§ '.—(1) Where, in any proceedings before the Tribunal, a person claims access to a record, then, subject to subsection (2) below, it shall be for the authority holding the record to show that access to the record should not be given.
(2) Subsection (1) above does not apply where access to the record is being resisted on the ground that it contains information exempt by virtue of section 25 above.'.—[Mr.Thomason.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:
- No. 69, in clause 42, page 24, leave out lines 7 to 30.
- No. 70, in clause 43, page 24, leave out lines 32 to 43.
- No. 71, in clause 44, page 25, leave out lines 1 to 29.
- No. 72, in clause 45, page 25, line 30, leave out from beginning to end of line 5 on page 26.
- No. 73, in clause 46, page 26, leave out lines 6 to 33.
- No. 74, in clause 47, page 26, line 34, leave out from the beginning of line 34 to the end of line 9 on page 27.
- No. 75, in clause 48, page 27, leave out lines 10 to 16.
- No. 76, in clause 49, page 27, leave out lines 17 to 30.
- No. 77, in clause 50, page 27, line 31, leave out from the beginning to the end of line 4 on page 28.
- No. 78, in clause 51, page 28, leave out lines 5 to 19.
- No. 79, in clause 52, page 28, leave out lines 20 to 23.
- No. 80, in clause 53, page 28, leave out lines 24 to 29.
- No. 81, in clause 54, page 28, line 30, leave out from the beginning to the end of line 11 on page 29.
- No. 82, in clause 55, page 29, leave out lines 12 to 33.
- No. 83, in clause 56, page 29, leave out lines 34 to 40.
- No. 42, in clause 57, page 29, leave out lines 41 to 45.
- No. 85, in clause 58, page 30, leave out lines 1 to 9.
- No. 86, in clause 59, page 30, leave out lines 10 to 26.
§ Mr. Thomason
I am obliged to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me. I rise to speak in support of new clause 2 and amendment No. 42. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on his enormous work in producing the Bill. It is never easy for any Member of Parliament to produce a private Member's Bill, and one who produces a Bill of the complexity and size of the Right to Know Bill deserves special congratulation. The House is obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his efforts.
In that spirit, I inform the hon. Gentleman that new clause 2 is not intended to be a wrecking amendment. Far from it—it aims to be constructive and to ensure that the Bill can operate effectively once it is implemented. It deals with a particular problem which, on reflection, many hon. Members will feel should require attention.
The Bill suggests that a third party should have the burden of proof against him in establishing that information should not be made available to a tribunal. For example, if a public body is approached by company 1271 A which asks for information on the public body, that information should be provided if possible. The public body must have the burden of proof against it if it refuses to produce that information. That is the position under the proposals of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. It is also the position under new clause 2.
If the information sought by company A relates to company B, burden of proof will still be on company B to resist making that information available, so it will be a difficult hurdle for the third party to overcome to resist the disclosure of information held by a public body and requested by a third party. Where information is requested by the third party, the burden of proof should rest against the person who makes the application, because that person seeks to obtain information which may be used against another person or body.
§ Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor and Maidenhead)
In the spirit of the debate, can my hon. Friend tell me whether company A or company B made any donations to any political party?
§ Mr. Thomason
Company A or B or, indeed, trade union A or B may well have made contributions, but that would be irrelevant to obtaining justice before the tribunal.
I am surprised that several amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) have been taken with new clause 2 and amendment No. 42. His series of amendments seek to delete the provisions on the establishment of the tribunal. That does not seem entirely in the spirit of the proposal in new clause 2, which seeks to add to the provisions in the Bill, not to destroy the tribunal arrangements entirely. I shall need some persuasion by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester that I should support his amendments. So there is a discrepancy between the objectives of the amendments in the group. It is wholly proper and appropriate that some mechanism should be created for testing whether information should be disclosed.
New clause 2 goes a long way towards achieving those arrangements for disclosure without imposing an undue burden on those who seek information from or about someone else. The associated amendments, however, appear to destroy the ability to provide an appropriate mechanism to deal with deciding whether a public body should disclose information in the first place. I wait to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester will say to justify his amendments.
§ Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) need not hold his breath for too long. I assure the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) that my amendments are designed to probe the need for the existence of the commissioner and the tribunal. It is not my intention to press them to a vote, so he, too, can breath easy.
The means of establishing the commissioner and tribunal deserves to be scrutinised and alternative enforcement mechanisms must be considered. I am sure that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has spotted that I have not proposed any such alternatives, however, so it would be foolish to push my amendments to a vote, because we would then be left with a toothless Bill. That is not what I desire.
1272 I also believe that my amendment No. 54 relates closely to the same issue and, therefore, it is no longer my intention to move it.
I am extremely concerned about the cumbersome mechanisms for enforcement set out in the Bill. I seek reassurance from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central that those elaborate procedures are essential to secure the objectives of his Bill. I must make it clear that I am in sympathy with much of the principle behind the Bill—I know that the hon. Gentleman will think that I am being disingenuous, but I am not—but my reservations tend to mount as we consider its later clauses. We all support the principle of freedom of information. The Government share that commitment, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will make clear when he speaks.
It is right that we should pause and reflect on whether the mechanisms for enforcement are right and the scope of the Bill is appropriate. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central drew on several examples on Second Reading to support his argument, but his choice of the poison apple scare was infelicitous. That is like a red rag to a bull to an hon. Member who represents the county of Hereford and Worcester. The lessons that he drew from that example were different from my own. The House and the Government had to devote an enormous amount of time to dealing with utterly false scare stories, that could have had serious implications for farmers in my constituency. I am saddened that he chose to draw attention to that particular example, because it caused me to question many of the Bill's early clauses.
My amendments refer to part IV. If I understand it correctly, the Standing Committee did not consider the clauses in that part, but passed them on the nod. We must, therefore, spend a little time on Report considering the merits of the framework that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central seeks to erect.
We should pass legislation only if we believe that it will assist to alter attitudes as well as the legal framework. If we believe that a particular part of a Bill may have an adverse effect on attitudes and the way in which people conduct themselves, we should pause and think long and hard before passing that legislation. Its enactment may make us all feel better, but it may make things worse in the real world outside.
The first two clauses in part IV deal with the internal review and I have no argument with them. I am concerned, however, that the other clauses will create a siege mentality in the institutions from which we are trying to gain information. I fear that the threat of overly officious enforcement may not foster the right attitude of openness.
I worked in government for two years and I strongly believe that the need to create openness in our society relies on attitude rather than the law. Some ingenious officials working in government may feel that they can circumvent provisions should they need to. It is much better that they should be encouraged to regard openness in government as desirable in itself and so develop a natural climate of openness. My amendments provide an opportunity to consider whether alternative enforcement mechanisms would not have an overly officious effect on civil servants and would therefore create that climate of openness.
§ Mr. Trend
Why does my hon. Friend feel that a legal framework would stifle rather than help to bring about a change in attitude or approach? I can think of some circumstances in which a change of attitude might be 1273 stifled by a draconian measure, but in the present case a change of law may encourage and accelerate—as seems to have happened in other parts of the English-speaking world—a move towards greater freedom of information, which most hon. Members favour.
§ Mr. Luff
I understand and have some sympathy with my hon. Friend's concerns, but a more flexible framework to enforce the law might not only produce less of a siege mentality in those whose attitudes we seek to alter, but might also lead to a speedier resolution of the issue. I shall return to that matter with an alternative suggestion.
Even if my hon. Friend disagrees that an excessively legal, regulated framework is the wrong approach, he may at least join me in considering the possibility of a speedier way of resolving disputes about access to information. I am concerned not to force people to adopt increasingly imaginative ways of avoiding the provisions of the Bill. If individuals know that their recorded words, actions, thoughts and deeds will be subject to intense public scrutiny, the records may become less frank and therefore of less value. We see that at work in many areas of life, particularly in an employer's fear, when he writes a reference for an employee, that his employee may see it. The euphemisms which enter references are legion.
If we do not create the right climate for enforcing the Bill, it could lead to less good decision taking because less information will circulate in writing in the organisations concerned. That could lead to less good government and commercial decision taking. We might rely instead on a framework of nods and winks, of verbal agreements, and no written records. That would be unhealthy.
I note in particular what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said when he introduced the Bill:The minds of Ministers, civil servants, local government officials and leaders would he wonderfully concentrated by the thought that the public had access to the information and records on which they made their decisions.—[ Official Report, 19 February 1993: Vol. 219, c. 588.]The stick with which the hon. Gentleman proposes to beat people in this clause is what he proposes would concentrate their minds. I prefer the carrot approach, providing those individuals with the intellectual arguments which would make them wish to conduct their business more openly.
The clauses that the amendment seeks to delete add to that pressure. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Mr. Trend) that an alternative mechanism would better be modelled on the ombudsman procedure, which works in other areas of public life. It is less cumbersome, more flexible and sometimes—althought I must admit not always—speedier.
§ Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)
Is my hon. Friend aware that the ombudsman's judgments are not enforceable in law—in Scotland it is different from south of the border—and that many public bodies have sought simply to ignore those decisions? In trying to change people's attitudes through a more flexible approach, what does my hon. Friend suggest that we do when we come up against an organisation or institution whose mind does not want to be moved?
§ Mr. Luff
My view of the ombudsman is slightly more rosy than that of my hon. Friend. I do not know why solicitors in my constituency are working so hard to get the ombudsman to produce favourable outcomes for their 1274 clients if they do not share that view. My local authority recently used an ombudsman's judgment to deny compensation to one of my constituents because it felt that as the ombudsman had said that no fault rested on the authority, the Audit Commission would have been extremely critical if compensation had been paid. Ombudsmen are more effective than my hon. Friend suggests.
§ Mr. Pickles
Is my hon. Friend aware that despite criticisms from the district auditor and the Audit Commission, councils such as Wakefield and Manchester have persistently ignored ombudsmen's decisions? Despite the work of solicitors in his constituency and the reasonable nature of most institutions, what happens when somebody will not co-operate?
§ Mr. Luff
I am prepared to be persuaded on the issue. I have said that I do not intend to divide the House on the amendments and I hope that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central will be able to assure me that the adverse consequences which I fear will not flow from the legislation and that my proposal of an ombudsman is inadequate. I do not wish to become bogged down in debate with my hon. Friends because that prevents the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central from telling us how the Bill will work in practice.
I am not opposed to the early parts of the Bill, but I am worried about the way it seems to work. The Bill on Sunday trading presented by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) had my entire and robust sympathy, but the way the Bill developed in Committee made it too bureaucratic and difficult to administer. That is precisely my concern about the section of the Bill that we are debating. To make speedier progress, I shall restrict my remarks to that aspect.
On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said: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."—[Official Report, 19 February 1993; Vol. 219, c. 596.]In that spirit, I urge the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central to reassure me that the central mechanisms in his Bill are necessary. For example, is it not possible to find a better way to operate our system of parliamentary questions to procure the necessary information? I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman's comment on Second Reading that hon. Members are too often fobbed off with inadequate answers. He said that hon. Members had noticed the increasing use of answerssuch 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."—[Official Report, 19 February 1993; Vol. 219, c. 584.]Is that not perhaps an alternative enforcement mechanism in the making and one which we should consider rather than an elaborate and expensive method of enforcing desirable legislation?
1275 Part IV of the Bill seems too draconian. My amendments give the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central an opportunity to justify the edifice that he seeks to create to achieve the noble ends that we all share.
§ Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
I am surprised that the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) who moved the new clause is not in his place. If he were here, I would tell him that he either does not fully understand the brief that he has been given for his new clause or has not read the Bill. I see that he has just returned to his place. He seemed to be under the misapprehension that the tribunal would enforce requests from one company to another. The wording of the new clause is almost identical to that in clause 57 of the Bill and it is therefore difficult to see exactly what the hon. Gentleman seeks to achieve that would not be achieved by clause 57, which is about establishing a burden of proof on an authority that seeks not to disclose information that is covered by the Bill.
§ Mr. Thomason
The point relates to the burden of proof on a third party. The burden of proof will remain exactly the same as in the Bill.
§ Mr. Fisher
The hon. Gentleman has not read his own new clause, which states that wherea person claims access to a record…it shall be for the authority"—there he is referring to the authorities covered by the scope of the Bill, which are all public bodies—holding the record to show that access to the record should not be given.It would be a courtsey to the House if the hon. Gentleman who tabled the new clause had even a rudimentary knowledge of what he was moving. It illustrates what has happened this morning. Every hon. Member who is in the Chamber knows exactly what has happened. However, members of the public may not. As we are accountable to the public, I believe that I ought to explain what has been happening and how it is that a highly intelligent and capable Member of Parliament finds himself moving a new clause that he has not read and does not even begin to understand.
Tory Members have been wheeled in to spend four hours of the time of the House speaking to six sets of Lords amendments, none of which is opposed. The amendments are agreed by both sides of the House and by every single Member who has spoken this morning. They have the approval of the House and of the other place. It has been a time-wasting exercise. The reason for it should be explained to the public.
The Government are determined to prevent the Right to Know Bill from completing its Report stage and being given a Third Reading.
§ Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)
I really must protest at the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we have been involved in a time-wasting exercise. It has escaped his notice, it seems, that the whole country wants to know how we intend to deal with persistent offenders. It is their right to know that that Bill was properly and adequately debated.
§ Mr. Fisher
I am sure that the hon. Lady is right about the will of the country. She will also be aware that the will 1276 of the House is not opposed by any opposition party or by any of her hon. Friends. She knows very well that what has gone on this morning is something to which she has been a party, Friday after Friday. There have been the same usual suspects—the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), for Worcester (Mr. Luff) and for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason). Week after week, they have come here to—
§ Mr. Luff
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you guide me? I think that the hon. Gentleman is coming perilously close to impugning the honour of hon. Members. I have severe reservations about some of the Lords amendments to the Bail (Amendment) Bill. I wanted to explain what they were to the House.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) is entitled to make his own speech.
§ Mr. Fisher
I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Everybody knows what has gone on here this morning and what has gone on here when other Bills have been before the House, such as the Bill that was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) relating to disabled persons, both in the previous Parliament and in this, and also the Bill that was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) concerning medical information. It is no mystery to Members of Parliament. They know what goes on here when private Member's Bills are debated, but it is important for the public to understand the actions of this House.
§ Mr. Pickles
I had hoped that we would hear the hon. Gentleman's views on this Bill. I have been here on every occasion that the Local Government (Overseas Assistance) Bill has been debated. I was here last on a Friday on 26 March. That hardly qualifies me as a regular attender on Fridays. The hon. Gentleman may consider himself to be a machine politician and he may believe that what the Opposition Front Bench tells him must be right. Just because there may be a cosy agreement between the two Front Benches does not mean that I do not want to come here to defend the rights of local government.
§ Mr. Fisher
I will not enter into that debate with the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Gentleman knows the purpose behind his tabling, with other Conservative Members, 86 amendments to my Bill—which received an unopposed Second Reading, when there was plenty of time either to vote against it with a closure motion or to speak against it. The Bill also received 15 hours of scrutiny in Committee, where it was not substantially amended. Suddenly, the hon. Gentleman is taking an interest in the right to know and has tabled 86 amendments—many of which, despite his remarks, are deliberate wrecking amendments that seek to knock out whole sections of a Bill that received an unopposed Second Reading and detailed scrutiny in Committee.
§ Mr. Luff
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the amendments that I am discussing were not debated in Committee and deserve detailed scrutiny? Will he accept also that I did not attend the Bill's Second Reading and vote against it—which I might have done, if I had given the matter some thought—because I thought that it was worth 1277 while for the Bill to be considered in Committee and for the issues to be debated, as a preparatory move to the Government bringing forward their own White Paper? Later, I shall seek assurances from my hon. Friend the Minister that a White Paper will be published before the summer recess, as was promised by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State some months ago.
§ Mr. Fisher
If the hon. Gentleman had done any homework and read the proceedings in Committee, he would know that the tribunal and the commissioner were discussed at great length.
§ Mr. Thomason
It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman read the amendment properly rather than accuse others of not understanding it. Clause 57 places the burden on the third party, whereas new clause 2 places it on the public authority. New clause 2 is quite different, although it follows the Bill's general form. Is not the hon. Gentleman mistaken in his allegations, and will he withdraw them?
§ Mr. Fisher
No. Before the hon. Gentleman gets hot under the collar, he should read clause 57:In any proceedings before the Tribunal, the burden of establishing that access to a record or part of a record should not be given shall be on the authority which holds the record".The hon. Gentleman's new clause says exactly that. The hon. Gentleman has not followed the debate and he does not understand the Bill.
§ Mr. Fisher
Before the hon. Gentleman makes a greater fool of himself, he should resume his seat. I will not give way again. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes outside and quietly reads the Bill. It would be for his better information if he were to do so, before trying to move new clauses.
§ Mr. Thomason
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman suggested that I am a fool, and I strongly object. Some hon. Members may agree with him, but I ask whether the hon. Gentleman was using proper parliamentary language.
§ Mr. Fisher
The hon. Gentleman seems to be accusing himself out of his own mouth. I am convinced that he would have been better informed if he read the Bill and the proceedings in Committee before seeking to table new clauses. He might then have thought better of his new clause. There is nothing in it to which I object, because it repeats almost word for word clause 57. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's attempt to repeat clause 57, but that is a strange way of supporting it. His support would have been better expressed in a different way.
Today's proceedings relate very much to what the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) seeks to do with amendment No. 54 and his support for the new clause. The Government's position was made clear by the Secretary of State and by the Under-Secretary of State in Committee. They verbally support the principle of greater access to freedom of information and are to produce a White Paper. Their view is that the matter can safely be left to a more liberal attitude by Government Departments. It is sad that the Chancellor of the Duchy has not got his White Paper 1278 through the other Government Departments. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister when it will be published.
I understand that the White Paper, which has been in draft form for some time, has gone to other Departments and has been subjected to a great sheaf of objections by almost every Department. The Chancellor, his junior Minister and his civil servants, who I am convinced believe passionately in the subject and the importance of it, understand the significance of the Bill. Their good will has not been matched by other Secretaries of State and I hope that the Minister will be candid enough to recognise that and will tell us something about the difficulties and objections of other Departments.
The Government are led by a Prime Minister who, for the first time in the history of this country, has said that there is too much secrecy in government, which is greatly to his credit. He appointed the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to get on with the job and I accept that the Chancellor of the Duchy and his former and present junior Ministers are sincere and wish to make progress. However, that verbal support does not lead them to support the Bill. Although they have not voted against it, they have criticised it on the grounds that it is legislation and it is too cumbersome, but the background of their objection—this applies to the point that the hon. Member for Worcester is seeking to address in deleting the tribunal and commissioner—is that it takes out of the hands of Ministers the power to adjudicate on whether information should be in the public domain and gives it to an independent tribunal and comissioner.
The Government, while seeking slightly to open the flow of information, do not want the Bill and do not want to lose the control of information because it is enormously powerful and enormously effective and useful for Government and civil servants. The Minister and the hon. Members who have tabled the 86 amendments know that. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar whose experience in local government is considerable, understands the help, especially at moments of political embarrassment, that controlling the flow of information can give.
Interestingly, almost every local authority and all the local authority associations support the Bill, even though they know that it will cause inconvenience and difficulty. They will not be able to keep some information from the public, as they have in the past, but, to their credit, local government and councillors of all political parties have seen that the game is up and that local authorities and officials cannot control information against the public's will. Only the Government seek to hold on the power of controlling information.
Every political party in the House now wants freedom of information legislation. A growing number of Conservative Back Benchers support large tracts of the Bill and only a few Ministers and civil servants do not want to lose control of information. That is why the Bill has been obstructed this morning and that is why it will not become law.
The Government cling to the embattled and unsustainable position that Ministers and civil servants should control information. That is not the view of the Governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and most European countries. The 1279 Governments who have changed things in those countries are of all polical parties. Indeed, Conservative Governments, trying to defend the rights of the individual against the overbearing power of the state, have often pushed through freedom of information legislation. People outside the House are amazed and appalled by the Government who are led by a Prime Minister who says that he believes that there is too much secrecy but who still seeks to hold on to power. The Government will speak the language of greater openness. I believe that the Chancellor of the Duchy, if he had his way with the White Paper, would encourage—the very word that the hon. Member for Worcester used—his Departments to open up more. However, there is a world of difference between voluntary disclosure and making disclosure compulsory for the Government, local government and other public bodies. That fundamental difference is the real test on which freedom of information hinges.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
I wish to put two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, does he agree that there is a finely tuned balance between the right to know and the right to privacy? The right to privacy is enshrined in modern democracy. Secondly, how does he equate his pursuit of freedom of information and the right know with his party's reluctance to allow schools to publish their examination results?
§ Mr. Fisher
I agree with the hon. Lady's first point, but, if she had read the Bill, she would realise that clause 22 makes an exemption of matters of personal privacy. The Bill, which has been modelled on legislation from other countries, contains five or six key exemptions. No country in the world has complete licence and freedom of information. Personal privacy is certainly very important and is covered by the Bill, as it is by freedom of information legislation in other countries.
The hon. Lady is wrong on her second and party political point. The Labour party is in favour of the full disclosure of all school records. Indeed, the Bill ensures that the records of all schools and colleges are in the public domain. What we object to is partial selection, which the Government favour. If the Government really supported freedom of information in education, and believed that all information should be in the public domain, they would support the Bill that would make education information available to parents, students and all those interested in education. Instead, the Government favour making public only a selective range of indicators which they hope will prove their own points. That is not freedom of information. If the hon. Lady believed in freedom of information, she would support the Bill and ensure that all education records were in the public domain.
§ Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)
If we had a freedom of information Act, would not schoolteachers and headmasters be able to release the letters that they have sent to the Secretary of State saying why they thought exam results would be grossly misleading to parents and children alike, without being threatened with action by the Secretary of State if they release that information?
§ Mr. Fisher
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but the information that would be released under the Bill would include not only what he has identified but all other education statistics. If the Government were seriously interested in the public knowing all about our schools, 1280 colleges and universities, they would support what on Second Reading they called "blockbuster legislation" such as this. Such legislation would reveal all information and it would then be up to the public, with the help of journalists, to decide what it amounted to.
§ Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor and Maidenhead)
The hon. Gentleman referred to blockbuster legislation. Some of us believe that there is a difference between rights-based legislation such as he is proposing and the discretion of the Government to allow certain matters to be opened to public scrutiny. There is, however, much common ground between the two. It appears that the hon. Gentleman and the Government agree on a mixed approach. The measures that the Government are so proud of having introduced, including those on local government and access to personal files and medical records, were introduced at their discretion, but they have established a rights-based approach for the public. It is not hard to arrive at the logical conclusion and to have a general, rights-based approach.
§ Mr. Fisher
I agree that tentative steps have been made, but I disagree in that it is not the Government who have introduced such legislation; rather, it has been pushed through by means of private Member's Bills which the Government have eventually allowed into the legislative programme.
The Government initially supported the Medicines Information Bill and agreed with Sir William Assner when he said that section 118 of the Medicines Act 1968 was thoroughly dangerous. That section makes it a criminal offence for someone such as Sir William to disclose information about the safety of drugs that he knows are unsafe and prevents the release of that information; if he released it, he would be sent to prison for two years. The Government initially supported the Bill in Committee, but, under pressure, I suspect, from outside commercial interests, they have backed off and blocked the Bill which now sits in the queue behind the Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley).
Such action is not to the credit of the Department of Health and it makes a mockery of the Government and their support for freedom of information, because everybody in the country, apart from the pharmaceutical companies, knows that the Medicines Information Bill is a thoroughly sensible, modest, but important measure which would correct something thoroughly wrong with the 1968 Act, which was passed by a Labour Government. Section 118 of that Act is idiotic and dangerous for the understanding of drugs and the health of the nation.
Why was such a good Bill blocked by the Government? That question goes to the nub of what the hon. Member for Worcester is seeking to do in questioning the tribunal and the commissioner. The reason, as I was saying earlier, concerns taking the power out of the hands of Ministers. The public and hon. Members may understand the Government's position more clearly when they consider the events of the past year. There has been a succession of public events: Matrix Churchill, the Scott inquiry, the closure of the pits, the patulin affair—which so offends constituents of the hon. Member for Worcester which, from a constituency point of view, I can understand—the question of the criteria on which Group 4 are running a privatised prison service, the whole nature of their 1281 contracts and how they can be enforced, the channel tunnel rail link, the question of Mr. Asil Nadir and the Tory party funds, the Maastricht legal advice and the Medicines Information Bill. Almost every month this year there has been a key political crisis that has hinged around information. The crux of each of those crises has been whether the Government have the right to withhold information or whether, in a mature democracy, the public and the press should have the same access to information.
The Government are almost alone in thinking that they should control information rather than share it with the public as a matter not of voluntary means, but of right. The Government should take note of the surprising sheaf of tens of thousands of post cards that arrived at the beginning of the year addressed to my hon. Friends and to Ministers. Perhaps, more acutely, the Government should take note of the way in which every single major national newspaper, that had formerly always supported the Tory party ran leader columns in February in support of the Right to Know Bill and freedom of information.
The Government chose not to listen to the advice of its usual supporters in the press: The Times, the Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph and others. All those newspapers said that the game was up on the Government keeping information to themselves, not just because of a desire for a balance of power, but because it is only by sharing information with the public that one improves the understanding, involvement, credibility and quality of public debate and the public scrutiny and accountability of politicians.
All hon. Members should recognise that the political process and politicians have never been held in such low esteem as they are at the moment. Regardless of party, the public are fed up with politicians and many of the things that happen in the House. The public do not trust or believe us and one reflection of that is the uniquely low standing of the Prime Minister. He is a perfectly honourable individual, but he has a lower standing in the polls than any Prime Minister has had before. The news today is that the Prime Minister has the lowest rating since opinion polls were introduced.
However, that low opinion of the public is not confined to the Prime Minister. I suspect that if there were an opinion poll about the credibility of Parliament and politicians, it would show a similar very low level. One of the reasons for that is the arrogance of the House, at the behest of the Government, in holding information to itself and saying to the public, "We don't care whether you understand: We don't have to justify what we are doing to legislation in this country. We will assert what we believe. We will tell you as much as we believe you have a right to know and you will have to be satisfied with that because you have no rights to know." That is the current position.
§ Mr. Trend
Has the hon. Gentleman considered the point that if a Government were to introduce right-to-know legislation, they would be very popular? In the run up to a general election, and having introduced such legislation, they would receive popular—not populist—support. In many respects, although not in respect of reforming the Official Secrets Act 1911, the hon. Gentleman's Right to Know Bill conforms to basic Conservative principles of empowering the individual.
§ Mr. Fisher
Yes. One of the extraordinary things about freedom of information and the right to know is that they cross all political barriers. They can be supported by the libertarian far right, in the form of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and others, on the basis that it gives the individual power against institutions and the state. They can also be supported by liberals and socialists—
§ Mr. Fisher
Yes, and libertarians. They can be supported by people of all political parties for slightly different motives. However, they can sympathise with the principle and that is why freedom of information legislation across the world has been introduced by Governments of all political persuasions. That makes it all the more baffling that this Conservative Government, almost alone in Europe, in the English-speaking world and in the Commonwealth, stand out against such legislation.
In their heart of hearts, the Government know that they cannot stand out against such legislation for very much longer. I suspect that in its next general election manifesto, if such legislation is not passed in the interim, the Conservative party will bow the knee to public opinion and join every other political party in making a commitment to freedom of information legislation.
We must then consider what kind of legislation will be introduced and how it will be enforced. Will it be enforced by a strong method or a weak method? I agree with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar that an ombudsman is not the way to proceed. It is interesting to note that Canada has a much weaker form of enforcement through its commissioner. By general consent, the Canadian system does not work as well as the stronger form, 6n which we have modelled the tribunal and commissioner, to be found in Australia.
Having spent years in local government and in this place, and in spite of the integrity and hard work of the different ombudsmen, my confidence in them to deliver decisions that are constrained by the criteria and rules under which they must work, is not great. In addition, the speed with which they reach decisions is appalling. I am sure that when the hon. Member for Worcester takes cases to ombudsmen on behalf of his constituents, he finds that they take months to resolve.
Information covered by my Bill must be released within 30 days. I believe that the public have a right to that kind of response. If we leave the enforcement of their rights to an ombudsman and not to a tribunal or commissioner, that enforcement will take six months, nine months or perhaps even longer. The relevance of information will therefore be lost. When the hon. Member for Worcester considers that, I am sure that he will reconsider and agree with his hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar that an ombudsman is not the best way to enforce these matters.
The tribunal and commissioner are quick and they are not expensive methods of resolving problems. They would achieve a result in respect of whether information is covered by the Bill within a very few days. The speed and accessibility of information is often as important as the information itself. If information is sensitive enough for a local authority or a Department to want to suppress and 1283 to argue the toss under the legislation, it is probably because it is active in the public domain at the time. Speed of response is extremely important.
§ Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport)
In view of the time, it appears that the hon. Gentleman will remain on his feet for whatever time is left to debate the amendments. Therefore, will he touch not so much on the global issues? As an hon. Member who has not spoken before on a Friday—as a conscientious constituency Member, I am usually in Southport on Fridays, and I have no interest other than in pursuing the principle that the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve with the Bill—I ask the hon. Gentleman briefly to mention accessibility to employment records.
I am particularly concerned that industry and the Confederation of British Industry fear that this Bill is not the right way to proceed. There might be a threat to a future employer's confidential reference. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on concern that has been expressed by employers that they should be free, as long as they do not act unlawfully, to provide to and receive from organisations information which might help them in assessing the suitability of employees for certain jobs and the suitability of future or current employees to assist the business for which they work?
The method that the hon. Gentleman seeks to impose with his Bill will bring to an end the possibility of maintaining any confidential employers' references.
§ Mr. Fisher
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is wrong. The CBI is concerned about clause 80, which is about amendments to the Companies Act 1985, and how it would work. But on employers records, it does not have strong reservations, not least because many employers—in fact, the best employers in the country—share with their employees what is on record about them, just as the medical profession is increasingly sharing its records with patients. The Bill seeks to extend that practice in respect of before 1991 and give all individuals access to their medical records.
Most good employers and most parts of the public sector, such as the armed services, are increasingly encouraging open access to employees' files. It is important that individuals should be able to see what is written about them by an employer so that they can correct factual inaccuracies. If they do not, they lose control over perhaps the most important part of their life—their sense of indentity in their work. There might be material on their records which is misinformed, out of date, partial, biased or applying to some other person and which prejudices the career development and opportunities of an individual. It might even prejudice their work.
§ Mr. Fisher
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman because I want the Minister to reply to what, sadly, has been a brief debate. It is important that the Government's views are on the record as well.
It is very sad and democratically wrong, when legislation has had an unopposed Second Reading and full scrutiny in Committee, that the Government have the power through Back-Bench Members—
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath)
My party shares the hon. Gentleman's sadness that the Bill will clearly not make further progress. On Second Reading, I said that freedom of information should be at the heart of a modern democracy, that freedom of information should exist as of right, and that freedom of information should be the norm and secrecy the exception. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those are the three key principles which we must hear from the Government today and that we must hope that they will include them in future legislation?
§ Mr. Fisher
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute to his work in Committee and to the support of his party, and indeed that of all minority parties. The marked feature is that every political party, apart from the Conservative party, formally supports freedom of information legislation. I am grateful to other political parties in that united front.
There is a wider point about the handling of private Members' Bills. Cynical blocking or use of parliamentary time is wrong because it frustrates the will of Parliament when Bills receive unopposed Second Readings and full scrutiny in Committee.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe is in his place because the way that he has worked for disabled people in society and his Bill will have support throughout the country and the House. However, his Bill has been blocked time and again by the Government. There are other examples of Bills being blocked—the Medicines Information Bill is but one.
That is not the way to defeat private Members' Bills. They should stand or fall on the quality of the arguments. We need to reform the whole process of how we organise the time for private Members' Bills during the parliamentary year so that they can either succeed or fall not on manipulation of time but on the success or otherwise of the arguments. Unless we do that, we arc frustrating our democratic principles. I will resume my seat so that the Minister can speak for the last five minutes and let us know the latest position with regard to the White Paper.
Freedom of information legislation will not go away. Britain will have a Right to Know Bill in the next few years because everyone, apart from a small beleaguered handful of Ministers, know that that is the way in which the Government can be opened to scrutiny and accountability. In a modern democracy, we need the right to know.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. David Davis)
I have little time and I want to allow one more speaker, so I will be brief. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) will appreciate, I am a late arrival on this Bill. Although the Government do not support it, the hon. Gentleman has done a public service in taking it through the Committee and airing many issues. Many matters have arisen from the Committee stage that have helped in thinking through the important methods of developing a right to know. I commend the hon. Gentleman on that.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster promised that a White Paper would be published before the recess and that will be the case. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to preview the White Paper today and I am sure that he will understand if I do not follow him down that road. I simply commend my hon. Friends the Members for Bromsgrove (Mr. 1285 Thomason) and for Worcester (Mr. Luff) for raising important issues. Frankly, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central was a little harsh on my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove. I simply read clause 57:In any proceedings before the Tribunal, the burden of establishing that access to a record or part of a record should not be given shall be on the authority which holds the record, except where the proceedings relate to information which is claimed to be exempt under section 25 above when the burden shall be on the third party.The point raised by new clause 2, where it attempts to redress the balance, is simply that of altering that provision to ensure that, in a commercial situation, the burden falls on the applicant, not the third party
There are many circumstances that I could air at length, but, unfortunately, we are out of time today. I will try to give another hon. Member the chance to make a point today, but I am sure that I will return to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central many times during debates on the White Paper, and I look forward to that.
§ Mr. Soley
I am appalled by that short response from the Minister. He knows that he could have spoken longer if the Government Whips had not chosen to talk these Bills out—not simply this Bill but the previous ones as well.
As I have said before, the Government's attempts to talk out Bills means that they devalue democracy in the House. It has always been the principle of the House that private Members' Bill should be decided on their merits. Unfortunately, in recent years—I suppose that we must go back 30 or 40 years—it has become the normal practice for Government Whips to organise against private Members' Bills. It has happened on both sides, but it has become so institutionalised that the present Government Whips are in a position to tell Back-Bench Members when they will be able to speak. We are in the absurd position that a private Member's Bill can complete its passage through the House only if it has the stamp of Government approval. That is why I and some other Back-Benchers, including Conservative Members, have written to the Procedure Committee asking that the position be changed.
The way in which to change the position is obvious. All private Members who are drawn high in the ballot should be timetabled so that their Bill cannot be talked out. They could then be either voted for or voted against. We could not talk out the Bill that introduced the poll tax; we could not talk out the Maastricht Bill. People tried all sorts of tricks. So if the Government can have a timetable, why cannot Back-Bench Members have a timetable? Alternatively, if we can talk out private Member's Bill, let us be able to talk out Government Bills. That would give us an opportunity to exercise democracy.
§ It being half-past Two o'clock, further consideration of the Bill stood adjourned.