society for the better. Whatever the political ways in which we wish to change society, we must change it, because we know that we are not doing as well as we should be. Today gives us that chance.

We have everything to gain: better democracy, better debate, better decisions, better efficiency, better accountability and even greater credibility. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree to approve the principle of the Bill and give it a Second Reading. In doing so, they will start the process of giving people the right to know.

10.25 am
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. William Waldegrave)

That was a most eloquent and persuasive speech. Of course, I shall be instituting the usual leak inquiry after the debate. I begin by picking up something that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) said at the end of his speech when he quoted Robert Hazell. It shows a profound truth: whatever we do in legislation, nothing ultimately changes unless the culture of organisations genuinely changes. It is always possible to find a way round rules if those working within them really want to. That is a fair point, whatever approach we take to the matter.

There has been a certain symmetry in these debates over the years. I have been reading some of the debates in the past few days, as one would expect. Governments of all parties tend to argue one way and Oppositions of all parties tend to argue another way. Great departmental mandarins tend to argue one way until they leave their Departments, in which case they tend to argue the other way. Journalists—when they are talking about the workings of government, though not quite so much when they are talking about the workings of their own newspapers—tend to argue one way and business people the other. There are exceptions, and honourable exceptions in all cases, and I am sure that they can be found.

There are two responses to this issue. One is a response of total cyncism: everybody is corrupt. The other is a more realistic response which is to say that there are people playing different roles honourably in different parts of a civil society and they look at things from their different points of view. The resolution of those conflicting and legitimate interests is what this argument is all about.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central is an eloquent representative of one of the legitimate and ancient strands of the argument. The argument goes back to Wilkes; it is not a new one. Over the centuries, I suppose that getting the balance right has been partly what the growth of democracy has been all about. I sincerely congratulate the hon. Gentleman and the Campaign for Freedom of Information which has helped him to present the Bill. I join him in paying tribute to the courtesy and competence of Maurice Frankel.

The hon. Gentleman uses the language of the right to know. One can make the argument in other languages, but let us use that language today. The conflicting interests that must be resolved can be well expressed in this language. One conflicting interest has been discussed in the House recently—the right to privacy. That is a right and a need which musters campaigners. Those campaigners were rightly heard in the House a few Fridays ago.

There is also a right, which was much in evidence in the recent American election, to fair trade. Why should jobs be at risk because foreigners have different rules from us? It is not difficult to rouse a campaign for that. Great trade union interests can and do legitimately campaign for that right. As the hon. Gentleman said, a level of commercial confidentiality comparable to that of their overseas rivals may often be one of their demands.

A fourth right is the least easy for which to campaign. Indeed, I have never heard of a campaign for it, although I believe that most people instinctively understand it. It is the right to have a system of government that is organised in a way which makes it possible to take efficient decisions. All freedom of information campaigners who are serious recognise those conflicting rights—the hon. Gentleman certainly does—and try to order them in some sort of hierarchy.

It is not surprising that, when we are engaged in a debate led by the proponet of the right to know, that right tends to come rather dramatically to the top of the pile. I shall argue that the other rights are a little too far behind. It is not surprising that those who put the arguments from the Government side—that Governments, if they are to fulfil their duties to citizens, have a duty to maintain some secrets—have perhaps the hardest time of it. Parliaments are there to limit the Executive—it is their essence—and to call Executives to account. The press live off information. A banner reading "Hands off Government secrets" would not immediately fill Trafalgar square.

In this debate, it is our duty to balance all those rights and their attendant duties together—and there are others. It is for us, while marching to those other more catchy tunes, to remember that they have a counterpoint. In "Troilus and Cressida", Ulysses said: There is a mystery—with whom relation Durst never meddle—in the soul of state". Shakespeare drafted it even better than Lord Franks. In a free society, most government is a matter of negotiation. Totalitarian governments do not have to negotiate; they just tell you. Negotiation must take place not only with other Governments but constantly at home with warring and contradictory pressure groups, financial markets and Parliament. Anyone who has ever run anything, from a corner shop to a great Department of state, knows that administration in a free society, in which one cannot compel people, except exceptionally and with the powers given by the legislature, is much more like playing poker than playing chess. One cannot always have all the cards face up.

What is more, when Governments use compulsion with powers given by the legislature, they often do so for the collection of information from people who are unwilling to give it in the first place. Such people believe, in some cases rightly, that they retain rights over it. The Inland Revenue, the Department of Social Security, a variety of regulators and inspectors and compilers of statistics may be unwilling to provide information.

In many cases, information taken by power should be covered by privacy. No one has such powers of invasion of privacy as do Governments.

Mr. Rooker

I do not disagree with anything that the Minister has just said, but I wish to give him two examples of where the suspicion is borne out because of what happens in the culture of government. Following the change of Government in 1979, when Sir Clive Whitmore was Mrs. Thatcher's private secretary, a letter was sent around Whitehall about openness. It told people to be more open. That letter was classified and will not be available until the year 2010.

In 1977 when the Croham directive was issued under the previous Labour Government, it was a hell of a job to get it published. A wheeze had to be used to put it in Hansard. When such things happen, they naturally breed suspicion that other matters that legitimately could be open are not opened up. That culture within the Government needs to be changed. So far there is no sign that it has changed.

Mr. Waldegrave

I can give the hon. Gentleman some other examples. I read his speech in the 1979 debate. I can give him another example. Lord Hinton—a great man—was given by Mr. Attlee the power to build an atom bomb. The Government of the day did not mention the matter to Parliament or even to the Cabinet. He was given a piece of paper which said that he was allowed to requisition anything to get the great task done. It appears in the official history of the Atomic Energy Authority written by Margaret Gowing—an extremely good book. Unfortunately, the piece of paper was classified as a nuclear secret so he was unable to show it to anyone. So no progress was made.

I do not believe that I have said anything so far that sensible freedom of information campaigners would not admit in principle. The difficult issue is where and how the balance is struck. That is what the House is addressing today. I am rather easily persuaded that the balance is not right in Britain. We keep too many secrets. We make secrets of matters that should not be secret. That, incidentally, makes it more difficult to keep real secrets when it is legitimate to do so.

I admit that there is a tendency in all organisations—Government Departments are not immune—to use secrecy for convenience if they can get away with it. There is much more to be done. That is why last May the Prime Minister asked me to start the process of diminishing unnecessary secrecy which was foreshadowed in our manifesto. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central was generous in his tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Contrary to some mythology, there has been steady progress in the past 10 years. I argue that we have done more than previous Administrations, although it will be for the historians to judge that. We began with a task that was not earth shattering but, for those like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) who know the culture of, government, it was a sea change. We published the details of ministerial committees and the memorandum "Questions of Procedure for Ministers". We have acknowledged the Secret Intelligence Service and have promised legislation to put SIS and GCHQ on a statutory basis. We shall keep that promise. No previous Administration have taken those steps. The arguments have not changed, but we have set the balance differently.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central was fair in saying that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had acted with different instincts from those of his predecessors. I mentioned historians. In June last year, I invited historians to say which Government records they would like to be available. The matter is not unimportant because it affects the relationship between serious students and the state.

Departments are reviewing the documents identified by historians to decide whether they can be put into the public domain. That initiative has been warmly welcomed by the Institute of Contemporary British History and by Peter Hennessy who, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said, is a doughty campaigner for freedom of information. The release of those documents is under way. Papers released to date include the Hess papers, Shingle Street, Derek Bentley, John Christie and Timothy Evans papers, further papers on Suez, and Home Office files about the occupation of the Channel Islands. The Opposition spokesman on the citizens charter was fair in describing that release as a major breakthrough in the opening up of that period.

There is more to come. [HON. MEMBERS: "Tell us."] Very well, I shall. For example, the papers of Professor R. V. Jones and the SOE archive are among those under review. I have announced that the Joint Intelligence Committee papers will no longer be withheld automatically under the blanket ban. In addition, the Lord Chancellor is reviewing the criteria presently used to withhold public records from public scrutiny. I do not envisage that the objective study undertaken as part of that review will lead to a tightening of the criteria.

We have introduced and supported several legislative measures. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central referred to some of them. Some of the measures on the statute book were private Members' Bills, often drafted by the Campaign for Freedom of Information as part of its policy of going alternatively for sweeteners and the grand slam. I mention in particular, as did the hon. Gentleman, the work of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). I would add the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), with whom I co-operated on the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985, which extended access to local authority meetings and documents. That was a course pioneered by the then hon. Member for Finchley in 1960. We have recently been able to read some of the discussions surrounding that, which have been released under the 30-year rule.

As frequently happens, not all the legislation went as far as its sponsors originally asked. Nevertheless, measures were introduced. It was under our Government that the House approved those measures. As well as the Acts that I have mentioned, the legislation includes the Access to Medical Records Act 1988, which gives access to GPs' reports to employers; the Access to Personal Files Act 1987, which gives access to records held by local housing and social services authorities; and the Access to Health Records Act 1990.

In addition to our supporting such measures, there has been important Government legislation. In 1984 we introduced a right of access allowing individuals for the first time to see records held on them on computer. The Education Reform Act 1988 gave pupils and parents access to certain school records. We have introduced measures requiring information relevant to environmental and safety concerns to be made more public. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 springs to mind. It includes pretty rigorous requirements for the maintenance of public registers in the important matter of environmental pollution. I sympathise with what the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said about that. He was right to say that we could find similar concerns in other constituencies around Britain.

Most recently, the Environmental Regulations 1992 came into force on 30 December 1992. They are a considerable step, deriving from a European instrument. They give a right of general public access to information on the environment for the first time.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Given the rather good record that the Minister has just described, does he agree that the records of various Secretaries of State for Employment have been contradictory to that record? They have consistentely denied the right of trade union representatives to know whether they were blacklisted by organisations such as the Economic League. The Government introduced legislation to allow people to know what was kept on record about them on computer, but it did not protect people whose records are kept by other means. So organisations such as the Economic League have been getting away with destroying people's lives and opportunities to work for many years.

Mr. Waldegrave

The Bill of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, unlike previous Bills, takes a wide power which goes across not only the Government but the private sector, to look at personal records.

I shall not disguise the fact that I have considerable sympathy with much of what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) says as regards Government personnel files. Perhaps other hon. Members could say whether there has been consultation with industry. The power is pretty widespread and goes further than in most other countries, but I know of the problem that the hon. Member mentioned. I am grateful to her for saying that there has been progress.

My friend Hugo Young, who is a fine journalist, wrote yesterday that the Government really deserve no credit for any of this—and produced a self-fulfilling circular argument to prove it. He says that all of the things of which he approved were forced out of the Government, who freely chose all those things of which he disapproved. That argument seems to have a tendency towards bias, and seems like that deployed by Freudians—if one does not like Freudian theory one has an anti-Freud complex. There is no answer to that—and I did not mean Clement.

I genuinely believe that the fact that the Government have made progress is not a result of tremendous pressures. Some hon. Members of whom Ministers are extremely nervous—above all, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)—are doughty campaigners on this and many other matters.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)


Mr. Waldegrave

But we are not so nervous that we cannot resist him if we choose.

Mr. Shepherd

That is why I said nonsense.

Mr. Waldegrave

Perhaps we are more nervous than my hon. Friend understands.

Progress has perhaps come about because of the changes in zeitgeist to which the hon. Member for Perry Barr referred. Opinion has steadily changed on such matters and the Government have responded to it. I shall not make many party points in this speech, but the proof that one can easily resist pressure groups on freedom of information if one wants to is to be found in the behaviour of the last Labour Government. They managed to put a commitment to a freedom of information Act in nearly every Queen's Speech, but they never carried it out. In many respects, I have great admiration for Lord Callaghan, but I am not sure that that aspect of public policy was his strongest suit.

An objective survey of progress during the past 40 years would show an acceleration in recent years and it is not unfair for the Government to take some credit for that.

Mr. Alan Howarth

My right hon. Friend is fully entitled to claim credit for the advances that have been made, not least in recent years. But what is therein the zeitgeist, or what argument of principle would he advance, to justify limiting individuals' rights of access to information stored on computer but not in manila files?

Mr. Waldegrave

Such a view strikes a chord with me, but one must consider the other side of the argument. For example, in personal files there could be a problem over the frankness of references and an argument about whether protection should be given to third-party information. However, I am not wholly out of sympathy with my hon. Friend's view.

Incidentally, we were right to move quickly on electronic data because of the dangers of hacking into computer files. Expertise in hacking meant that such a step had to be taken relatively quickly.

Some legislation, such as the Local Government Act 1992, the Education (Schools) Act 1992 and the Competition and Services (Utilities) Act 1992 stem from the citizens charter. Under that charter, the Government have a comprehensive campaign for opening up information because, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said, behind the theory of the campaign is the idea that the citizen should be empowered to use properly the services that he owns and he cannot do so unless he has usable information. He has to have comparative information that enables him to know what the numbers mean, and that is why we believe so strongly in league tables. In all the 30 published charters, information and performance indicators are crucial factors, against which people can be called to account.

In November, the Government published comparative information on school examination results, to provide parents with the information that they need to make more informed choices about their children's educations. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central welcomed that, but the overall reaction from the Labour party was somewhat less enthusiastic than we may be led to believe by some of the speeches today. Perhaps this will be my other party point—some Labour Members have an inherent tendency to look to producer, professional and trades union interests in such matters and to say that it would be unfair to release all the information if it is not carefully interpreted. I cannot accuse the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central of that because he was brave enought to say that we should publish the information and supported us.

Mr. Worthington

I understand the Minister's argument, but the gains seem to be dwarfed by the extent to which huge areas of information that used to be in the public domain have been removed from it by the Government's privatisation programme. There are huge areas that we now do not know about. Do not the Government condemn the practice whereby they choose a consultant, who is no doubt sympathetic to them, use public money to pay him or her an undisclosed amount, receive the report and quote selectively from it? I am thinking of the Government's Scottish water privatisation proposals. If the consultant's report is good, it must be the best research that has been commissioned to decide an important area of public policy, but the public are denied access to the report. Is not that why we need freedom of information?

Mr. Waldegrave

The regulators of former nationalised industries, which still need regulation because there may be imperfect or no competition in the marketplace, are the right route to information about former public utilities. More may have to be done on that respect.

Ms. Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

If I may refer the right hon. Gentleman back to school league tables, surely the essential question is the accuracy of published information. In the case of Parliament Hill school in my constituency, the results were inaccurate and, on three separate occasions, we failed to get the Department for Education to submit the correct figures for publication.

Mr. Waldegrave

I know that there were some inaccuracies, but I am a little suspicious of that argument. During the past 10 years I have co-operated fully with all the civil servants who have worked for me and I remember that on some occasions people have argued for almost interminable delays in publication, on the ground that one cannot publish until the information is perfect. It is better to get the information out.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

So, one publishes the wrong information.

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Member is trivialising. I am not saying that we should publish the wrong information. There were hundreds of thousands of pieces of correct information and one or two mistakes. If we did not do anything until it was perfect we would be falling for a very "Yes Minister-ish" ploy.

Mr. Fisher

The Minister will realise that selectivity, as well as inaccuracy, is a problem. He quoted me correctly in saying that I supported publication of the figures, but he will recall that I went on to say that they should be published in the context of all the relevant information. There is nothing wrong with the Government's having performance indicators and saying that those are the preferred statistics and criteria, which should be considered. It is perfectly fair and reasonable for the Government to focus attention on policies in that way. What is wrong is that it is not done in the context of all the relevant information. Performance indicators without freedom of information and knowing the whole picture, diminish the Government's case rather than making it.

Mr. Waldegrave

Just for a moment I suffered a surrealist shift because the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central suddenly started to sound just like Sir Humphrey: "Yes Minister we are in favour of publication; however I have to tell you that unless all the information is to be published I would really advise against the publication of this information."

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Waldegrave

May I press on because I suspect that some extremely good speeches are waiting to be made and I do not want to delay them.

I must not be unfair, but perhaps I should give an example from another Department, which is not traditionally thought of as being in the forefront as regards freedom of information. Under the 30-year rule, I direct hon. Members to the pleasure of reading the engaging file of Professor Sam Beer, who published a book about the Treasury.

In recent years the Treasury has made great steps forward. Hon. Members may have thought that the documents beside me are part of my brief, but that is not so. I know that we are not allowed to use visual aids in the House, but I should like to point out the difference in the scale of the information about public expenditure. In my right hand I have the two documents about public expenditure that were published for 1978–79. The information that is published about public expenditure now is not in my left hand because I cannot lift it. The amount of information published about public expenditure has increased greatly, and it is used by the House and Select Committees to our gain. I assure hon. Members that the weight of current documentation is not just the packaging and, however thick the covers of the little documents published for 1978–79, much more information is now available.

Mrs. Barbara Roche (Hornsey and Wood Green)

I am most impressed by the right hon. Gentleman's visual aids. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Miln,gavie (Mr. Worthington) mentioned privatisation. Opposition Members have had great difficulty in obtaining any information about the Wolds prison, which has been privatised, because what we have requested has been covered by rules governing commercial sensitivity. How does that square with the right hon. Gentleman's claim that the Government are releasing information?

Mr. Waldegrave

I believe that there is a consensus on both sides of the House, with some exceptions, that it is legitimate for the Government to look to a wide variety of suppliers to obtain good public services. I do not want to divert the debate into one about contracting out, but many Labour councillors in local government and many on the Opposition Front Bench believe that the fact that the Government are the supplier does not mean that everything must be provided in-house. I believe that there is more work to be done on the possible obligations of private-sector suppliers to meet public sector need. I have not got the solution today, and I suspect that more work could be done on it.

Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the programme to contract out local government services has had a retrograde effect because it is now out of order and illegal for the public authority to know anything about the employment set-up of the various contractors, private and public, that tender for the services?

In Sheffield, we had instituted a system whereby we insisted that private firms had to meet their responsibilities on training by operating a ratio of one trainee to 10 employees. That system was accepted by private firms as well as the council, but, after the contracting out legislation was passed, it was illegal for the public authority to continue to operate that system. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that one retrograde step could be reversed quickly?

Mr. Waldegrave

I remember well the debates on whether we should use contract compliance—a method sometimes used in the United States—to insist on various policies being carried out in the private sector. At that time, the House decided that if we wanted the private sector to do things, we should pass the necessary laws to make it do them.

I have considerable sympathy for the point raised by the hon. Member for Bradford, South about health and safety. I have received hundreds of postcards from those campaigning for the Bill and it would be fair to say that 90 per cent. of the requests were for information about health and safety and other broadly consumerist issues. That is understandable because that is what people are really interested in. I have some sympathy for those requests.

Today we must decide whether the next logical steps are best taken by a blockbuster Bill of this kind or by a steady increase in the pragmatic steps that we have taken and will continue to take. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has rightly predicted my response.

The Bill is large. I have been unable to find out whether it is the biggest private Member's Bill, but it must be among the largest. It is a Christmas tree of a Bill because it is equivalent to four or five Bills put together. It calls for a new Act to replace the Official Secrets Act 1989. I cannot recommend that to the House, given the lengthy debates that we had on that subject. The present Act should be left on the statute book to work.

Even the much-quoted Australians and Canadians progressed incrementally with the necessary legislation, which first dealt with the Federal Government and agencies. Legislation was then introduced for the provinces, one by one. Under the provincial system, those provinces are responsible for rather more functions than those for which our local government is responsible. The Australian access rights are not, in general, fully retrospective, as those in the Bill would be after no more than a year.

Many of the exemptions contained in the Bill are more heavily qualified than the equivalents in overseas legislation and the practical consequences of that have not been thought through.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

A few years ago there was an accident in my constituency in which a lorry carrying ammunition caught fire. I put down questions asking what ammunition was being carried and stored in my constituency and nearby. I was told that it was not the practice of the Government to provide such information.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Paul Flynn

Well, let me continue.

I persuaded a Congressman to put down a similar question in Congress and the answer was provided within a fortnight, because the base in question is American. Surely that is nonsense. It illustrates the difference between the freedom of information provided in America and that given here. Does not that diminish the role of the House and its Members?

Mr. Waldegrave

That issue needs much more careful thought. It would somewhat diminish the role of the House if, whenever someone published any kind of freedom of information legislation anywhere in the world, we automatically followed it. Let us say that America experiences far less of a problem with terrorism than we face from the IRA. Would it not be right for the House, after considering the matter, perhaps to have a different regime governing such matters? It does not seem to be absolutely obvious that it would be out of the question for the House to take a different view from a different legislature in a different situation.

Many of the exemptions contained in the Bill are more heavily qualified than equivalents in overseas legislation. I am not sure what the consequences would be for the security of our penal institutions or the effectiveness of our regulatory authorities. I am not sure whether we have considered properly what proportion of time we want the police or health service employees to spend providing access to internal papers. Other similar legislation makes specific provisions to protect such vital services from fruitless diversion of effort. Despite what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has said, I am not sure that the Bill does that. It goes far further than overseas legislation.

I do not want to go into too much detail now, because such matters are best dealt with in Committee, if the House gives the Bill its Second Reading. Again and again, however, the Bill seems to make the ordinary process of administration very difficult.

The exemptions in clause 19 seem to relate only to requirements of enforcing the criminal law and it leaves untouched the important area of the enforcement of regulations under civil law. The clause seems to open up the danger that, where a decision has been taken not to proceed with a prosecution after an investigation, the individual concerned could, in effect, suffer trial by other means on the basis of material released under the terms of the Bill. That, too, may be a Committee point, but I wonder. I suspect that it is more fundamental than that.

It is right that I should say a little more about commercial confidentiality. Clause 26 states that information given to a public authority in confidence is not exempt from disclosure if it is given for the purposes of applying for a grant. That represents a huge shift in practice. When a company puts in such an application it will often need to include detailed financial and non-financial information, which would be of direct benefit to a competitor. If we adopted that policy we would steadily widen the exemptions. We would then return to the same problem, which could be addressed more effectively by measures focused on individual subjects.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood)

I thank the Minister for giving way; he has raised a key issue. He seeks to suggest that the differences are technical—the destination is agreed, but the routes different. However, surely there is a fundamental difference of principle. Either the Government will continue to decide what to release on their terms or there will be a presumption of openness, with the Government having to justify non-disclosure. Surely, that is the point of principle to be decided today.

Mr. Waldegrave

I do not believe that it is even as simple as that. The Government have accepted statutory regimes in some spheres. We have not ruled out statutory regimes in relation to personal records on electronic data. I am not saying that statute law cannot be involved in all sectors.

One issue of high principle is the relationship between Parliament and the commissioner and the tribunal. It is a familiar, but real, argument. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central gave a clear account of how that would work. The commissioner and, on appeal, the tribunal, would balance different public interests. The commissioner would have the power to override the judgment of the House, which could do nothing about it.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said something that one does not usually hear from a socialist, although one does hear it from high Tories. He said that some matters were so important that they should not be entrusted to the House or democracy—

Mr. Fisher


Mr. Waldegrave

Yes, information. That is an old-fashioned high Tory doctrine—that democracy is just one part of the weft and warp of life. It is a surprising argument to hear from a socialist, and we should consider it carefully.

I shall not propose the cost argument as one of high principle. I think that the Campaign for Freedom of Information has made some clever manoeuvres in its briefing. If we consider the Australian and Canadian freedom of information Acts, we must also consider the provincial and local authorities, as that is where freedom of information bites. Local government receives far more applications than central Government, because most of the services that we are discussing today are not run at a federal or central level in those countries. Therefore, the cost is considerably more. However, cost—which I estimate to be about £50 million—is not the final argument.

Therefore, for some reasons of principle and some reasons which, initially, seem to be small, but, on examination, are shown to be much greater, I cannot recommend the Bill's structure or approach to the House. However, we shall publish the conclusions of our study on greater openness in a White Paper—

Mr. Bennett


Mr. Waldegrave

Before the summer break, I can promise—[Horn. MEMBERS: "That is rash."] It may be rash, but I hope that I can promise that. [HON. MEMBERS: "Which summer recess?"] Opposition Members are asking me which summer recess, and saying that I am being rash —perhaps they are correct. I intend to publish the White Paper before this summer break.

The Bill has given us an opportunity to focus national debate and I genuinely welcome it for that reason. We shall return to the subject, whatever the Bill's fate. I do not believe that it will be the end of the story—there is more to do, but the Bill is not the best way of doing it.

Mr. Cryer

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is usual for statements to be made at 11 am. However, would it be possible for one to be made later by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in view of the story on the front page of The Guardian that –17,000 of taxpayers' money has been spent secretly, against the wishes of the Government, on the Minister's private property? It would be appropriate for the Minister to make a statement on a day aimed at exposing the secret activities of the Government.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

I have not been informed that the Government intend to make such a statement.

11.5 am

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I give a 100 per cent. endorsement of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). I also agreed with much of the Minister's speech, except when he began to build false arguments only to seek to knock them down, which was disingenuous. He was probably tussling with the two sides of his mind—first, as an individual democrat who is committed to a degree of openness and, secondly, as a man who has to collect the Queen's shilling at the end of the day. That was his dilemma.

I intend to concentrate on one aspect of the Bill, but I shall first raise a couple of general issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central was right to call his Bill the Right to Know Bill. When he told me about the title, my instinctive reaction was that, under the procedures, it would not be allowed. We cannot pick and choose the titles of Bills, but have to follow a set of rules.

The title chosen by my hon. Friend is much more friendly to the public than the title, "Freedom of Information". Over the years, people who have campaigned for freedom of information have been asked by Ministers what they want to know. That is an old argument. Turning the title round the other way and stating that people have a right to know—which is implied in the phrase, "freedom of information"—is a clever means of highlighting the crux of the issue. The title sends out a good signal, will gain support among the public and, one hopes, bring greater change. When I have been asked to describe freedom of information I have found it difficult. I have described the subject as having two limbs —to further the free interchange of opinions and to enhance public enlightenment.

There are plenty of opinions on the subject, many based on prejudice, which would be fine in a closed, totalitarian state. However, in a democracy—especially one that prides itself on being mature—where we discuss, decide and check to confirm that what we have decided is working, without closing the debate, we should have an interchange of opinions. If that interchange is to be meaningful, the opinions must be informed. We need information to clear away the prejudice. That information must be accessible to both sides of the argument or there will not be a meaningful exchange of opinions. We shall not have a free interchange of opinion in the House next Monday unless the legal opinion available to the Government is made available to all those who wish to participate in the argument.

The second limb of my description involved public enlightenment. In a democracy, opinions can be exchanged between those in the know until the sun sets each day, but unless those whom we seek to serve can share in the discussions, democracy becomes a sham. However good we or outside experts think our ideas are, those ideas will fizzle out if we seek to impose them on a public who, by and large, are kept in ignorance, they will not be accepted. It is crucial that the public should be enlightened about why and how decisions are made.

The public must be able to test and challenge so-called informed opinion. That is why I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central that the House should not be the controller of information. We must be subject to the same checks and balances by the public as the experts outside the House, whether in local government, medicine or any other field of endeavour. We must be challenged in the same way.

I have broken a self-imposed rule during the debate. Over the years, there have been many debates on freedom of information and many Bills on the subject. For today's debate, I looked not only through my early files, but through some of my own speeches. That is a dangerous practice. I refer to the 1970s, not the 1980s, which shows that the matter has not just popped up.

I should like to share with hon. Members extracts from a long speech that I gave to a Conservative audience—the Birmingham Bow Group, in 1978. The hon. Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) was at that meeting and at that time he represented Birmingham, Stechford. If my memory serves me right, I was there at his invitation. I chose as my theme: Labour priorities in the field of individual rights". It appears that fashion is catching up with me. In part of my address, I linked changes in technology, a highly centralised state with patronage and secrecy and the archaic machinery of government and said that a package of measures was crucial to protect and advance the rights of citizens as individuals. My speech went down well because I was able to quote the manifesto on which I had arrived in the House with a Labour Government holding that commitment that we know so well.

I intend to concentrate on part VIII of the Bill, which seems to be just a couple of clauses but is actually a Bill in itself as it mirrors what I sought to introduce just over a year ago. I have re-read my speech to the Bow Group 15 years ago and can find no better way to explain the position. I said: In a complex technologically based society there has to be a 'right to know' for our citizens. In Labour's last manifesto we promised to replace the Official Secrets Act by a measure to put the burden on the public authorities to justify withholding the information. This is a very important change and one which worries the ruling establishment both elected and non-elected alike. I was speaking three months before the commitment was abandoned in July 1978 and as a Back Bencher of only four years. I have not changed my mind much. I told the Bow Group that the machinery of government in the operation of secrecy was on a par with that of the 19th century high-class whorehouse in terms of the protection of its clients. I said that without freedom of information, there could not be a right to know and that without that right, the citizen is left at the mercy of a society dominated by industry and advances in technology, which puts the liberty and safety of individual citizens at stake. I uttered some harsh words about those in the ruling establishment opposing open government.

In 1991, when I was successful in the ballot for the first time, it was not difficult for me to choose a subject. In December 1991 I introduced the Corporate Safety and Environmental Information Bill, which is effectively part VIII of the current Bill. In essence, it tries to bring some measure of openness to the private sector that the rest of the Bill seeks to bring to the public sector. It is essentially an amendment to the Companies Act.

We consulted widely about my Bill. I was 12th in the ballot, but finally secured seventh place. However, as only six days were allowed I did not secure a debate. Our consultations showed a good deal of support. The Health and Safety Commission was extremely supportive in a letter from Mr. Rimington. Companies such as Courtaulds wholly supported the Bill and many other companies did not put up a great barrier. There was also a good deal of support by a range of professional bodies, especially the Royal Institute of Chemistry. I thought that there was also support from within the Department of the Environment because the White Paper entitled "This Common Heritage" contained advice from the Government to companies to publish information about environmental and safety matters in their annual reports. However, I discovered a block from the Department of Trade and Industry.

The part of the present Bill dealing with that matter does not require a great deal of expenditure. It does not require companies to do anything more than they do now and does not require an environmental or safety audit. It would require companies to take environmental and safety issues seriously at top management and board level so that information is given to the shareholders and, through them and the annual report, to the wider public. We want details of the occasions on which a company has been served with enforcement notices by regulatory authorities. It is crucial to have such details at a central source rather than in tiny company subsidiaries where it is difficult to get at the information. We want details of convictions for environmental and safety offences. We should not have to trawl the press for such information. Such information should be produced up-front in annual reports, and companies should take that seriously. We should like information about accidents on premises and, crucially, details of compensation payments paid by companies as a result of injury or environmental damage.

One of the facts that we want to get over is that, at the moment, anyone who makes a claim and receives an out-of-court settlement from a company because of physical injury or as a result of a product may be required to sign a disclaimer to the effect that he cannot disclose what he has received. That prevents others in a similar situation from being able to mount a decent case. The Bill contains a caveat so that people will not be identified, but the other information that I have mentioned should be available.

I suspect that if the House does not move on this issue we shall be forced to act by the European Parliament. It is much better to have legislation that suit British requirements than to have to accept legislation from the Commission. At the end of the day, it is better to have legislation of some sort than to have none at all, but it would be better for the House to decide after mature consideration on legislation that suits our demands, our industry, our geography and the requirements of our citizens. That would be done within the context of Britain's being a member of the European Community.

The way in which the matter is tackled in the private sector is crucial because many companies operate in Europe anyway. I shall give three or four examples later in my speech. The Government and everyone else face a great dilemma in examining information issues. The Government face a dilemma in seeking to opt out of the social chapter. Some British companies seek to defend that Government aim, but they are happy to operate the social chapter provisions in their subsidiaries in France and Germany and other parts of Europe.

The issue will not go away and, inevitably, those of us who seek reform will win. We would rather win while we are around than when we have shuffled off from this place, which some of my hon. Friends will not do for a long time. We accept that the Bill is a blockbuster. That is because it is being presented on our annual opportunity in the ballot. The Bill has been amended and nurtured and has been subject to consultations for almost a decade, ever since Clement Freud's Bill entered Committee as a result of the Lib-Lab pact in 1978.

The Bill has not appeared from nowhere. There has been an enormous amount of consultation. The Minister cannot simply dismiss that in a few throwaway lines by saying that the Bill is complicated. No matter which Government legislate in this area, the framework of the legislation will be as set out in the Bill and those that have preceded it.

I shall give about half a dozen examples of companies that have been prosecuted and have not made reference to it in their annual reports. [Interruption.] I said earlier that I would give three or four examples. I am sorry that it has risen to half a dozen. British Coal makes no reference in its annual report in early 1990 to nine pollution convictions and fines of over £7,000, although the company makes nice noises in the annual report about its environmental concerns. Guinness makes no reference to health, safety or the environment in its 1990 annual report, or to the fact that one of its subsidiaries was fined £12,000 for safety offences. Water companies are the worst offenders in the litany of companies that are prosecuted for environmental damage but then do not mention that in their annual reports.

One test shows that there has been some impact. ICI's annual report for 1990 devotes four pages to the environment, setting out objectives with lots of nice words about placing the highest priority on the safety and health of its employers, its customers and the general public. There is no mention of the £100,000 fine imposed for inadequate supervision after two workers were killed by an explosion, or of another case that led to a £250,000 fine when an explosives van burst into flames, killing a fireman and injuring 100 people. The vehicle was carrying 8,000 fuse heads, 16 times the number that it should have held, in a rusty tin. In its subsequent annual report, ICI has started detailing some of its misdeeds, and that is much to its credit. I am informed that it has done so as a direct result of the publicity over a year ago, and the campaign centred on getting companies to disclose such information. That is a plus for ICI.

I could cite examples from both British Aerospace and British Airways, but I shall give just one from the latter. It was fined £3,000 in June 1990 after a mechanic was paralysed from the waist down after falling 20 ft to the floor of a hangar at Gatwick. No reference to that incident or to health, safety or the environment is made in its annual report.

Subsidiary companies of Hanson plc were convicted of water pollution offences six times during the financial year, the main offender being ARC Ltd. The 1991 annual report makes no reference to this and states that caring for the environment is

fundamental to our philosophy and good management practice. I could have listed three or four dozen blue chip companies that produce glossy annual reports and glossy reports for their shareholders but skate over the company's real environmental record.

Such practices do a disservice to a company. They show that at the top level it is not elevating safety, environment, the advances of technology and the way in which they can impinge on the people who live around the plant. We have to bring home to companies the seriousness of the situation. One way to do that is to have legislation that requires them to do no more than list what has happened in their annual report. That means no new safety audit and no extra cost, just a collating of information in a single source.

I have concentrated on that aspect of the Bill because I am a great believer in not repeating what has already been said, and I agree 100 per cent. with all that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said. I sincerely hope that there will be no attempt to refuse the Bill a Second Reading because, if ever a Bill justified scrutiny one Wednesday morning a week until the summer, it is this one.

11.22 am
Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

I am always glad to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). I enjoyed his contribution, while not agreeing altogether with every part of it. When he spoke of abandoning the House's ultimate sovereignty over the issue, I felt that he was going too far, but then I am something of a high Tory, albeit with liberal tendencies. I also enjoyed the introductory speech of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and the speech of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy. As predicted, my right hon. Friend was sweetness and reason, fluent and persuasive.

Although, like my right hon. Friend and other hon. Friends, I support the broad aims of the Bill, I am afraid that I cannot support the means by which it proposes to achieve them. No one doubts the key role that access to information plays in informing the lives of our citizens. Without information, no one can make constructive decisions or competent judgments, and no one can be confident in the choices that he makes. I, too, chide Labour Members, because it is curious that a Right to Know Bill should come from a party from which we hear constant criticism of the great leaps forward that the Government have made in dramatically increasing the amount of information available.

For example, there was an outcry from the Labour party when the Government announced, as part of the broader citizens charter measure, that parents were to have the right to know how well the schools their children attend were performing. What can be more important than our children's education? All parents should be free to choose the best schools for their children, but to do so, they need that vital information. How else can they judge one school against another? However, when the Government acted to make widely available information that has a direct practical effect on the future of everyone in every generation, all that we heard from those on the Labour Benches were indignant cries that the information should be kept secret. Perhaps they would have us believe that parents are not capable of interpreting and using that information. That is patronising. Do they have such little trust in the individual?

I can and will give further examples of practical and effective measures that have been taken in recent years to improve access to information of all sorts. These will demonstrate the extent to which the Government have already gone to create a more open and more informed society. First, I want to explain why I do not believe that the Bill is the correct way to go about providing greater access to information.

Every state, institution and organisation has information that must be kept confidential. No one can deny that. The question is, where do we draw the line between what is genuinely confidential and what is not? Currently, although much information is freely available, a sizeable block is classified as confidential. I think that we all share the wish that that block should be as small as possible while protecting the security of the state or any particular organisation—I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about that.

The point at which I part company with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central is how we reach the right balance. I believe that we should reform what already exists, examine the areas of information already kept confidential and redefine more of them for the public domain.

The Bill takes totally the opposite stance. It would abolish what has developed over many years and start from scratch; have everything in the open and then select what is to be classified as secret. That is a radical, bold and dangerous proposal. The risks are very high. The Bill, in a stroke, wipes out all the accumulated experience and convention on public and private information that has developed over many many years. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has made clear, the Bill would stand on its head the present system of access to information. All information will be available unless it is specifically exempt. That represents a giant leap into untried and untested waters, which are fraught with dangers and from which, once this course has been taken, there is no going back.

I firmly believe that, with such an important move, we should put our trust in the tried and tested, as opposed to the theoretical and unproved. Rolling change is a more certain recipe for a sustained progression than the tumult of speculative and revolutionary change. Conservatives —at least, Conservatives like me—have always believed in a society that is evolutionary—evolutionary, not static. Indeed, it was Edmund Burke who said a state without the means of some change is without the means of its own conservation". Changed circumstances and changing priorities produce specific problems and certain pressures. That is one benefit of not having a written constitution— a privilege which the United Kingdom shares with the dominion of New Zealand and the state of Israel. The answer is not wholesale change but targeted reform. Reforms are required that conserve and develop, not muddle and potentially destroy. The way forward is for specific items of legislation to allow a recognised problem in any one area to be dealt with quickly and effectively. A generalised and cumbersome measure such as the Bill offers no such prospect or guarantee.

I cite recent Government actions to illustrate my point. The hon. Gentleman said that Britain is criticised for having a closed government which is secret and impenetrable, but the result of Government measures in recent years is more open government now than ever before. There may be a case for going further, but it cannot be denied that we have gone further than ever before in increasing the amount of information to which access is provided for by law.

Mr. Richard Shepherd

The familiarity of my right hon. Friend's speech commends it. If one considers our historic arrangements, one sees that secrecy is a 20th-century tendency. Until the introduction of the first Official Secrets Act—the first was attempted in the latter part of the 19th century—the concept was essentially one of open government. Members of Parliament and Ministers expected all information available to the state to be available to themselves. Secrecy is a 20th-century phenomenon to the extent that my right hon. Friend is identifying it. It is not the custom of our history to exercise the secrecy that my right hon. Friend contends is the practice.

Sir John Wheeler

There is a danger of two historians battling together on this issue. I invite my hon. Friend to consider the extent to which, at the time of the peninsular war, the Government of the day kept secret much of their international dealing, and perhaps to revise his broad opinion.

Mr. Waldegrave

I was going to mention the treaty of Dover. Recently, a piece of paper arrived on my desk that has been secret since 1792, so these issues are not quite so modern as my right hon. Friend thinks.

Sir John Wheeler

My right hon. Friend makes a point that serves to illustrate my case. I look forward to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for AldridgeBrownhills (Mr. Shepherd).

I return to the theme of progressive openness. The Data Protection Act 1984 gives individuals rights of access to information on them that is held on computers. We debated some aspects of that—such as whether the manila envelopes and other means of recording information should be included. The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985—a welcome development—gives rights of access to local authority meetings, documents and records. Regulations made under the Personal Files Act 1987, which came into effect on 1 April 1989, give individuals the right of access to manual records of information about themselves held by local authorities for the purpose of housing and society services.

The volume of material published regularly by Government Departments and the agencies and industries they sponsor vastly exceeds that published in the 1970s. It varies from the release of inspection reports by Her Majesty's inspector of schools to the annual publication of full and accurate records on the production of plutonium from all United Kingdom civil reactors.

Much of the information that people need and desire, and which the Bill is aimed at, is already publicly available. There is no doubt that the Government were more open and accessible at the beginning of the 1990s than they were at the beginning of the 1980s. Those moves in specific and targeted areas are far more effective than the Bill's blanket provisions.

The Bill would result in the repeal of the Official Secrets Act 1989.

Mr. Richard Shepherd


Sir John Wheeler

Indeed, but that Act demonstrates the strength of the Conservative approach. Section 2 of the earlier Act was much maligned—with some justification, I agree. No one said that the Act was perfect, but it had some proven strengths that benefited the country as a whole. The Bill would sweep away the whole Act and replace it with a completely new, untested concept.

The Government have built on the 1989 Act, retaining its good points and refining its bad. Despite the critical noises made at the time, the 1989 Act has not given rise to any prosecutions or to any accusations of muzzling. Obviously, a good balance has been struck.

It is not just new legislation that brings about change. Much depends on political culture. What is the point of such a Bill if the public do not want or are not encouraged to seek and use information? That culture cannot be imposed from above, but must be allowed to develop at its own speed, over time. A culture forced on people is a culture that has no firm foundations. The Government's action is far more important and effective than the Bill's proposals.

Over the past 13 years, the Government have encouraged the development of a society that seeks choice and whose members demand independence to make decisions about their own lives. As a result, more and more people are actively seeking information on issues that directly affect them. It is that pressure and demand for meaningful information as a tool for the individual to develop which is so important.

The positive change in our political culture cannot be achieved simply by legislation of this nature. The process is much deeper. It is necessary, as the Government have done, to encourage people to think hard about the information they really want and need, which will be of practical use. Much of that information may not be readily available in a helpful form, and we must make sure that it is. My right hon. Friend's citizens charters are a move in that direction. I reiterate my earlier comment about school examination results and the way in which that information has been compiled specifically to guide parental choice.

No one can argue against today's greater availability of information that this Government, more than any other, have brought about. For the first time, we have a Government who have set in motion a new political culture that demands the release of more and more information. Given the record of this Government, I am sure that that will happen.

We must remember, however, that, in every state and organisation, much information is highly confidential. No one denies that information is hidden that should not be hidden, but the way to deal with it is not to discard a basically sound system developed over time—the risks are too great. The correct way is to develop the culture we have, build on its strengths and reform its weaknesses. That is the way to meet the demands of the people while being responsible with the confidences of the state.

The Bill approaches the problem from the wrong end. It throws away years of practical experience and puts at risk necessary confidences. The Bill is extremely long, with no fewer than 83 clauses, and is far too complex. It poses a number of practical difficulties and would involve excessive legalism and bureaucracy, at great cost.

We have heard some figures—£20 million, for example; my right hon. Friend mentioned £50 million—and we have heard comparisons with other countries. The mistake is that the Commonwealth of Australia, the dominion of Canada and the United States of America are confederations. They have many legislatures at work and many administrations. The real costs are huge. I would want to know the full impact of those costs before going down that road.

It is far better that we support and foster the culture of more open government and build on the strengths established by experience. That is the way forward, and that is why the Bill should not be supported.

11.40 am
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I am delighted to be called to speak in this important debate on a Bill which, I assure the House, has my full support.

Like many other hon. Members, I believe that freedom of information is at the heart of a modern democracy. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on getting his Bill to this stage. I hope that it will not suffer the same fate as so many other Bills on this subject. Notwithstanding the charm of the Minister and the eloquence of his speech, I fear that there is little chance of the Bill's receiving his support.

I hope that I do not do the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) an injustice by suggesting that there is little chance of his supporting the Bill, even at this stage. I understood him to be saying that, if the Government, in their infinite and great wisdom, decide to give the people of this country more and more choice, then, and only then, will people need more and more information to help them make choices and that, therefore, in due course, the Government should make that information available to them. He said that the Bill approached the issue from the wrong end. I believe that he approached the Bill from the wrong end, and that his speech was contrary to the spirit of the Bill.

I am pleased to support the Bill, not only because I believe strongly in the importance of freedom of information as a right, but because I know that many of my constituents support the Bill. Many hon. Members will know that, as part of its nationwide campaign, Charter 88, with the welcome help of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, has encouraged thousands of people to send postcards and letters in support of the Bill to their Members of Parliament. I am delighted to tell the House that Charter 88 informs me that I received more cards and letters than any other Member of Parliament.

Hundreds of my constituents want the Bill to succeed, and so do I. I congratulate Charter 88 and the many other organisations involved in the Campaign for Freedom of Information on their work in helping to boost my postbag. I do not think that my secretary shares that opinion.

The Minister referred to the large number of letters and cards that he has received, and I am sure that he was delighted to receive that correspondence, because he will be aware that the Prime Minister wrote in the introduction to "Britain in Europe": Debate needs information as Fuel". The Prime Minister put his name to his party's election manifesto, which said: Government has traditionally been far too reluctant to provide information". If the Minister supports the Bill today and in Committee, he will be one of the Ministers who have got it right for the Prime Minister.

There are numerous reasons why the Minister and Conservative Members should support the Bill. The most important for them is that the Bill's proposals go with the grain of Conservative party policy and thinking. The Bill is entirely consistent with the Government's stated desire to create a culture that enables society to become at ease with itself. It is consistent with the citizens charter and the charters that have followed it, and with the Conservative party manifesto at the last election.

All political parties, including mine, must begin to address themselves to adapting our political institutions and arrangements for the future. We need to concern ourselves with the growing dislocation between politicains and the people. Reference has been made to the tarnished image of politicians. In this country and, sadly, in many others, people are beginning to lose faith in their politicians, and even beginning to mistrust them.

In the past few months, the way in which Britain has been run has come under considerable fire. Many people have questioned the public values that underpin governance in this country and serious questions have been asked about the institutions of government—about the judiciary and legal system, about the monarchy and its role and about the motives of Parliament and the accountability of the Executive to the House and the people. That dislocation is a real problem and a solution is urgently required.

The Bill could form part of a series of measures that would help to reunite Parliament and the people. Following its successful passage, I hope that we shall consider a Bill of Rights, a fair voting system, greater devolution of power and, above all, a written constitution. The Bill would provide a valuable starting point for the constitutional reforms that my colleagues and I would like.

Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central on the title of the Bill. The hon. Member for Perry Barr referred to the way in which the title of the Bill places emphasis on the rights of people. People from all walks of life and of all political sympathies believe that there should be a legal right to information, and that openness of government should be the norm and secrecy the exception. Sadly, that was not the point that the right hon. Member for Westminster, North was making.

People should have the right to give the Government permission to keep things secret when appropriate, rather than the Government allowing the people to know only what Government want them to know. That is not a novel view. The Minister said that he had looked back over speeches in the House. The hon. Member for Perry Barr has looked back not only at speeches in the House but to the file of speeches that he has made on the subject.

Earlier debates sometimes reveal interesting nuggets of information. One that attracted my attention was the view expressed in 1945 by Herbert Morrison when he was Lord President of the Council: It is the right and indeed the duty of the Government to inform the public of the facts necessary for the full understanding of its actions and its decisions …It is in the national interest that the citizen and taxpayer should be adequately informed by the Government on its administration and policy. He concluded: The people 'have a right to know'. That quotation was used in an earlier debate by the former Member for Isle of Ely when he introduced his Official Information Bill on 19 January 1979. He pointed out that there was an irony in Mr. Morrison's remarks, because the quotation was to be found in a memorandum marked "Secret" with the warning: "This is the property of His Majesty's Government". Fifty years later, things have not changed very much.

In a debate such as this, it is very tempting to follow what, looking back through the speeches, has become the tradition of telling one's favourite stories.

Mr. Bowis

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He referred to Clement Freud's Bill, which, as has been said, was the result of the Lib-Lab pact. We know that, despite that pact, the then Home Secretary declined to support the Bill. As a gesture of openness and in support of freedom of information, is the hon. Gentleman able to release the papers on the discussions between his party and the Labour party?

Mr. Foster

I am not at all grateful for that intervention, but if the hon. Gentleman would like to have a private chat with me afterwards, perhaps we can discuss the matter further.

I was referring to the legislation proposed by Clement Freud. In his speech, as in many subsequent speeches, it has been the tradition to lace one's remarks with favourite stories and ridiculous examples of secrecy and failure to provide information. The hon. Member for Perry Barr related some illuminating stories. I shall avoid the temptation to list my favourites, but I wish to make two points.

The Minister mentioned many pieces of information that were currently secret but were gradually being made available. I pay tribute to the Government for their moves in that direction. I hope that one piece of information that may shortly be made available relates to the background of the nuclear tests that were carried out in the 1950s on Christmas Island. The Minister will be aware that, although some of that information was expected to become available at the end of the 30-year rule, some has not been made public, which makes it very difficult for victims of the tests to pursue compensation claims.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, as long ago as 1954, the Grigg committee report recommended that there should be more openness with regard to files affecting test victims and veterans, and that the Public Records Act 1958 has regularly been used to stop the publication of such information? The nuclear test victims have therefore been denied the opportunity to go to court, which is a good example of why the Bill would be so helpful to such people.

Mr. Foster

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. It is an important point and highlights another matter of interest, which is that Greece has freedom of information legislation under which such information becomes available.

It is tempting to reflect that many of the Government's difficulties in relation to Matrix Churchill, the miners' debacle or, more recently, the problems with the social chapter, might not have occurred had the Bill been in place. Sherlock Holmes might perhaps have called the latter example "The Curious Case of the Conflicting Legal Advice." I and my party believe that it is absolutely disgraceful that, following the U-turn at the beginning of the week on the social chapter and the Maastricht treaty, the Government will not publish the Law Officers' advice or that of the Foreign and Commonwealth legal advisers.

The House may be aware that, only today, my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats has published a further legal opinion on that issue from Anthony Lester QC. That opinion reaches a wholly different conclusion from that given by the Law Officers. The important point is that that opinion has been made public. I urge the Government to do likewise and to remove the present state of uncertainty about the implications of amendment No. 27 under Community and United Kingdom constitutional law.

Surely the time has come to remove what the chairman of the Bar Council, Lord Williams of Mostyn, has called the curse of obsessive secrecy that riddles our country". If one checks through the records of the House, one finds that, notwithstanding some notable successes in relation to, for example, local government information, medical reports and data protection, the major breakthrough has not yet been realised.

I have already referred to some of the efforts of the former Liberal Member of Parliament, Sir Clement Freud, which failed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) had a go in 1984, and he also failed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) had some success, but his Freedom of Information Bill failed to get a Second Reading last year. At least he has the satisfaction of knowing that a major part of this Bill is based on his earlier work, but I am sure that he would be the first to acknowledge that the scope of the Bill is wider than that of his proposals, and rightly so. My right hon. and hon. Friends were not alone in proposing such legislation. Many other hon. Members had a go but failed.

The Bill must not and should not fail. It must be allowed to pass today's hurdle, but should not then be allowed to wither on the vine in Committee, as some of its predecessors have done, or to fail for minor technical drafting errors. The Bill's failure on any of those counts would merely serve to show once more the way in which our arcane and creaking institutions fail to meet not only the wishes of members of all parties but, more importantly, those of the people.

Two years ago, a MORI poll showed that 77 per cent. of people favoured freedom of information legislation. The postcards and letters to which I have referred show that the wish is as strong today as it was then. The nation wants the proposals enacted, and the reason is clear. The director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, to whom I also pay tribute, recently wrote to the Minister: The Government has said that it is committed to greater openness and we welcome this. Creating, through legislation, a general right of access to information would therefore be a logical step for the government. Without information, we cannot make judgments. If we cannot judge, we cannot make real choices. And if we cannot make informed choices, we cannot be effective citizens. It is not good enough for the Government to suggest that, in due course, as the Minister said, they will introduce their own proposals to increase the information that they decide to make available to the House, to my constituents in Bath and to the country.

Mr. Fisher

Perhaps 1 could help Conservative Members to make an informed choice. The hon. Gentleman referred to the MORI poll. He will have noted that 74 per cent. of Conservative voters were in favour of legislating for freedom of information. Indeed, it is the Conservative Administrations in Canada, Australia and New Zealand who have introduced such legislation, so Conservative Members should not be shy or nervous about plunging rather than paddling in the water. Perhaps that information will help them to make an informed choice.

Mr. Foster

I also hope that Conservative Members will not paddle but will jump in to support the Bill.

The people of this country have a right to know, which is why 1 and many other hon. Members, at least among the Opposition parties, urge the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

11.59 am
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Mr. Fisher) on introducing the Bill. It has a familiar ling and there is a feeling that we are cantering round old courses. It is appropriate that we should do so. I accept the view that big principles should sometimes be tested. We have certainly had a lot of testing of this issue.

The impetus behind most of the passion on the issue is the 20th century habit of legislating to deny us rights of access to information. I return, therefore, to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler). He sees the 18th and 19th centuries differently from the way in which I see them. I think of Pope who wrote: How can we reason but from what we know? I think of our political philosophers, of the American revolution and of the struggles of Madison and Jefferson about the concept of popular democracy, and about how one involves and informs people.

I then think of the miserable argument adduced by what I am now told is the high Tory school. "High" in the sense of high Tory is not "high" in the sense of high Church or of high days and holidays. It is "high" in the sense of a bad smell. 1 shall come in a moment to what I call the low Tory view, which is representative of the party and of the country, if not of Whitehall or of those presently in the Government, 1 regret to say.

Mrs. Roche

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned James Madison, who wrote: A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. I invite the hon. Gentleman to ally himself to those sentiments, which I am sure that he will happily do.

Mr. Shepherd

Like every British schoolboy, I have a library of quotations. The joy of our language and the romance of our history has been to knock down arguments such as those put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North, and those we heard, expressed far more eloquently and elegantly, from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I am sorry that he could not be here for this exchange.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster gave an elegant explanation to which we have not been treated in the 14 years in which I have been a Member of Parliament. I want to test my right hon. Friend's view because there is an automatic quality to these debates. What is the central issue? I hope that I misquote my right hon. Friend. He seemed to say that there were some things that should not be left to the House. That is the most remarkable assertion and must be predicated–1 hope that I do not misunderstand—on prerogative power.

Even I believe that prerogative power can be brought to heel by legislation in the House. We shall come in the next few weeks to the matters touched on by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). Much of our freedom and liberty is no longer dispensed by the House; it is secured for us by the courts. Public immunity certificates were absolute fiats from Government until 22 years ago. It was the judges who said, "Enough of this nonsense." In the debate on legal advice on Maastricht, we may end up with a judicial review.

Sir John Wheeler

Prerogative power is real and actual in this country. Only the elected Government of the day, through the medium of the sovereign, can agree on and make treaties with other countries. It is for the House to challenge, to examine and to test Ministers' concepts.

Mr. Shepherd

I enjoy the batting back and forth about the reality of the position. I. too, am going to make an assertion. I assert that legislative power gainsays prerogative power. That is our history, our convention and the law. If the House decided to take away from Government the discretion to negotiate and to ratify treaties, it could do so. That is the constitutional position. I further make the assertion that Parliament, the representative of the people, determines the laws under which we live. That is a sacred trust and is essential to the argument.

The high Tory position, elegantly read, I concede, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North, is essentially that information is the gift of the high Tories. If they decide in certain circumstances that it is right to empower citizens to know, for example, about their medical records, they may make that concession. However, the high Tories say, "The discretion must be with us—with central Government." I thought that that was the most powerful bid made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North for the chairmanship of the Committee that is to review the Security Service when it is set up some time next year. I saw the positioning and I understood it.

The substance of the issue is who should hold the right to the release of information. I accept the Madisonian and Jeffersonian position. I believe that we have constructed a civil society—a political society—in which power resides with the people. I invoke not Burke, but Churchill on the sovereignty of the people. Churchill said that the people were sovereign. If that is the case, why do we deny them access to equality of information?

I have come to see over the years that, by and large, the Government and Ministers do not fear opinion. I can rant on as long as I like; after all, I am only expressing an opinion. The real fear is about equality of argument. If we are given common access to common facts, my goodness, the argument might not go the way in which the high Tories believe that it should. As the high Tories believe that their view is right, the low Tory view must be cast aside. I believe that we must have that equality.

Mr. Alan Howarth

My hon. Friend has observed that the people are, or ought to be, sovereign. Is not part of the reality that we are addressing the fact that so much power lies with experts? That is a regime under which we do not invariably prosper. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are likely to have better decision making if the advice of experts is made accountable and tested by being exposed to the scrutiny of common sense and of alternative experts?

Mr. Shepherd

My hon. Friend must have heard me make my speech many times. That point was going to be part of the burden of my argument.

I give three principal reasons for freedom of information. First, there is the question of who we are. We are human beings, whether artists, individuals or people with passion—free citizens in a free society. Let us remember that this is a democracy. Who we are entitles us to freedom of information.

The second reason is accountable government. Unless we know what the Government are doing, how can we judge them and how can they be held accountable? If the Government conceal behind a screen of absolute protection and secrecy their intent or purpose, how can we as Parliament or as public society discuss intelligently and reasonably the objectives and purposes of public policy? We cannot.

My third reason is the affirmative point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) raised. If information is open and available, surely the quality of decisions will be better. Those are my three general arguments and, as is the way of politicians, I believe that they cannot be gainsaid.

What is the essential grit, nut or hardness in the Government's arguments? I have pursued that point over the years. I had intended to trouble the House with a recitation of the gallant intervention by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education into the Official Secrets Act 1911. It is so denigratory that, although out of the mouths of babes and sucklings sometimes comes truth, I realise there are some things of which even Secretaries of State for Education do not wish to be reminded.

Instead, I shall refer to a more contemporary document. I am trying to make a distinction about civil society—the nature of our political society. I accept the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central that the central interest to most of us as citizens is often at the level of information relating to pollution and to the things that matter to our lives. I am concentrating on the things that matter to our society, to our political establishment and to the nature of democracy.

I refer to a recent document signed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It was necessary for my right hon. Friend to make the assertion in respect of the Commissioners of Customs and Excise v. Henderson, Abraham and Allen. One of those individuals is a constituent of mine. In relation to the Minister of State's certificate, I will refer to one of the categories of document that do not touch on national security. My right hon. Friend said: I have formed the opinion that … the production of such documents … would be injurious to the public interest and that it is necessary for the proper functioning of the public service that the documents should be withheld from production. All these documents fall into a class of documents which relate to the formulation of Government policy and the internal dealings of Government departments …Decisions made by Ministers are frequently preceded by detailed discussions within and between Government departments and by consideration of the various possibilities open to Ministers. My right hon. Friend's next point is critical and revealing of the Government's attitude: It would, in my view, be against the public interest"— the invocation of the public interest is always a powerful argument here— that documents or oral evidence revealing the process of providing for Ministers' honest and candid advice on matters of high level policy should be subject to disclosure or compulsion. My right hon. Friend concludes: I would respectfully pray in aid the reasoning of Lord Reid in Conway v. Rimmer. Nothing gives authority better than for the Government to indicate a legal source. Of course, that is quite right. In a common law system we expect precedent and ruling. Therefore, we should refer to what Lord Reid had to say about that essential claim for the need for secrecy in matters that affect public policy and which determine the well-being of the state and possibly the lives or, with regard to that constituent of mine, the freedom of people.

In the magisterial way of that great judgment of 1968 —and it is part of our argument today that attitudes change with time—Lord Reid stated: I do not doubt that there are certain classes of documents which ought not to be disclosed whatever their content may be. Virtually everyone agrees that Cabinet minutes and the like ought not to be disclosed until such time as they are only of historical interest. But I do not think that many people would give as the reason that premature disclosure would prevent candour in Cabinet. To my mind the most important reason is that disclosure would create or fan ill-informed or captious public or political criticism. In other words, it is outrageous that people should have contrary views and they are all ill-informed if they are contrary to mine. Lord Reid continued to state that the burden of the argument is that The business of government is difficult enough as it is, and no government could contemplate with equanimity the inner workings of the government machine being exposed to the gaze of those ready to criticise without adequate knowledge of the background and perhaps with some axe to grind. On that basis, we might as well close down Parliament.

One of its endearing features is that most of us have axes to grind; but most of us have inadequate information with which to grind them on the basis of legislation and the new high Tory view. Lord Reid continued: And that must, in my view, also apply to all documents concerned with policy making within departments including, it may be, minutes and the like by quite junior officials and correspondence with outside bodies. Events came forward on that basis and I do not intend to explain or take a view about where the Matrix Churchill case will end up, other than to note that my constituent, whose liberty was at risk, is not in that unhappy position at the moment.

If we consider this subject since the war, it is interesting to consider the influence of DORA—the Defence of the Realm Acts. I have lived through the era of TINA—there is no alternative. We must consider the attitude of a nation under pressure, engaged in a war and in a fight for survival. That nation required certain measures.

I may have caused people to snigger at the expense of Lord Reid—although I am not sure that I did that. However, that honourable gentleman was formed in the last world war. His attitudes and those of many who held key positions in public administration grew out of the need for national survival and from that came the absolute injunction to secrecy and to keep information controlled because it might be a matter of life or death. Such an attitude is understandable in that context. That is why I believe that the challenge of the 1990s will win, overcome and subsume the high Toryism of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North.

In his statement to which I have referred, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office referred to revealing the process of providing for Ministers' honest and candid advice on matters of high policy should be subject to disclosure or compulsion. There are grounds for that, in the sense that there is ministerial accountability. We are considering in Committee ministerial accountability in respect of the arrangements for the European Community. If decisions are made in a different forum, outside the call of this House, Ministers cannot be accountable for those decisions. Therefore, the doctrine must face some form of challenge. I put it no higher than that.

In respect of the case to which I have referred, I continue to refer to it only to the extent that the documents released by the courts have shown the lengths to which Whitehall wished to keep secret the shifts in defence-related trade and policy and to change the guidelines promulgated in Parliament on the ground, presumably, that that would affect the honesty and candour of advice from civil servants to Ministers. That is a very important aspect.

I want to consider why the Government are arguing for such secrecy. My right hon. Friend the Minister, who has now left the Chamber, will perhaps well recall the comment: There seems considerable merit in keeping as quiet as possible about this politically sensitive issue … and we do not wish to face the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with presentational difficulties. In that kind of admission in departmental documents, we see the extinction of the argument for honesty and candour. The advice received by Ministers is certainly candid. However, it urged a lack of candour towards the public.

With respect to the internal workings of government, Ministers overlook the fact that the prospect of early disclosure of the information would make the advisers more candid. They would be more candid about the public debate on the issue. If the documents are released, we must be able to show that the issue is a matter for public debate and that we have weighed it up. The arguments should not be for secrecy. The instruction for candour would be reinforced by the knowledge that whatever one was arguing for would become available.

Advisers would be more inclined to accept the merit of being as open as possible about advice so that that can be decided and defended according to arguments sustained through the democratic process. I remind the House that this is the low Tory view. It is certainly not the high Tory view. We seem to be reaching an age in which no argument should be sustained by reason. It is a great inconvenience that our majority has been reduced from what it should be—which is absolute—to a more debatable level.

The real advantage of the Bill is that it would create a presumption in favour of democratic debate. The prospect that advice will become public sooner rather than later will mean that the advice will be candid. I did not hear one good argument from my right hon. Friend the Minister. I believe that the most central and convincing argument is personal privacy. We all recognise, in respect of protection of the state, that there are certain areas of information which, for the integrity of the democratic process, should be protected. However, that is very limited and should be closely distinguished. The presumption is that we, the people, conceive the institutions through which we rule ourselves. Therefore, we low Tories will argue that all the information of government, other than that immediately in the heart of the defence of the realm, the privacy of the citizens, its tax arrangements and so on, should be open to the public as of right with the protections and mechanisms that are identified in the Bill. Let us give a cheer for the Bill and see it into Committee.

12.20 pm
Mrs. Barbara Roche (Hornsey and Wood Green)

I am absolutely delighted to speak in this debate which has been of such a high standard. First, I should say that it is a great privilege to speak after the hon. Member for Aldridge Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). Before I was elected to the House I remember being asked in a public context a difficult question—to name a Conservative Member whom I admired. I am sorry to give the hon. Gentleman cause to blush, but, without hesitation, his name sprang to mind. Having heard his speech in this debate, I am pleased that I made that choice.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on the way in which he presented his Bill and the way in which he has campaigned for it. I also congratulate the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Hon. Members on both sides know of the great strength of public feeling about the Bill. I am sure that all of us have had many letters and post cards on the matter. In my short time in the House, I do not think that I have had so much strength of public feeling in my constituency on any subject that has come before the House.

This debate has been going on for some time. The Royal Commission on the press which reported in 1977 referred to the right of access to information and the legitimate concerns of people, Parliament and the press if our information is too restricted. We speak for many people when we say that we have almost an obsession with secrecy in this country. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was right to say that unless we change the culture of institutions, secrecy will continue.

I note what the Chancellor said about the open government initiative, but, like the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, I am afraid that the Chancellor's words have a slightly hollow ring to them when we see the Government claiming immunity by signing public immunity certificates. Such certificates might threaten the liberty of individuals and also prevent discussion of the public's concerns.

Recently, we heard that the Department of Health told soft drink companies that there was no need to inform the public that a brand of apple juice contained more than eight times the safety level of a specific toxin. That matter rightly outraged public opinion in the United Kingdom. It seems as though Ministers agree with Sir Humphrey Appleby from "Yes Minister" that, "You can either be open, or you can have government". They believe one cannot have both.

The documents that might have entered the public domain under the Bill would have shown the lengths to which Whitehall advisers were prepared to go to keep secret the shifts in defence-related trade policy, and the changes in guidelines promulgated in Parliament, which took place in the years before the invasion of Kuwait. Such legislation would have provided a public interest defence for any whistle blower who tried rightly to expose what was going on. A democratic public debate about whether we should have armed Saddam Hussein would have been possible and appropriate. Geoffrey Robertson QC commented: These pros and cons of defence-related trade with Iraq should have been argued out in Parliament, in editorials, in pubs and clubs and common rooms … a Government which refuses to share this dilemma with the public, and which is advised to solve it secretly or deviously, is not a Government which has respect for the informed public debate which is central to the democratic process.

Mr. Stephen

The hon. Lady mentioned Iraq. Does she not recognise that, at the time that foreign policy decisions were made in London with regard to Iraq, there was a delicate international situation involving both Iran and Iraq in the middle east and that the full openness for which she argues might have made the conduct of our foreign policy very difficult?

Mrs. Roche

It is always easy to say that full openness would have made things difficult. Our policy of secrecy certainly made things extremely difficult for the men and women of our armed forces when they had to take part in the Gulf war. The fact that there was that secrecy and what was clearly happening was an arms trade with Iraq meant that there was no public debate whatever on the issue and it led to the consequences that resulted.

If we follow the path of the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen), how far would he extend it? Where would Parliament's rights be? Might there not be subjects which the House should perhaps not discuss, primarily because it would make things difficult? One of the roles of not only the House but the public is sometimes to make things difficult, to shed light and perhaps to make things uncomfortable.

No one is suggesting that national security should be breached or that the lives of security services and armed forces personnel should be endangered. The Bill includes exemptions from providing information on seven counts ranging from causing significant damage to defence to breaching personal privacy, so the hon. Gentleman's worries would be well covered.

For far too long, Governments have hidden behind the defence of national security. The security services have rightly been mentioned. The Chancellor said that MI6 will be put on a statutory footing. The Secretary of State's assurances would perhaps have greater weight with Opposition and Conservative Members if he gave his support to the recent Home Affairs Select Committee report on parliamentary accountability for MI5. That would enable us to accept that the Government are keen to blow away the cobwebs and are prepared to provide parliamentary scrutiny of our security services.

Most people's thirst for the right to know rightly and understandably stems from daily matters. They want to know how safe their car is, whether the food that they buy is properly and hygienically produced, or what is the safety record of the ferry on which they cross the channel. The Government claim to be interested in offering people choice. If they want people to be able to make informed choices, I urge the Government to support the Bill to ensure that it has time to reach the statute book. People need to know the safety and environmental record of companies that they plan to patronise. If choice means anything, it means that one has the knowledge on which to make that choice. Choice does not mean anything if one makes a choice from ignorance.

Reference has already been made to the tragedies of the King's Cross disaster and the Bradford fire. Similarly, after the Marchioness river cruiser sank on the Thames in August 1989, it was revealed that the ship into which it had crashed, the Bowbelle, had been involved in three previous river accidents. The public did not know about those accidents and were not aware of the dangerous record of the Bowbelle because accident records are confidential. Again, if choice means anything, it means that the public have a right to know in such cases.

Of course, no one knows whether accidents could have been avoided by greater openness, but it is possible that if the public knew about the problems they would demand improvements that could prevent such tragedies from happening. It happens time and again. The same is true of the Bradford fire. If all the circumstances and the history of the stadium had been known, there would have been a public debate in Bradford. Questions would have been asked of several public bodies. It may well be that the tragedy could have been averted.

My postbag is evidence that many of my constituents are rightly concerned about the environment. Their concern influences the products that they buy. Under the Bill, a company that employs more than 50 people would be obliged to publish in its annual report how often enforcement action had been successfully taken against it for breaching laws on the environment. The Bill would also require companies to publish information on health and safety at work and the company's pension fund.

Other people come to my advice surgeries with accounts of discrimination at work. The Bill would give them access and the ability to correct records and references held by their current and former employers.

Perhaps one of the most moving cases with which I have dealt is of a constituent who has become badly disabled and is now partially wheelchair-bound following an exploratory operation 10 years ago. During the operation she was injected with a contrast medium or dye. After suffering crippling symptoms, she tried to find out what was in the dye. She met a wall of silence from doctors, the hospital and the health authority. Having been a hospital nurse before her disability forced her to give up her job, my constituent was shocked to find that the authority had no obligation to reveal what was in the dye with which she was injected.

When I have tried to gather further information on the subject, I have found that such cases are by no means unusual. My constituent's case is not an isolated one. Under the Bill, she would have the right to the information on written application within 30 days. That would enable her to pursue any remedies that are available.

I cannot see what argument there can be for denying my constituent the basic right to know the components of the dye that was injected into her. Such examples of personal experience of state power and secrecy are excellent reasons for supporting the Bill.

Another reason is our personal experiences as Members of Parliament. As a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, I certainly feel that the Bill would enable me to undertake my duties and responsibilities more efficiently and effectively. As Members of Parliament, we have no right to information. We can ask questions, but we cannot insist on answers. I gather from the Table Office that the advisory limit for refusing to answer written questions, on the ground of disproportionate cost, stands at £400.

Apparently, there is no limit on the amount of money that Ministers can spend on replies. An interesting illustration involved the former Prime Minister, who refused to say how many questions she had declined to answer during her premiership, saying that answering that question would involve, "disproportionate cost." Yet, in June 1989, she was asked, in one of those questions that are a waste of parliamentary time, to list the Government's achievements since 1979. The reply covered 34 columns of Hansard, and the cost was later disclosed to have been £4,600. If we are talking about checks and balances, that is perhaps a classic example of the way in which the balance lies in favour not of the legislature but of the Executive. The Bill would go some way to check that balance.

Other countries look in some disbelief at the way that we carry on. As Richard Norton-Taylor wrote in The Guardian: Ostrich-like, determined to insulate Britain from the outside world, the government pulled up the blanket higher, tucked it in tighter, confirming the established view among Britain's puzzled and closest allies that the obsession with secrecy is now le vice Anglais. If members of the Government feel that their Departments have no stupidity, ineptitude, inefficiency, bad decision-making, bureaucratic bungling, dishonesty or corruption to hide, they have nothing to fear by supporting the Bill.

12.33 pm
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on promoting this measure and thereby giving us the opportunity to debate an important subject, on which there is much common ground. I suspect that the Bill may try to do too many things, which may make it difficult for it to proceed on to the statute book, but its intention is right. I am not sure whether it will achieve what hon. Members who have spoken think it will. I would describe it as a "yes, but" Bill and this has been a "yes, but" debate. During every speech I have said to myself, "Yes I agree, but".

I want to know the 1792 secret that is sitting on the Minister's desk. We do not even know the subject, and we should be told. There are interesting secrets to be revealed, and some things should not remain secret.

We may be able to achieve some of what we want without the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) referred to the fact that the Data Protection Acts only cover computer records rather than files. We could sensibly use that legislation to extend data protection, and from that point of view I am not sure whether the Bill is necessary.

As one listens to the debate, one tends to muse. I have been thinking about our own dear Whips Office—I am sure that Labour Members have thought of theirs—and the personal files and records that it might contain. If the measure is enacted, I wonder whether we shall be protected. I had thought that the Whips Office would be exempt, but I can find no such exemption. Clause 3 states: In this Act 'public authority' means … any government department"— I am not sure whether that covers it— any other corporation or body"— it is certainly a body— in relation to any function which it exercises on behalf of the Crown"— we are getting closer— any other corporation or body … at least half of whose revenues derive directly from money provided by Parliament"— we have got them. The Whips Office will be covered by the measure, and that is something to be said for it.

The Bill represents an attempt to move from a society run on a need-to-know basis to one run on a right-to-know basis. It is designed to shift the balance—;which is what the Government have sought to do through recent actions. They have created a more open society, in which the disclosure of information is judged correct unless there is good cause to prevent it. They have moved society on from the days when things were kept secret because it was not good for children to know the truth.

The Bill would not provide a right to be told, however, but just the right to know. One would have to know what question to ask and of whom, unless one scattered lots of questions in the hope of obtaining the relevant answers. It does not place a requirement on any public authority to collect information. If the relevant authority does not have the requested information, it is required to say who might have it, if it knows that it is available from somewhere else, but it is not required to collect it. Such collection of information may be the answer to the problem of parliamentary questions to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central referred, which are often answered with the words, "We do not collect this information centrally." I suspect that that practice may still continue.

I support the principles behind the Bill. Almost two years ago to the day, I stood here promoting my own private Member's Bill, the Public Safety Information Bill. It proved too complex for the House to swallow and got no further than its Second Reading, but, nevertheless, we had a useful debate. I recall quoting the words of Charles Churchill—I offer them again to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central: In full fair tide let information flow: That evil is half cured whose cause we know That is the theme of the Bill in poetic form. The down-to-earth reasons for the Bill are in part revealed by some of the disasters to which the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) referred—those disasters were the rationale behind my Bill.

It is worth recalling that Desmond Fennell, who wrote the report on the King's Cross fire, said: I view with dismay the suggestion that information gained by a statutory authority which has a bearing on the safety of the public using a system for mass transportation should not be made publicly available. We should be moving towards such disclosure.

I am not certain that the Bill goes far enough. If one knows about something, one can make a reasoned judgment, but in some cases that information must be presented. In 1987, 31 people died at King's Cross. It was subsequently discovered that between 1945 and 1987, there had been 46 escalator fires. None of those, happily, led to the sort of disaster that resulted in loss of life, but had the public been informed of the danger posed by those fires, pressure for improvements would have been brought to bear. Pressure is not always exerted by individual members of the public, although it often is by the press or elected representatives.

If no action is taken when conditions demand it, lives can be lost. Often, no action is taken because no pressure is exerted, and often no pressure is exerted because there is no knowledge. When considering the Bill need to dwell on the need to seek such knowledge.

My Bill sought to require not just a right to know, but the right to be told. That is missing from this Bill, especially when one considers the protection of the public in places where they could be at risk.

In 1985, 50 people died at Bradford football ground, when a wooden stand caught fire because of the rubbish collected underneath it. Bradford council had been warned about the combustible materials in that rubbish. When we discussed my Bill two years ago, I quoted a letter sent to me by the former leader of Bradford council, Ronnie Farley: This information never reached the public or the elected members as there was no legal requirement for it to do so. Had the Public Safety Information Bill been law, it would have been discussed in public at the next meeting of the committee, the public gallery would have been packed"— as the press would have drawn attention to it. I cannot conceive it possible that no remedial action would have been taken. The fire would not have happened and those people would be alive today. There are many other disasters, such as that involving the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987. Reports were known to have been received showing that there were no lights on the bridge to warn that the bow doors were open. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green referred to the Marchioness disaster in 1989. I well recall that disaster, as the Bowbelle sailed from my constituency. Some reports relating to the Bowbelle's sister ship were known to the authorities, but not the public. That is the key issue—the public could not be aware of the information, but it should have been possible for the information to be drawn to their attention.

My Bill would have made it a requirement that football grounds or transport that had received a warning would have to display a notice stating that fact, so that nobody could unknowingly take a risk. Having seen the warning, they could take the risk knowing that, on balance, they accepted it.

In 1988, the Clapham junction train crash occurred in my constituency, and 35 people were killed. The subsequent Hidden inquiry showed that there had been five similar incidents of faulty wiring which were known and reported. However, the lesson was not learned, the public did not know, a row was not caused and lives were lost.

Lives and health can be saved by information. The Health and Safety Commission has made that clear. One of its reports states: Where their own immediate safety or health could be at risk, the public should be in possession of information enabling them to understand their position. I hope that it is clear that I wholly support policies to ensure more freedom of information, but I believe that the Bill does not go far enough. Perhaps its powers could be extended, or the Government could listen to the discussions and take further action.

However, we must also be aware of the dangers of partial knowledge. The apple juice case has been mentioned several times today, but it is not a good example to use when discussing the Bill. The information that seeped out about apple juice related to a risk that did not exist. As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green said, someone would have to drink 140 litres of the wretched stuff to suffer anything more than a mild stomach ache—quite apart from the other results of consuming such quantities.

Anyone who has picked up a slightly rotting windfall apple and munched into it will know that it tastes different from normal apples. The report involved the natural over-maturing of apples. That was causing the problem, not chemicals inserted by the food industry into cans or cartons of apple juice. Therefore, the public were unnecessarily worried. We must be careful about partial knowledge.

Ms. Glenda Jackson

Surely, what compounded the fault and genuinely frightened many of my constituents was that the newspaper reports referred to carcinogens and the possibility of infant defects. The Bill addresses exactly that problem. The Government had arrogantly presumed not to release information. There have been so many other examples of the Government arrogantly refusing to release information that the public automatically thought that they were not releasing the information because they had something to hide.

Mr. Bowis

I appreciate the hon. Lady's point. The other argument is that, if the information had been released, it would have caused unnecessary concern. However, after the information was leaked, it was right for a statement to be made and for the entire detail of the report to be made public. I merely say that we must maintain a balance between unnecessarily alarming the public and giving them the right to know, which I support.

Ms. Glenda Jackson

Part of the public disquiet arose from previous examples, in which it was the policy and the arrogance of the Government invariably to protect the producer rather than the consumer. That fuelled an entirely justifiable fear in the public mind that there was some risk. We subsequently discovered that there was none, unless one drank enormous quantities of apple juice. If the report had been released when the Government received it, with a covering note defining the amount of liquid that would be required to produce adverse effects, no one would have been caused any disquiet. However, genuine disquiet was caused.

Mr. Bowis

Leaving aside the hon. Lady's reference to arrogance, I would say that the Government in their wisdom reached certain conclusions and that, in this instance, they were probably right.

I do not think that the Bill would achieve what the hon. Lady thinks it would achieve, because the fact that a report has been received does not mean that the Government will make an announcement to that effect. The Bill merely says that if an authority is asked about a report, it will have a duty to explain it and make it available. Perhaps the hon. Lady is suggesting, as I suggested in the case of public safety, that the measure is not quite as good as we should like it to be. Perhaps there should be an authoritative body that can say that there is deemed to be a risk and that it should be made public, not just available to the public. Such a body could be the Health and Safety Commission. Perhaps the hon. Lady and I can find common cause on that.

I do not think that the Bill achieves all that its supporters claim. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central is not in the Chamber, but perhaps someone else can enlighten me. I have received about a dozen of the postcards that have been mentioned, but I am not much convinced by that, any more than I am convinced by the fact that 68,000 of my constituents did not send me postcards.

However, I was influenced by the people who wrote to me explaining their genuine concerns and stating what they hoped the Bill would achieve. In a letter supporting the Bill, one of my constituents stated: When you buy fresh fruit and vegetables, you do not know what chemicals have been sprayed on them or even whether peeling them would necessarily remove all of the chemicals. That is not covered by the Bill. This Bill would help in providing the public with clear information about the food they eat. For example in labelling foods. Some items have the sugar contents listed under each separate type of sugar, such as sucrose, glucose, dextrose. Many people do not know that they are all sugar".

I do not think that that is covered by the Bill, but people think that it will cover such matters. I do not say that such matters should not be covered, but the Bill does not cover them. Therefore, in our debate, we must be careful not to raise expectations that cannot be met.

It has been suggested that the private sector will be controlled to a greater extent than the Bill proposes. I understand that there are three methods of introducing such controls. One relates to the information held by a public authority about a company or business, and that seems reasonable. The second relates to clause 80, about directors' reports. The clause lists the Acts under which a warning has to be revealed in the annual report. I fully support that excellent measure.

The third relates to access to employment records. I am slightly wary of that, partly because of the old question of what is a record, particularly with job references. We know that there is data protection for computer records, and we have suggested that they might include filed records, but what about telephone calls? Most people who are employing somebody do not go by the written record, because they worry about what is missed out. Indeed, some people phrase references in such a way as to make it clear that there should be a telephone call to give the truth. I am not sure how far we can go in controlling society so that telephone calls are included. We would almost have to require that they were recorded—a dangerous path for civil liberties.

That example shows the problems in obtaining what we seek—sensible access to records. We should not think that that is the end of the story and rely on it, because other information that may be passed about us through various means, even through my flippant example of the Whips Office, may not be covered.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

Only the Tory Whips Office.

Mr. Bowis

I suspect that it is all Whips Offices, although perhaps it is particularly true of the Government Whips Office. I leave that for the hon. Gentleman's Back Benchers to decide.

The right to know that would be useful—my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and others have referred to this—is that which would give us a greater knowledge about the bases on which decisions are made. With that greater knowledge, we could make better and more informed decisions, in this place and elsewhere. That would apply also to newspapers and the press. I wonder whether the person who drafted the Bill considered whether press records and personal files held by newspapers, television companies and research companies should be available for access. I say that only in parenthesis, so that hon. Members may consider it.

There is a worry that civil servants' advice to Ministers might be inhibited. I know that clause 21 is aimed at addressing that, because we do not want it to happen. Nor do we want Ministers, because advice is published, to put blame elsewhere; our tradition has always been that Ministers take responsibility rather than hiding behind a civil servant, and it is a good tradition. Furthermore, we do not want civil servants to be constrained when giving advice. We may be able to deal with that in Committee.

Clause 21(1) refers to information being exempt if it consists of the advice, opinion or recommendation tendered by any person in the course of that person's official duties for the purpose of the formation of policy within a public authority. Information that is not exempt is set out in subsection (2). That includes the analysis, interpretation or evaluation of, or any projection based on, factual information". Both those subsections set out close definitions, but I wonder whether the one exempts a category that the other then reinstates. That may worry Ministers and civil servants.

I am concerned also about clause 16, and other exemption clauses, because of the use of the word "significant". For example, clause 16 exempts information if its disclosure would be likely to cause significant damage to the defence of the United Kingdom". Information on security is exempt if its disclosure would be likely to cause significant damage to the lawful activities of the security or intelligence services. On international relations, clause 18 says: Information is exempt if its disclosure would be likely to cause significant damage to the interests of the United Kingdom". On law enforcement, it says: Information is exempt if its disclosure would be likely to … impede significantly the prevention or detection of offences". In the briefings that we helpfully received from various organisations setting out the background to the Bill, that word is not used. The reference is only to "damage". "Significant" has either been added since the briefings or it was always there and the briefers did not understand the significance of the word "significant". Its use detracts from that exemption, and we need more detail of what is meant. If significant damage to a country's interest means, for example, paratroopers dropping behind the lines rather than a mass invasion, I would still be worried about paratroopers dropping behind the lines.

I am, in theory, in favour of more information in one regard, but, again, we must be wary of the impact. The contaminated land register was introduced by this Government to provide more information to the public about a particular risk. Because that innovation was not thought through, undue and untold worry and harm were caused to individuals whose properties, they discovered, were built on land that was formerly occupied by a shunting yard or refuse tip and which was still toxic despite treatment. The Government are considering how to revise that register, but that example reflects my concern about the kind of information that is released to the public.

The Government have a good record of achievements, and we do not have to exchange banter across the Floor on that issue. The Campaign for Freedom of Information acknowledges progress but wants more, understandably. Only today, more information was released about education tests. Those of us who were members of the Committee considering the Education Bill are delighted that the stage 3 tests are to go ahead, and equally delighted that the Government have taken the advice of right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the Committee and provided that first-year stage 3 results should not be published. That represents a sensible adaptation of the right to information, where the Government listened to the public and to experts and produced an amended proposal which will be welcomed by the whole House.

The Bill's theme is absolutely right, and I hope that it will be possible to pass measures not unlike those that the Bill proposes. That can be done by improving the Bill in Committee, by the Government taking the action that they have promised before the summer, or by a combination of the two. With 83 clauses, it is a lengthy private Member's Bill, but I wish it well. I hope that the Government will note today's debate and that the Bill's draftsmen will consider how it may be not only revised but supplemented. In that spirit, I wish the Bill and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central all strength to their elbow.

1.2 pm

Ms. Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

After all that, I believe that the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) supports the Bill—and I am grateful for the opportunity to support my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) from the Opposition Front Bench. My hon. Friend is a member of our citizens charter team and if he were not promoting his Bill, it is likely that he would be standing at the Dispatch Box in my place.

I congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members who, over the years, have done much work in presenting private Members' Bills. Thanks are due to them for enabling my hon. Friend's Bill to be before us. I join in congratulating also the Campaign for Freedom of Information and other groups on their work in bringing this important issue to the attention of right hon. and hon. Members.

This is a timely and necessary debate on an issue which demands urgent attention. I agree with the many hon. Members who have said that the apparently peculiarly British disease of obsessive secrecy must be cured urgently. It is time that our citizens had free access to information that affects all aspects of their lives and that we recognised that information is power. The Government are anxious to talk about real empowerment, but they have done little to implement it and seem keen to withhold it from our citizens.

Hon. Members have given examples of seemingly trivial information that remains officially secret. An example that has not been mentioned, but which is so trivial that it is worth mentioning, is the absence of the British Telecom tower from Ordnance Survey maps. I hope that I am covered by parliamentary privilege when I reveal that the British Telecom tower does exist and that its address is 60 Cleveland street, London.

We have heard how much historical information has been withheld. I welcomed the invitation of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to historians to list papers that they would like to be declassified. I welcome any action to bring such papers into the public domain. The Minister told us that more papers will be brought into the public domain. Such a step is important to some people, but it seems almost a gimmick given the amount of information that is still withheld. Interesting though they are, those historical documents will not be read or used by many of my constituents. Nevertheless, it is progress and we should welcome that.

The Bill recognises that there is a case for withholding information in the interests of national security, but to have rules so rigid that information is held even where it can be shown that its ready availability would actively promote the public interest is bizarre. The public have a right to know information about the safety of public buildings and facilities. The hon. Member for Battersea spoke of his private Member's Bill, which would have helped to achieve that, but which the Government did not accept.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the tragedies at King's Cross and Bradford. As a result of the King's Cross fire, safety checks on London Underground's facilities are regularly published, but comparative details for British Rail stations remain under wraps. Desmond Fennell, who investigated the King's Cross tragedy, reported that he viewed with dismay the suggestion that information gained by a statutory authority which has a bearing on the safety of the public using a system for mass transportation should not be publicly available. We have heard about the Bradford football tragedy. The Health and Safety Executive expressed concerns about safety at that ground. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) said, if that information had been made routinely public or even passed to the fire brigade, a tragedy might have been prevented.

The Marchioness river boat sank in the River Thames in August 1989. It was revealed that the ship that crashed into it, the Bowbelle, had been involved in three previous river accidents. The public had not known about its dangerous record because accident reports are confidential. Labour Members believe that the public can legitimately expect that if information on safety is made public it is less likely to be overlooked.

The Minister made a very unconvincing case against the Bill. He mentioned expense—and, clearly, expense will be involved—but can we not learn from the experience of other countries, which have found that open government is less likely to lead to costly mistakes behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny? Far from being an expensive diversion, might not the Bill be a constructive measure in increasing value for money in the provision of quality services responsive to consumer demand and public need?

The Bill covers a fundamental issue: the public's right to make informed choices based on information that affects them as individuals and to have access to details of the performance of the Government and of public and private services. Bearing in mind the Government's almost fanatical desire to expand the power of the market across the board, I cannot understand why the Minister does not concede that a fundamental, textbook component of the free market is the universal availability of knowledge about that market.

How can the Government be serious about improving public services when, for example, the length of the queue at my local post office is an official secret? The Post Office regularly monitors how long customers have to wait to be served at each of its 1,400 directly managed Crown offices. Its target is to serve 95 per cent. of customers within five minutes, but it refuses to say which branches failed to meet that standard. After years of pressure from the consumer, the Post Office recently agreed to show its data to the Post Office Users National Council, the body representing consumers. However, the council has been told that it must keep the information secret. If it publishes it or gives the press access to it, the Post Office will withhold the information. That means that the Post Office has succeeded in protecting itself from the one thing that is most likely to lead to improvements in service—informed public criticism.

There is another issue that shows that the Government are not serious about improving public services. Only last week we discovered—it was in the newspapers—that national health service patients are being denied information even about how long they will have to stay on the waiting list. While other public services are to have their performance indicators monitored by the National Audit Office, the national health service is retaining that function within its own management executive. That will hardly enhance its public credibility. The health service has ordered hospitals not to tell patients how long they will have to wait for their operation.

The Bill attempts to strike the right balance between secrecy and openness. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central is right to start with the assumption that official secrecy should be the exception rather than the rule.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

I agree with many of the elements at the beginning of the Bill, but I have severe misgivings about clause 62, which I invite the hon. Lady to consider. The three-line clause states: It shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence under this Part to prove that before the time of the alleged offence the material had become publicly available, whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere. What would happen if part of an official document, whose provenance was unclear, were leaked and printed in a newspaper? The clause would appear to allow almost any public sector employee who handled classified documents to release such a document with impunity, thereby establishing the provenance of the document and putting details into the public domain. Does the hon. Lady not have severe misgivings about the clause, which destroys other marvellous elements of the Bill?

Ms. Hoey

I do not have severe misgivings about the Bill; I have made it clear that I support it. Obviously, hon. Members will wish to make some changes to the Bill. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Battersea wants to go further than the Bill does. If the Bill goes into Committee, I am sure that we shall be able to make some of the changes that hon. Members want.

We have heard about the experiences of other countries that have designed and implemented effective freedom of information legislation systems. They do not cost the earth and are not unnecessarily complex and difficult to administer. They have demonstrably enhanced the rights of citizens.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and his Parliamentary Secretary are honourable men. I believe that their commitment to extend the public's right to know is genuine, but I fear that they have been, and are likely to be, constrained by many of their Cabinet colleagues, either because of timidity or for other reasons about which we do not know. We know that many civil servants do not want the Bill to go through. I hope that the Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster accept that there is widespread support for the Bill in the country.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the many right-to-know cards that they have received. Many of us have also had many letters from constituents explaining why, from their own experiences, they believe that there should be a right to know. I have had more letters from constituents on the Bill than I have had on any other. I have received even more letters than I did on the Pig Husbandry Bill, which was also a private Member's Bill. I am not sure what that says about the people of Vauxhall. The number of cards and letters shows that there is broad support for the Bill across the party political divide.

I recall that Margaret Thatcher once said of Lord Young that whereas other people brought her problems, he brought her solutions. The Minister had no fundamental argument against the Bill. I hope that, rather than relying on excuses for not supporting the necessary legislation, the Government will adopt a can-do mentality and that they will find a way around the concerns raised. The genuine practical difficulties can be dealt with in Committee with all the scrutiny that our system allows.

The people of this country, whether fairly or not, often view politicians and public servants with cynicism. Other hon. Members have made that point. We must face the fact that politicians on the whole are not believed. We are viewed by many people as being liars and cheats who are prepared to cover up all manner of things. When there is no right to know and no freedom of information, it is difficult to disprove that view. The Bill will go some way towards stripping away that image.

With the Government in their 14th year in power, the institutions of the state are viewed as self-serving and self-perpetuating. The Bill will help to change the image of government, of politicians and of people in public life generally. We have heard a lot from the Prime Minister and from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster about open government and about giving power to citizens. There has been a proliferation of citizens charters, yet the Government simultaneously deny the public the right to know and make decisions in secrecy.

The Chancellor of the Duchy said last week that the Government were preparing a White Paper on openness and he said today that the White Paper will be available in the summer. He has been talking about the White Paper for some time, and the Parliamentary Secretary has claimed that the Bill will be of particular interest. Only last week the Chancellor claimed that the Government were committed to greater openness and to removing areas of unnecessary secrecy. Such changes have been a long time coming and I hope that hon. Members will feel able to take the first step themselves today.

My party is committed to freedom of information. Before the general election, we promised that a freedom of information Bill would be top of our agenda. The commitment to informing the public stretches across hon. Members of all parties. I urge hon. Members to support the Bill. If it receives a Second Reading and reaches Committee, we will begin to deliver a citizen's basic right to freedom of information and a right to know. As one of his main reasons for opposing the Bill, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) said that we already have a tried and tested system. Yes, we have such a system, but the right hon. Gentleman did not say that it is a failed system. That is why hon. Members must support the Bill. I hope that we will allow it a Second Reading.

1.19 pm
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in congratulating the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on initiating a debate on this important topic.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), I strongly agree with many of the principles that have inspired the Bill. However, again like my hon. Friend, I believe that the Bill is a bit of a curate's egg. If it progresses beyond Second Reading, we shall need to consider in Committee or at a later stage issues such as an individual's right to privacy and the relationship between a right to know and commercial confidentiality.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent. Central should also think again about the inclusion in the Bill of an outright overthrow and repeal of the Official Secrets Act 1989. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) made a telling point when he said that the 1989 Act has been on the statute book for only two years. It is therefore premature, to say the least, to rush in and seek to overthrow it before we have seen it working for a period of time.

I am slightly surprised that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has taken that course. In my previous incarnation as special adviser to my right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary, who is now the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, I recall discussions about the reform of the official secrets legislation. I felt that restricting the scope of official secrets law to a number of defined areas of public policy would allow supporters of a freedom of information Act to introduce a Bill that would dovetail neatly with the reform of the official secrets legislation and bring within the scope of a statutory right to know the areas of public policy and Government documentation that were freed by the 1989 Act from the protection of the criminal law, but which were not subject to any statutory right of access by the public.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), I have considerable reservations about the inclusion in the Bill of all-embracing defences of prior publication and of public interest. On the latter point, the specific harm tests within the 1989 Act allow a court—a judge and jury—to take account of the public interest.

An unquestioned defence on the ground of prior publication would allow someone who wished to leak an important classified document the freedom to do so perhaps by securing its publication in a very obscure journal in this country or overseas. He could then point that fact out to a newspaper with a wide circulation which would, like the individual responsible for the leak, be able to claim the defence that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central offers in the Bill.

Mr. Fisher

The fact that we are proposing a prior publication defence does not mean that prior publication in itself would inevitably be found to be a satisfactory defence. It simply gives the opportunity for genuine prior publication to be a defence. It would be for the courts to decide whether it was a defence which held up.

Mr. Lidington

As a layman, my reading of clause 62 of the Bill means that an absolute defence of prior publication would exist. Clearly, that matter will be considered if the Bill proceeds further. If the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central and his supporters wish to have my support and, I suspect, the support of other Conservative Members, they would do well to reflect on whether they wish to press forward and overthrow the 1989 Act in the way in which the Bill does.

I shall refer to those aspects of the Bill on which I sympathise with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central and other hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is true that the Government have moved a long way recently towards greater openness about their policies. Some of the Acts to which my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea referred, Judge Tumim shining his torch into the prison system and reports of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary being published so that everyone can see how our police service is managed, are real advances in bringing information forward for inspection by the public and the media.

I agree that we can and should do more. I was impressed by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea when he said that it was not enough simply to have a public right to know. For that right to be effective, a specific obligation needs to be imposed on the Government or other public bodies to make that information accessible and known to those who might be interested in it.

I am slightly sceptical about some of the hopes that are held out for the Bill if it is enacted. I somehow doubt whether there will be queues of our constituents knocking on the doors of Government Departments daily seeking to find out what has been going on. Nor, I fear, will all journalists be as excited by a Government document when it ceases to have "top secret" stamped on it and, instead, becomes much more readily available for wider dissemination.

I shall dwell on two points on which I think we need to go further in creating greater public access to the workings of government and which have not been touched on hitherto in the debate. The first was highlighted in a recent Hansard Society report about improving the quality of law making in the United Kingdom. The Hansard Society recommended that the Government should be much more open about their consultation exercises prior to publication of Green or White Papers or Bills.

Having had limited experience of two Whitehall Departments, I am clear in my mind that although civil servants make an effort to consult, they tend often to work from the same rather limited list of tried and trusted corporate bodies with which they are used to communicating. Legislation can come before the House, apparently after a long consultation period, and it is only then that interest groups wake up, very late in the day, and find that their legitimate interests are vitally affected because the consultation had not been wide enough and its results not widely disseminated.

That is one aspect of the workings of government where an initiative could be taken by my right hon. and hon. Friends to open up their intentions and policies to wider public scrutiny and to what my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) has called the "clash of expert opinion". The result would be better drafted Bills and better laws.

My second point is about the workings of the European Community. I have been struck by the oddity that papers submitted by our Government to the Council of Ministers are treated as Government documents—documents of the Executive which would not normally be released for discussion or debate by Parliament or the general public. I understand why, in the normal course of international relations, that degree of Government privacy is observed.

But in the European Community and Council of Ministers, we have a new hybrid beast—a body composed of representatives of the executive branches of government of the 12 member states who, when they act as the Council of Ministers, perform a legislative function for the EC as a whole. I welcome the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last week to prise open the doors behind which the Council of Ministers usually operates. Again, I hope that my right hon. Friends will be much bolder in putting forward ideas to make the workings of the Council of Ministers and its process of decision making much less obscure.

The success of any policy designed to allow greater public access to Government information, whether it be embodied in statute or derived from Government initiative, depends on changing the Whitehall culture. In our system there is still a tendency to over-classify documents. I recall the Foreign Office stamping telegrams "Confidential". The reference note said that publication of documents would involve a serious risk to national interest. The contents of the telegrams were matters such as the record of an ambassador in some capital of his table talk with the junior Foreign Minister of the relevant country.

As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made clear, we have moved on quickly in the past year or two. We have even acknowledged to ourselves that the security and intelligence services exist. When I first entered the Foreign Office I looked at my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's daily diary and asked, "What is this listed as 'Meeting with C'?" I was drawn aside by an official and told quietly in a corner, "David, C is M." We have moved on from those days a little, but we could go further.

We should not deny to ourselves that such a shift would also require a shift in the way in which we think about Britain's constitution. The key to civil servants' resistance to greater public access to Government information seems to be a concern to preserve the notion that a chain of accountability runs from officials to their responsible Ministers and only from the Ministers to Parliament and thereafter to the wider public.

If we go in the direction that the Bill suggests, we shall question that link. That might not be such a bad thing. It is absurd to expect Ministers to stand at the Dispatch Box and know the last detail of how many bed pans there are in each hospital in Barnsley and to decry them if they do not have that information instantly available.

The workings of government are so extensive that it is fair for the public to ask not only that Ministers accept responsibility for the policies and decisions of their Departments, but that officials realise that they have a responsibility and some accountability not only to their departmental boss, but to the British public who pay their salaries and whom they are appointed to serve.

I argue that the Government have, to some extent, acknowledged that by moving towards the next steps agencies, which remove most sections of government away from Whitehall and that neat system of accountability, and have established the agencies as semi-detached organs of government. That move is healthy and goes in the right direction, but that and the Bill force us to think carefully about the way in which we have traditionally regarded our constitution.

My message to my right hon. and hon. Friends the Parliamentary Secretary and the Chancellor of the Duchy is that there is certainly widespread support among Conservatives and Conservative Members of Parliament for many of the principles and objectives embodied in the Bill. I hope that when my right hon. and hon. Friends tussle with their departmental colleagues and with the institutional mind of Whitehall, they will bear in mind that they have the goodwill of people of all political affiliations and of none, and that they will go back to Whitehall from this debate feeling encouraged to commence that struggle with renewed vigour.

1.36 pm
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood)

It should not be necessary to argue that a modern democracy should have a commitment to openness as one of its basic ingredients. Perhaps it may not be quite the case, as Francis Bacon so famously put it, that knowledge itself is power", but there can be no doubt that they are intimately connected. Clearly that is the Government's view, since they have always regarded the control of information as one of their major preoccupations.

The central fact in the British case, now thoroughly stale in the telling, is that the British way of governing has been characterised by the most extraordinary secrecy, which is unrivalled among comparable western democracies. One testimony to that, which is all the more remarkable because it comes from a former permanent secretary, Sir Patrick Nairne, could stand for many. He said, the

culture of secrecy is bred in the bone of British parliamentary democracy. Lord Hailsham once provided a convenient public school translation: Thou shalt not blub, and thou shalt not sneak. What that has meant for British democracy and society has been exhaustively recorded. It ranges far and wide, and high and low.

For most of the 20th century, the Official Secrets Act, which was nodded through in a day in 1911, has enveloped public life in a blanket of official secrecy. When its notorious catch-all section 2 was finally reformed after a mere 80 years, by the Official Secrets Act 1989, the new legislation not only continued to allow ample scope for continued prosecutions, above all through its exclusion of a public interest defence, but was emphatically not intended to form part of a widening of access to official information.

That is only the visible tip of a much larger iceberg, as a succession of causes cèlébres in the 1980s showed that British Governments had equipped themselves with a formidable armoury of devices to employ against whistle-blowing civil servants, journalists and broadcasters. At their heart is the ability of Ministers of the Crown to sustain the claim that there is an identity of interest between their interests, those of the Government and those of the state, and the absence in public law of a recognised interest of state to which reference can be made and disclosure compelled and information revealed.

That position was admirably and appallingly stated by Judge Justice McCowan in the trial of the civil servant, Clive Ponting, in 1985—I ask hon. Members to listen carefully—when he said: We have General Elections in this country. The majority party in the House of Commons forms the Government. If it loses majority support it ceases to do so, but for the time being, it is the Government, and its policies are those of the State. That claim of an identity of interests between the interests of the Government of the day and the interests of the state, and the refusal to make any distinction, is at the heart of many of our difficulties.

That high secrecy forms only one part of that routine web of secrecy which envelops the workings of government in Britain. Behind the particular practices, a whole culture exists. For example, the Cabinet committee structure was kept from view. The recent acknowledgment of its existence along with the ministerial rule book—and, goodness gracious me, the fact that we had a Secret Intelligence Service—shows that one cannot sustain fictions for ever.

Official statistics can be doctored. The annual opening of the 30-year Cabinet archive regularly reveals that Ministers have always devoted much of their effort to keeping information out of the public domain—even routine information collected by Government about the standard of products and services. Some such information can be obtained only from foreign Governments.

Hon. Members have given various examples of the difficulties encountered in obtaining information. It is particularly shocking and shameful that, for example, families whose sons suffer injury while serving with the British armed forces find it impossible to get even basic information about the cause of their sons' injuries from the Ministry of Defence. That problem will be addressed by the Bill.

The arrangement that I have described is a direct, perfect embodiment of the British constitutional tradition. It is not a distorting aberration, but a truthful mirror of an Executive-dominated constitution in which Ministers have inherited prerogative powers from the Crown. They are not used to sharing information with citizens or their representatives. To have done so would have been to govern in a different way; indeed, to have been a different kind of Government. Instead, constitutional doctrines have been advanced—as they were by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)—to explain why matters are conducted as they are and why, in constitutional terms, no significant change is permissible or desirable.

The central doctrine is that of ministerial responsibility, whereby Ministers alone are answerable to Parliament for what Departments do and civil servants are preserved in their virginal state of anonymous neutrality. That chain of accountability would be broken, we are told, if there were more windows on the policy process and a linchpin of responsible constitutional government would be thereby kicked away. The problem with that argument is that it amounts to saying that it is necessary to keep certain fictions intact if the traditional theory of the constitution is to be maintained.

The root fiction and deceit is the way in which the doctrine of ministerial responsibility is marshalled to defend the politics of secrecy despite the fact that effective responsibility, the promise of the doctrine, is thereby undercut. In other words, a doctrine is invoked in the service of its direct opposite. The truth is that Ministers, the monopolists of information, decide what to disclose and what to conceal so that the extent of secrecy becomes the greatest secret of all.

A further truth pointed out by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is that the ability of Parliament to compel the Executive to lay papers before the House was much greater in the previous century when the role of government was more restricted than in the party-dominated big government of this century.

A doctrine of responsibility that denies access to the sources of information required to make responsibility effective, stands matters on their head. It also sustains a series of further fictions about Ministers having responsibility and civil servants not being involved in the policy process.

The arguments that are today being used in some quarters to oppose the Right to Know Bill were exactly the sort of arguments about the threat to ministerial responsibility that were used when the ombudsman system was established in the 1960s. If one reads the debates of that time, one sees the same sort of arguments used. It was claimed that it would be a threat to ministerial responsibility and would undermine the constitution.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

How much thought has my hon. Friend given to the fact that we are dealing with a moving target—the relationship between what those who are being governed need to know and the way that the Government hog the information? We are not merely discussing the relationship between a Minister and a civil servant. We are talking about the use of quangos where the "civil servants" are not actually civil servants and do not sign the Official Secrets Act. Where the Government and the quango want to cover up a major scandal they use the gagging clause. They force someone to retire early, and pay him an extra year's salary in return for his signing the gagging clause—the non-disclosure agreement. Therefore, it costs the taxpayer more money to assist the Government to stop the taxpayer discovering the scandal that results in the sacking, because the Government want to avoid embarrassment. That happens in the health service, universities, museums and other publicly funded institutions, where people cannot find out what went wrong.

Dr. Wright

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which I wish I had time to develop. We have seen the privatisation of government, arms-length government, next steps agencies—what some people have called the new magistracy of appointed people who run our public services. The resulting lack of accountability makes it more important to build in an information requirement so that we know what is going on.

The constitutional doctrine is increasingly implausible and threadbare, but it is used to maintain the veil of secrecy over the political process and the operation of government. The costs of that process, both in democratic terms and in terms of its effectiveness, are considerable. Policy advice and options are not open to official scrutiny. One such example may interest the Government. If they had revealed to public view the Rothschild report on the coal industry when they were limbering up to privatise it and first floated the idea of a massive contraction in the industry, the arguments could have been tested in Parliament and by the public. As a result, the Government might have saved themselves the debacle and humiliation of the past few months. There is abundant evidence of major policy decisions—the stuff of democratic choice—being taken by Governments without Parliament or the people knowing the facts.

There is a further choice to be made by those who are persuaded of the need for greater openness. Many hon. Members have said today that they have been so persuaded, including the Minister. That choice is between nudging Governments—or even Governments allowing themselves to be nudged—into letting a little more light in here and there or seeking to effect a more structural change in the architecture of the constitution. That is the main argument over the Bill.

The nudging approach has advantages to its credit. The Minister and the Government are right to emphasise the extension of information provisions during the past few years. The access provisions in the ombudsman and audit systems are all examples of that extension, but more can be achieved and more is promised—such as the powers available to Select Committees and the revision of the internal civil service code, of which the Minister spoke. Such pressure is likely to, and should, increase, if only to stave off demands such as those made in the Bill for more fundamental changes. Governments must continue to respond, although it is clear that the Minister is finding it more difficult to respond than he thought it would be. The problem with that approach is that Governments will continue to respond on their own terms. The Executive will still decide how much information and of what kind to give their citizens and Parliament. That is why it is necessary to reverse the relationship between Government and people on the matter of information. If the present relationship accurately reflects a constitution in which the Executive has always been dominant, an altered relationship should be seen as an essential element in a democratic remodelling of that constitution. The presumption should be in favour of openness. Governments should have to make a case for not disclosing certain information, rather than, as now, disclosing only what they choose. The shift in onus is crucial and lies at the heart of proposals for freedom of information.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one little bit of information that could usefully be made public is when a public servant, such as a civil servant, a magistrate, a councillor or a Member of Parliament, is a member of a secret society? When my Secret Societies (Declaration) Bill is called, Pinky and Perky on the Conservative Benches will shout, "Object" and the Minister for open government will sit with a smile on his face. Does my hon. Friend agree that that area of darkness is long overdue for a little exposure and that, irrespective of whether the Bill addresses it, the issue should be examined in the near future?

Dr. Wright

That was an interesting and not entirely unexpected intervention, but I am delighted to agree with my hon. Friend.

The issues of onus and presumption are crucial. The resistance to legislation is not narrowly technical, although that is how it is sometimes presented. That was the thrust of what the Minister said. The issue is constitutional and cultural. The absence of freedom of information is rooted in a larger democratic deficit and the acquisition of provisions would herald a wider shift in the political system.

The Bill presents a moment of truth for the House and, more widely, for our democracy. It is not a choice between information and no information, but a matter of the terms on which access to information is to be had. Are we to continue with a system in which the Government will continue to decide the information that Parliament and the public should know, even if they do that in the generous, expansive and emollient way that the Government have now adopted? Conversely, is Britain to become the kind of democracy in which there is a presumption of openness and access, with Governments having to justify non-disclosure? That is the issue of principle which the House must decide and the Bill provides the opportunity for Parliament to choose. If we make the wrong choice, respect for this place, which, as we have heard, is not high, and the way in which we conduct politics will decline still further.

Some hon. Members spoke about making a brave choice, but I would call it a confident choice and it could provide the moment for the process of democratic and constitutional renewal to take a decisive step that will have benefits for every citizen.

1.53 pm
Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor and Maidenhead)

We have heard some fairly extravagant claims about the supposed tyranical powers of government, and the efficacy of a right to know Bill, so I shall begin by setting the Bill in context. Although I do not feel that I can support the Bill of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), there is a great deal of value in it and I hope that many of its ends will be achieved soon—that is not just a ritual claim.

The right to know has a good ring about it. Who could gainsay it? I have a right to know, he has a right to know, she has a right to know, it has a right to know. Surely that is a self-evident truth? The answer is, up to a point. We have here one of those slogans that seem to enshrine a deeply felt public demand. Curiously, while many hon. Members have said that they have received hundreds of cards, I have not. I have had more about whales, lambs or calves. I have not seen the massed ranks of our citizenry marching up Whitehall screaming, "The right to know or death!" In short, I do not detect the groundswell of public opinion for freedom of information legislation that some of its proponents suggest.

The debate about freedom of information encourages extravagant claims and has a narrow base. Moreover, I suspect that some who take up the campaign just because they see in it an opportunity to bash the Government would not be so keen on the cause if they suddenly came to power and had to forgo the luxuries of opposition. It is easy to bash away at Government practice and procedure, but then to find that one has got nowhere. It is much more difficult to find a way to encourage Governments to reform their practices, but often that is more rewarding.

I have said that I do not detect a groundswell of public opinion in favour of change, but I agree that the time for a change in openness has arrived.

Mr. Rooker

It is not a good idea to repeat the canard that a groundswell has not been detected. I am constantly taken back to the day in 1978 when a Home Secretary, at the Dispatch Box, challenged the rest of the House, saying that he did not think that there were more than two or three people in any constituency who were interested in freedom of information. That brought the roof in on him. The myth is that there is no public demand for freedom of information, but people want it when it affects their safety or that of their families and communities. We should not repeat the myth simply because the evidence of demand is not on the front pages of the newspapers every day.

Mr. Trend

I accept the hon. Gentleman's last point, but the experience of other countries such as Canada and Australia, set out in excellent papers given at a conference earlier this month, shows that there was not a groundswell of opinion in favour of change there before their legislation was introduced. I am not saying that it is necessary to have that groundswell for there to be a Bill, but I am saying that there is not one. I am also saying that the change is desirable. The question that I ask of the Bill is a simple one: is it the best way forward at the moment?

While I share many of the central assumptions that lie behind the Bill, one being that it is ludicrous to restrict access to information simply for the sake of restricting it, I have difficulty in believing that the long and complex Bill is the best way forward. In particular, I regret that it would overthrow the Official Secrets Act 1989, which has only recently been added to the statute book—in this, I agree with my right hon. and hon. Friends—and has yet to be significantly tested.

My main contribution to the debate is to examine further how some other countries have fared with freedom of information legislation, in particular Australia and Canada. One of the main lessons that those involved in such legislation say that they have learnt is that their new laws have had much less effect than most people on both sides of the argument felt that they would have. There have been some dramatic uses of freedom of information legislation. Robert Hazell, in his article in Public Administration in 1989, pointed to the case of a Minister in the Mulroney Government who had to resign after the press discovered that she had spent five days in Paris at public expense in order to attend a one-hour meeting. That came to light through use of the freedom of information legislation. Such sensational cases aside, the most remarkable thing about the introduction of such legislation is that many fewer people have applied for information than was originally thought likely. I contend that a groundswell did not exist before and that a torrent of demand was not released afterwards.

The possible effects of such legislation can be easily exaggerated. Justice Michael Kirby, the distinguished president of the New South Wales Court of Appeal, said recently, "there have been disappointments." Why? I suspect that it is because expectations of freedom of information legislation far exceed what it can deliver. There are other, perhaps better, ways of achieving a more open society.

All the authorities whose views I have studied recently basically agree with the comments of Sir Douglas Wass in his Reith lectures: More important, in my view, than any institutional changes is the need for a commitment on the part of all who work in the field of government positively to want an informed public. If this is lacking, little in the way of machinery will help. John Grace, Canada's information commissioner, holds the view that a right-to-know law can only be meaningful if it serves as a catalyst for the emergence of a real openness. That comes from a man who is at the heart of the Canadian freedom of information system. He says that a right-to-know law will not necessarily of itself lead to real openness. To that extent, he agrees with Sir Douglas Wass.

Is there a better way of achieving many of the desirable aims that the Bill seeks, without supporting the means that it proposes? The best chance of change in the right direction comes when the Government themselves signal a culture change to openness. That has been seen in Britain in the past few years and that is a welcome and rare development among worldwide parliamentary democracies.

The present Government's record is better than that of any other, and continues a movement begun under the previous Administration.

Mr. Richard Shepherd

I suppose that the greatest signalling of a culture change or a change of intent was the Croham directive, but that did not seem to bring about the culture change for which it argued.

Mr. Trend

I am essentially saying that because the wind appears to have changed, there is an opportunity to get on to a better tack. Such opportunities may have occurred in the past, but the wind changed and the ship of state sailed in its familiar direction again. In my concluding remarks, I shall say that if I do not feel that there has been a sea change, I shall be more inclined—probably definitely inclined—to support legislation.

Of the number of relevant measures introduced in the past few years, the Data Protection Act 1984 was a landmark, as was the Access to Medical Records Act four years later. This Government have increased their determination to secure more open government since the last general election. I cite the recent publication of the membership of Cabinet Committees, which I greatly enjoyed reading. I suspect that in years to come they will be used to gauge who is up and who is down—in the way that the annual ballot for the parliamentary Labour party's shadow Cabinet does.

Mr. Corbett

The Cabinet are not elected.

Mr. Trend

Still, that ballot reveals who is up and who is down in a most delightful manner. The Cabinet Committee minutes might do the same.

I approve of recent initiatives to release more historical material, and they could be extended to other areas. Such developments are of a piece with the citizens charter. In an age when the most frequently heard response to all of life's problems seem to be, "The Government must do something"—meaning, they must continually jerk the knee on request—the greater subtlety that lies behind the citizens charter is easily guyed.

The House does not need to be reminded that the citizens charter movement is supported in principle by all the main political parties. Nevertheless, Opposition Members cannot resist making an easy jibe. Indeed, their position is even less logical, because by supporting the idea in principle but trying to ridicule it in practice, opposition voices decry the achievements that the citizens charter movement has chalked up, such as forcing schools, health authorities, local councils and other public bodies to publish details of their performance. That opposition is not a good start for those who profess to want freedom of information.

The citizens charter is proving a better way ahead for the people of this country. The charter, taken with other open government initiatives, represents a fundamental shift in the Government's attitude. Some may say that freedom of information legislation would push the movement towards open government ahead even faster. I tend not to agree with that view, because, although I would not want to exaggerate the effects that a right-to-know Act might have on how civil servants and politicians would seek to alter their procedures, I should like to think more carefully about this matter before proceeding to legislation.

Ours is a comparatively open system. Compared with what happens in many other countries, the doctrine of ministerial responsibility is a remarkably sophisticated idea. When Opposition parties and Back Benchers believe that they have not received a clear answer to a question, it is chiefly because they have not asked a clear question. We have only ourselves to blame if we cannot use our daily opportunities to best effect. In the end, the House can claim what information it wants. As a former Clerk of this House is quoted on saying on the first page of "Erskine May", "Who can stop it?"

Mr. Flynn


Mr. Trend

No, not at all. If the House is determined, in the end, who can stop it?

Mr. Waldegrave

May I help my hon. Friend with some first-hand experience? I have been on the receiving end of questions from the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for 12 years. Being questioned by him is different from being questioned by other hon. Members. It can be done.

Mr. Trend

While we are dwelling on partisan matters, I might add that experience from other countries suggests that freedom of information legislation adds nothing to the political response that one might achieve by asking a direct question in the legislature. Most Members of Parliament in Canada and Australia are obtaining their information in that way, rather than using freedom of information legislation.

Mr. Flynn

My experience of the House of Commons cannot compare with the hon. Gentleman's, but perhaps he could refer to the evidence that was given to the Procedure Committee on the obstructions to receiving answers to parliamentary questions. I commend to him a letter from Dr. David Lowry that appears in The Guardian today. I asssure him that many diligent Back Benchers have found that, in seeking information in this place, they are up against a brick wall.

Mr. Trend

I have experienced that once in my brief career. By thinking carefully which information it would be impossible for the Minister not to give in reply, I thought my way round one flank, but I am afraid that the pincer movement did not quite work. I am saying that the power of hon. Members to ask a question is greater than any other power.

Mr. Jenkin

My experience in tabling questions led me into a conversation with a Clerk in the Table Office, who advised me that a change in the rules to which the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) referred is a matter for the Procedure Committee. The inability to extract information about legal opinions from the Government is purely a matter for hon. Members, and if hon. Members want the Government to lay legal opinions on the table they can compel them to do so.

Mr. Trend

rose[interruptionl I should like to make a little progress. I know that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms. Jackson) is keen to speak and I am keen to hear her.

I do not subscribe to another claim made by some freedom of information enthusiasts that only through such legislation can rights be ensured. The same effect will occur as the Government move ahead with their own programme. Each area to which the public gain access becomes an area where there can be no going back. It is inconceivable that once parents have got used to knowing the examination results of their local schools they will be help happy to see that information restricted once again to the so-called experts. In that way, I believe that the changes on which the Government have embarked will become entrenched in our public life, which is to the good.

I have outlined a number of reasons why we should not proceed with the Bill. I hope that I have pointed out some of the false hopes that such legislation could stir up and have identified the remarkable culture shift which is under way in our own system of government, although it must go further.

My aim would be to find the best way to reconcile the Westminster principle of ministerial accountability to Parliament with greatly increased public rights of information. I look forward to a time when many of the Bill's apirations are fulfilled, but I should not necessarily wish to see them brought into existence in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. The hon. Gentleman prefers the straitjacket of statute, whereas I prefer the more subtle, organic approach. I should, however, incline more to his way of thinking if I did not believe that the Government really were committed to open government.

The piecemeal approach can be just as profound—perhaps more so—than the statutory route. There is much to be said for taking people with us, step by step, and for educating the public at large about what could be of use to them from official statistics and other sources of information, but the will to do so must come from the Government. That is what Sir Douglas Wass meant when he pointed to the necessity on the part of all who work in the field of Government positively to want an informed public". Indeed, that is almost the classic definition of the scope and purpose of the citizens charter movement.

I am content to wait for the Government's White Paper before thinking again about this issue. I want to see what they suggest to take us further and faster along the path to open government. Although I do not feel able to support the Bill, I hope that one day some—perhaps many—of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central's wishes will be realised. I am very much in favour of shifting the balance of power from the state to the citizen and I hope that significant steps will be taken in that direction in the not-too-distant future.

2.11 pm
Ms. Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I join other hon. Members in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) for introducing the Bill. I also join my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) in thanking the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) not only for the splendour of his speech but for allowing me to hear the phrase "we the people" uttered in the House—a phrase which, in its powerful simplicity, still causes the hairs to rise on the back of my neck, containing as it does the aspirations and hopes of all people who have ever believed in justice, equality and freedom and desired to make themselves free. It is a response which the words "citizens charter" do not produce.

I believe Britain to be a unique society in many ways but, for a nation that prides itself on being the mother of parliamentary democracy, it is uniquely secretive. Indeed, few democratic nations can have the same anachronistic attitude to what the public do or do not have the right to know. Most of our democratic neighbours and friends find it perfectly possible to protect their freedom and security without enveloping themselves and their political institutions in a cloak of impenetrable secrecy.

For example, in Sweden, a country which has enjoyed freedom of information for 200 years, citizens with only a few exceptions have a legal right to see all official documents and correspondence. Indeed, it is possible for anyone to enter the Prime Minister's residence and ask to see the correspondence received that day. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central is not suggesting that we all be given the right to traipse around to No. 10 and interrupt the Prime Minister's breakfast with demands that he show us his morning post, but the Swedish principle that Government information is information that belongs to the people is one which we should adopt. Even the United States, a nation which historically has been more paranoid than most about internal and external threats to its security, has freedom of information laws that are balanced towards openness rather than towards secrecy.

Few of us would argue that there is not some information that must be retained to protect our freedom and to protect those who risk their lives protecting us, but it is equally clear that the national security argument has been used all too often as a means of suppressing information that is of legitimate public interest.

Other hon. Members have cited examples of that excessive secrecy. My own favourite is taken from the Defence Select Committee meeting of 24 April 1991. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) asked Mr. David Gould, head of resources and programmes for the Royal Air Force, how many Phantom aircraft were based at RAF Wildenrath in Germany. He was told that the information could not be disclosed in public session. It was then explained to Mr. Gould that a recent treaty with the Russians had disclosed the number of aircraft to be 28. Mr. Gould replied that, although the information had been supplied to the Russians, he was not entitled to supply it to the British people. When information is being made available to potential adversaries, but is being withheld from the public, we are entering the realm of "Through the Looking-Glass".

Unfortunately, not all the implications of secrecy are as amusing. In 1957, a document entitled "Report On Track Pollution Problems" was commissioned as a result of public concern about the probable health hazards caused by undiluted sewage being flushed on to railway tracks throughout the country. Thirty six years later, that report has still not been published. It is a safe bet that the report has not been withheld because its findings were harmless.

The present rules governing secrecy would not be quite so bizarre if it were not for the fact that they are not adhered to even by those who so jealously guard them. Ministers who are prepared to vilify, to sack and, on occasions, to imprison civil servants who leak confidential information are the same Ministers who leak information daily to any Lobby journalist who is prepared to listen. If the secrecy laws were applied to Ministers as zealously as they are applied to the rest of the country, there is a distinct possibility that the entire Cabinet would now be languishing in the Tower of London. That may be regarded by some as a good argument for tightening the restrictions, but the manner in which information can be passed selectively if and when it suits those in positions of power is almost as dangerous as a complete ban on information itself.

The Prime Minister has often talked about his wish to create a classless society. That wish will never be anything more than an empty dream as long as our culture allows a minority of select individuals to obtain information and to withhold it from the rest of society. It is not enough for the Government to publish citizens charters and booklets revealing ministerial regulations and then to sit back claiming that openness has been achieved. It is no help to my constituents for them to know what gifts Ministers may accept from visiting dignitaries, when they are not allowed to know what is in their own medical records.

Only last month, the House debated another private Member's Bill which dealt with press responsibility. During the debate, the Government argued against stricter press controls which they regarded as a threat to democracy. The Prime Minister, in a leaked statement, said he was personally opposed to the Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill on those grounds. If the Government oppose controls on the press, they should also oppose controls on individual citizens. If nothing else, it is unacceptably arrogant for those who govern for the people to hide information from the people.

I began by quoting the phrase "we the people", 'which has come to us from across the Atlantic. I end with the words of Abraham Lincoln, who spoke of Government of the people, by the people, and for the people. My constituents have contacted me in greater numbers about their wish to see the Bill enacted than in respect of any subject other than their outrage at the Government's plans for pit closures. My constituents understand that it is the first duty of any citizen to be informed. They acknowledge the responsibilities that they need to exercise to enable the phrase with which I began my peroration to be something more than mere empty rhetoric. They equally acknowledge that they cannot be responsible citizens without accurate and wide-ranging information.

The Bill would provide my constituents, and every constituent in the country, with that information. For that reason alone, I will support the Bill. I hope all hon. Members will join me.

2.20 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms. Jackson), in whose constituency I was born. She made a capable and eloquent speech, and a valuable contribution to the debate. I must apologise for not being present for the entire debate. I unfortunately missed several of the speeches, but I was present for the opening speeches.

I am particularly sorry to have missed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). If the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate is correct and my hon. Friend's speech made her hair stand on end, I am sure that it is one—

Mr. Fisher

It even made my hair stand on end.

Mr. Jenkin

I note what the hon. Gentleman says, but I was sorry to miss the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate made her position on the Bill very clear. She made it clear that its underlying principle is that the information possessed by public authorities belongs to the people. I shall discuss that point at greater length in a moment.

I am not concerned about the general sentiments of the Bill for greater openness and accountability. My concern is that it represents a blunderbuss approach to a process which is already being carried on in the Government to extend openness and reduce secrecy.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) referred to the accountability of public authorities such as British Coal. However, British Coal was nationalised and the legislation that nationalised it is defective to such an extent that even Ministers find it difficult to extract information from British Coal because of its commercial sensitivity.

The privatisation of British Coal and the introduction of competition will increase accountability of the coal industry to its customers, to shareholders and to the public.The unsatisfactory relationship between the British people and British Coal is created by the fact that British Coal is owned by the Government but operates independently. I hope that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central will join me in looking forward to the privatisation of British Coal.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central raised an interesting and relevant point about the accountability of public bodies that are being moved to a more arm's-length relationship. We discussed that point at some length during the proceedings of the Civil Service (Management Functions) Act 1992.

Undoubtedly, direct accountability is reduced in arm's-length organisations like training and enterprise councils, which are limited companies that operate independently of the Government, although they are owned by the Government through the use of public money. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for having acknowledged that that is an issue. I look forward to the publication of league tables of the TECs, which will lead to greater accountability in respect of what they are seeking to do.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said that commercial confidentiality was likely to be the biggest area affected by the Bill. Commercial confidentiality was one of the prime boasts of anti-secrecy legislation in the other countries to which he alluded.

Mr. Fisher

The hon. Gentleman misunderstood me. I said that it was likely to be the most contentious area and the area most disputed and taken to appeal.

Mr. Jenkin

I think that the hon. Gentleman said that it was the area most likely to be tested. He alluded to Australia, where wide use is made of this provision. I contrast that point with the point made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate—that there was no right of public ownership to information which is owned by private persons and corporations.

Mr. Bennett

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that those are Committee points, and that it would be much better for him to sit down and let the Bill go to Committee, where they can be pursued?

Mr. Fisher

rose 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 168, Noes 2.

Division No. 159] [2.25 pm
Ainger, Nick Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Austin-Walker, John
Alexander, Richard Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Barnes, Harry
Allen, Graham Barron, Kevin
Alton, David Battle, John
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Bayley, Hugh
Bell, Stuart Khabra, Piara S.
Benton, Joe Kirkwood, Archy
Berry, Dr. Roger Knox, David
Betts, Clive Leighton, Ron
Blackburn, Dr John G. Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Boateng, Paul Livingstone, Ken
Body, Sir Richard Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Boyce, Jimmy McAllion, John
Bradley, Keith Mackinlay, Andrew
Bray, Dr Jeremy Maclennan, Robert
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) McMaster, Gordon
Burden, Richard McNamara, Kevin
Byers, Stephen McWilliam, John
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Madden, Max
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Mandelson, Peter
Cann, Jamie Marek, Dr John
Chisholm, Malcolm Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Clapham, Michael Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Martlew, Eric
Coffey, Ann Meacher, Michael
Cook, Robin (Livingston) Michael, Alun
Corbett, Robin Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Corbyn, Jeremy Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Corston, Ms Jean Moonie, Dr Lewis
Cousins, Jim Morgan, Rhodri
Cox, Tom Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)
Cryer, Bob Mullin, Chris
Cummings, John Murphy, Paul
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) O'Hara, Edward
Darling, Alistair Olner, William
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l) Page, Richard
Denham, John Pike, Peter L.
Dixon, Don Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E)
Dover, Den Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Dowd, Jim Prescott, John
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Primarolo, Dawn
Eagle, Ms Angela Quin, Ms Joyce
Enright, Derek Radice, Giles
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Raynsford, Nick
Fatchett, Derek Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Roche, Mrs. Barbara
Fisher, Mark Rooker, Jeff
Flynn, Paul Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Ruddock, Joan
Foster, Don (Bath) Sedgemore, Brian
Fraser, John Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Fyfe, Maria Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Gapes, Mike Short, Clare
Garrett, John Simpson, Alan
George, Bruce Sims, Roger
Gerrard, Neil Skinner, Dennis
Gordon, Mildred Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Gould, Bryan Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Greenway, Harry (Ealling N) Soley, Clive
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Spearing, Nigel
Hain, Peter Steinberg, Gerry
Hanson, David Strang, Dr. Gavin
Hardy, Peter Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Heppell, John Temple-Morris, Peter
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Tipping, Paddy
Hoey, Kate Vaz, Keith
Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld) Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Hoon, Geoffrey Wallace, James
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A) Walley, Joan
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd) Wareing, Robert N
Hoyle, Doug Watson, Mike
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Wicks, Malcolm
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Wigley, Dafydd
Illsley, Eric Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead) Wilson, Brian
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H) Winnick, David
Janner, Greville Wise, Audrey
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Wolfson, Mark
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O) Worthington, Tony
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW) Wright, Dr Tony
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Keen, Alan Tellers for the Ayes:
Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S) Sir Teddy Taylor and
Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn) Mr. Andrew Bennett.
Jenkin, Bernard Tellers for the Noes:
Paice, James Dr. Liam Fox and
Mr. Alan Duncan.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Question put accordingly and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).

Mr. Cryer

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I raised a point of order earlier requesting a statement from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about the allegations that he spent £17,000 of taxpayers' money on his private property for his own benefit. I understand that the press have been briefed by No. 10 to confirm that that is indeed the case.

I think that you will share my criticism that no statement has been made in this House, but that No. 10 has seen fit to brief the press outside it, when the first responsibility in the expenditure of taxpayers' money is a statement to this House, particularly on a day when we have been debating the secrecy of government and the Chancellor of the Duchy has tried to pretend that the Government are open, when the reverse appears to be the case.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

The hon. Member is sufficiently experienced to know that it is not a matter for the Chair whether Ministers make statements to the House. I have no doubt that those on the Government Front Bench have heard what he has said, and doubtless that was the intention.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a matter for the House and for the Chair that the Minister of Agriculture recently gave evidence to a Committee of the House about spending money on a pond at his home in his constituency. He sent a five-page letter, and it is significant that he did not explain the extra £17,000. It is time that he was brought before the House.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. There is a method for dealing with any complaints of that type, but it is not through the Chair, and it is not now.