§ The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. William Waldegrave)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about open government. I am publishing today a White Paper—
§ Madam Speaker
Order. Will hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber do so not only quickly but quietly so that we can hear the statement?
§ Mr. Waldegrave
I am publishing today a White Paper which marks the conclusion of a review that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked me to undertake in May last year. It is a significant step forward towards more openness, on which the Government have already made considerable progress.
The White Paper draws together two strands of policy that are not always associated by those who have campaigned for freedom of information—the citizen's right to find out and the Government's duty to inform. Governments can wait to be asked, but, across a whole range of policy areas, the objective should be to initiate the publication of information that is of practical use to people. That is a principle of the citizens charter, aimed at providing more information about services in a form that helps users of services to understand, to compare, to assert their rights and, wherever possible, to exercise choice.
That is why we are determined, for example, to publish comparative information on schools and why we have attached such importance to the publication of information measuring performance in transport, health and many other areas.
The White Paper builds on what has been achieved and takes progress further with six new steps. First, it sets out a new code of practice on access to information held by central Government. It commits the Government, for the first time, to a clear set of principles governing what information will be available and what can properly be withheld. It deals with the information that we shall aim to provide as a matter of course, including the facts, analysis and reasoning that lie behind decisions; and explanatory material, including internal guidance, dealing with Departments' rules and procedures in their dealings with the public.
The code includes a commitment to meet reasonable requests for factual information relating to the policies, actions and decisions of Departments, filling the gaps in the framework of published information.
Obviously, some categories of information will be exempt from that commitment. They are set out in part II of the draft code in annex A to the White Paper. Those categories will be familiar to those who have studied overseas access legislation and many areas of confidentiality would have been exempt also under the Right to Know Bill introduced this Session by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). Chapter 3 of the White Paper explains the rationale for those exemptions, and for some issues on which we have taken a different approach from that adopted in the Bill.
The second and crucial step is that the new code will be independently policed by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—the ombudsman—who has agreed to consider complaints that a Department has failed to provide information that should have been 1114 provided under the code. This can be done under his existing powers if referred to him through a Member of Parliament.
Citizens will thus have an independent investigator working on their behalf. The ombudsman will be able to report to Parliament if he finds that information has been improperly withheld. Ministers and their Departments can be called to account if they are criticised by the ombudsman, as they can now be called to account for maladministration and injustice. Parliamentary accountability is enhanced, not diminished.
The code will apply in the first instance to Departments and other bodies within the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Commissioner and his opposite number in Northern Ireland. However, the Government believe that similar codes could apply with advantage to the national health service and to local authorities. We shall consult representative interests, including the relevant professions and the local authority associations, before publishing further proposals covering those areas.
People have a direct interest in the accuracy and privacy of information held about them by Government. That is why our third proposal is to introduce a new statutory right of access for the subject to see such personal information, applying to a wide range of public sector authorities. There will be exemptions broadly in line with the Data Protection Act 1984, for example, where disclosure would prejudice the prevention or detection of crime, the apprehension or prosecution of offenders, or the assessment or collection of tax. Confidential references will also be protected, as will certain other specified categories of personal information such as records relating to immigration, nationality and consular records.
The greatest number of representations received over the last year by my Department related to information held by Government in the area of public health and safety. That is why our fourth proposal is a new statutory access right to health and safety information held by public authorities, on the lines of the existing access right to environmental information. That will go beyond health and safety at work to include information on such matters as the safety of public places, transport, food and consumer goods and environmental health risks. Obviously, proper protection must be offered to genuine trade secrets and manufacturing know-how and we must honour past commitments where information has been given in confidence. However, it will be a key aim to make the process of regulation more transparent both to the public—in whose interest it is carried out—and to the industries affected, which have sometimes found regulatory requirements to be unclear or poorly explained.
Where there is a statutory right of access, there should be a right of appeal to an external authority on matters in dispute. The Government will be consulting further on whether new tribunals should be established to hear appeals arising from the two new access rights.
Fifthly, we have identified and listed in the White Paper the many statutory provisions that limit the ability of the Government to disclose information. Where those provisions run across the new access rights, provision can be made to set them aside. However, in the other cases we see no reason to revise the opinion of the Franks committee in 1972 that there is no contradiction between proper openness and the necessary protection of private information that has been entrusted to the state in confidence. Parliament has approved all those provisions, 1115 often on the basis that protection of confidentiality was quid pro quo for some invasion of privacy. The majority of them should stand. In future, however, we shall consider the selective introduction of harm tests into those statutory offences.
Sixthly, and finally among the main White Paper proposals, I come to the review and release of public records. An invitation that I issued to historians last summer has produced useful suggestions, which have led to some significant publications. Examples of those and of records released as a result of other initiatives are listed in annex D to the White Paper. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is releasing further papers today relating to the early history of intelligence operations.
A working party established by my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has recommended, and my noble and learned Friend has accepted, changes in the criteria for closing records, reductions in the periods of extended closure and the application of a harm test, which will mean that, in future, records will not be closed for longer than 30 years unless actual damage would be caused by their release. That will lead to a substantial increase in the material available to historians.
I think it relevant to mention to the House that, in addition to the six main proposals in the White Paper, the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Committee is reviewing the D notice procedure in order to modernise it and to make it more open. Parliament will be notified of the outcome of that review shortly.
I believe that the House will recognise that those proposals, taken together, lay down a sure and lasting foundation for more open public administration and government. They are a series of practical steps that meet the principal objectives of those who have advocated a full statutory freedom of information regime, without the legal complexities that that would entail. They do so while strengthening the role of Parliament in calling Ministers to account, rather than sidelining it. I commend the White Paper to the House.
§ Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)
I begin by briefly acknowledging the work of Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, as well as the sterling work of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). Other hon. Members on both sides of the House, many of whom are here today, have also put in much work to try to bring more openness into our system of government.
I congratulate the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on having, at last, after many months of tough negotiations with other Ministers, brought into the open a White Paper on open government. We have had to wait some time for it. When hon. Members have time to read the report, they will see that it is a well-researched, carefully documented account. Nevertheless, unfortunately, it epitomises exactly the qualities for which the Chancellor is gaining a reputation, and which we have just seen him demonstrate. There were a lot of nice words and good intentions, the statement was high on rhetoric, but, in the end, there was a deep failure to deliver the policy of open government that many Members want.
The fundamental flaw in the White Paper and the basic problem with it, which the Chancellor tried to skirt, is the fact that, in the end, it will be a Minister who decides what information is available to the public. I ask hon. Members to reflect on the fact that that Minister will be one of the 1116 very Ministers who, in the past year, have refused to give information on the legal advice on Maastricht and the Matrix Churchill affair—the Minister who refused to put Lord Scott into the public domain, and refused to publish the accounts and records of the pits, the facts about the privatised prisons—[HON. MEMBERS: "Asil Nadir."]—and Asil Nadir and political donations. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friends are telling me, the list goes on and on.
§ Ms Mowlam
The hon. Gentleman may shout rubbish, but will he deny that the Scott inquiry was carried out in private? Will he deny that Asil Nadir's donations are not in the public domain? That is the deep problem with the report, and that is the reason why it is flawed. Ministers will decide what is released. That is why, sadly, the White Paper will be the epitaph to what will in the end be seen as a weak ministerial career.
Will the Chancellor confirm that, under the code of practice that he outlined today, which I readily acknowledge covers many of the right areas and includes many of the right exemptions—I welcome the test of exemptions—it will be Ministers who can refuse access to information in the first place? If people want to appeal, they will have to do so to the parliamentary ombudsman. Will the Minister confirm that that is the same ombudsman whose average response time to queries is now 13 months and 18 days?
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I resent interventions from sedentary positions, especially when they continue, as in the case of the hon. Member.
§ Ms Mowlam
Will the Minister also confirm that a year ago he identified 200 Acts or other statutes that would be swept from the statute book? I remember the Prime Minister talking about the "cobwebs of secrecy" that would be removed when that happened. Will the Minister confirm that, ironically, as he has just told us, those 200 statutes cannot now be abolished, so they will remain? Three pages in the document argue with good All Souls logic why those statutes have to stay. In the end, they will stay.
Will the right hon. Gentleman further acknowledge that the real parentage of this White Paper is a 1979 Green Paper by Lord Callaghan, which contained exactly the same sections, section by section, covering a code of practice, tribunals and the ombudsman? Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that, in terms of the past 14 years, the Government have just caught up with 1979 and have learnt nothing from the freedom of information legislation that has been practised over the past 10 years in Australia, New Zealand and Canada?
1117 Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that whistle-blowers, who have been gagged by current legislation and are unable to disclose information when that is in the public interest, will still be subjected to criminal sanctions after the publication of his White Paper?
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's comments about individual rights in respect of health and safety. However, will he please tell me why that proposal cannot go back before 1991, as many people with disabilities and those who are terminally ill would like to see those historical health records? The same applies to the exemptions on immigration to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.
With regard to talking about the Government's commitment to open government, it is difficult to examine the details of the section on immigration, because it was only when I entered the Chamber at 3.30 pm that I was passed the White Paper. I received a copy of the Minister's statement 22 minutes before that. If that is an indication of open government, I should like to know what the Government's record is.
When the Minister replies, will he tell us why Opposition Members, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) and for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), are not allowed to visit scientific institutions in this country without a ministerial chaperon? That has just been confirmed by the Leader of the House. We cannot visit such institutions without a Minister being present.
Without substantive changes and without the kind of Right to Know Bill for which we have argued, and despite the many pages of rhetoric in the White Paper, ours will continue to be the most secretive Government in the western world.
§ Mr. Waldegrave
The hon. Lady was almost as impressive on this subject as she was on science. When her colleagues greeted the science White Paper, they made such a pig's ear of it that even the Opposition spokesman in the House of Lords took the opposite view. They have taken the precaution today of not asking for a statement in the House of Lords so that they do not fall into that trap again.
When the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) has done her homework—which her colleagues tell me she very seldom does—she will find that she has made a fool of herself. I am absolutely happy to acknowledge that many of the ideas in this White Paper were also endorsed by the Labour party. I do not think that that is a weakness for my argument. I believe that it is a weakness in the hon. Lady's argument.
Let me remind the House of the last Labour Government's record on openness. In 1974, the Labour manifesto promised to increase openness and to replace the Official Secrets Act 1911. In 1975, the Queen's Speech promised to increase openness and to amend the Official Secrets Act. In 1976, the then Home Secretary promised to replace section 2 of the Official Secrets Act with an official information Act. In 1977, the Queen's Speech promised to increase openness and to replace the Official Secrets Act. In 1978, the Government published a White Paper—and so it went on until 1979. I could read out the rest, but Labour did absolutely nothing and the Opposition have no right whatsoever to talk on this subject.
1118 The hon. Lady asked, more or less, a couple of questions. She asked about the speed of the ombudsman. She may like to know that in freedom of information regimes—the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, (Mr. Fisher) will remember this, as it was at the Campaign for Freedom of Information's conference that Mr. Grace warned of it—the legislative route, or Freedom of Information Act route, is much slower than the ombudsman route. In Canada, it takes about two years, as Mr. Grace himself said.
§ Mr. Waldegrave
The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but I have the quotation with me. It is true that overseas regimes are much slower. I have already had discussions with the ombudsman, and it will be his objective to speed inquiries as much as he can, and that is right.
The hon. Lady said also that investigations of the statutes protecting privacy should be swept away. She cannot have thought about what she said. Is she really saying that statutes that protect privacy and make it a criminal offence to release private information should be swept away? Of course not. Lord Franks was perfectly right about that, and we have re-endorsed what he said.
There was very little else in what the hon. Lady said, except for her usual round of abuse about my college at Oxford, which obviously causes her to have a chip on her shoulder. I apologise for that. [Interruption.] She asked a question about retrospection; that is perfectly true. In relation to retrospection, we have taken the view that information given in good faith under one regime should not be released under another. It would be bad faith to release information when it was provided on the basis that it was going to be kept confidential. Most hon. Members, on reflection, would support that.
§ Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, far from the carping attitude of the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), most hon. Members think that he has taken a larger step forward in this matter than any of his predecessors? Is not my right hon. Friend proposing that only when there are overwhelming reasons for it should information remain secret? Is not that a great step forward?
Is not it a further great step forward that the rights of the House are preserved, because the Parliamentary Commissioner will be taking a role and it will be left to an Officer of the House to decide whether a Department has behaved reasonably if it has refused access to a document in the described circumstances?
Will not the Parliamentary Commissioner criticise a Department for failing to produce a document, and will it not then be up to the relevant Committees of the House to decide whether his criticism is right? That is a great step forward, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on it.
§ Mr. Waldegrave
My right hon. Friend is right. The Parliamentary Commissioner will have the capacity to investigate whether the code has been properly followed. He will, as he does at present, have the right to say to Departments that he believes that it has not been followd and that they should put matters right. If a Department is so unwise as to resist him, he has the right to come to his all-party Committee and to the House.
1119 Recommendations of the Parliamentary Commissioner have invariably been followed by Governments, and it is right that they should be. The case is strengthened further by the fact that, in a sense, the Parliamentary Commissioner has the redress in his own hands in that he has the information. We have discussed the issue with him and he has fairly said that he has always given a Department the first opportunity to put the matter right; that is fair.
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)
The right hon. Gentleman's statement confirms that he has decided not to introduce a freedom of information Act and, therefore, the right of recourse to the courts for freedom of information, as successive Labour and Conservative Governments have refused to do. However, his proposals are a step forward and they are welcome in that respect.
In the proposals for the implementation of the new code, the right hon. Gentleman places reliance on the ombudsman. Will he provide extra resources to speed the work of the ombudsman, who will have a whole new work load as result? Will he extend the ombudsman's investigative powers to include consumer groups, interest groups, lobbies and others who, in other countries, use freedom of information provision to campaign on behalf of people, or will he stick with the current provision that the ombudsman can take up cases only when there is loss to an individual? That would invalidate the ability of the legislation to allow Governments to be properly scrutinised by other bodies.
§ Mr. Waldegrave
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his fair recognition that this measure represents a major step forward. It is perfectly fair to say that there is a resource implication for the ombudsman's work. We made it clear in the White Paper that the additional work load must not damage the already large work load that he has, so he will have to have more resources.
Under the code, the ombudsman does not need to demonstrate that there has been loss to an individual. If the code has not been followed, that will be evidence that the person does not have his rights. That will enable the ombudsman to make a recommendation. It is not for me to say what the scope of the ombudsman is; that is for the all-party Select Committee. At present, I have no plans to recommend any widening of his scope.
§ Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)
I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement and urge him to disregard the remarks of the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam). I fear that she spoke without giving the matter her usual consideration. The statement does much to enhance the principle of open government. I certainly welcome the idea of a code of practice that will be closely supervised by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. As my right hon. Friend knows, the Parliamentary Commissioner is not responsible to Ministers or the Government—he is responsible directly to Parliament. That is, he is responsible to hon. Members on both sides of the House. As my right hon. Friend mentioned, the Select Committee—
§ Madam Speaker
Order. A number of hon. Members want to put questions to the Minister. On these occasions, I often ask for one question and a brief exchange, and I insist on that now.
§ Mr. Pawsey
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Parliamentary Commissioner is the right person to administer the code of practice? Will he ensure that all adequate resources are available to the Parliamentary Commissioner? As the Select Committee is likely to suggest enhanced powers, will my right hon. Friend support them when they come before the House?
§ Mr. Waldegrave
My hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee, correctly reports the situation. The Parliamentary Commissioner is a servant of the House and it is not for the Government to lay down the law about how he should behave. He has said how he will take forward this new duty, which his present powers enable him to carry through. In William Reid, we are lucky to have a formidable Parliamentary Commissioner. I will listen carefully to what my hon. Friend and his Select Committee say in so far as it relates to the responsibilities of the Government, especially with regard to resources.
§ Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)
The White Paper rightly identifies section 118 of the Medicines Act 1968 as a barrier to openness. Why does not the White Paper recommend the abolition of that section, which was provided for in my Medicines Information Bill? That Bill was supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
§ Mr. Waldegrave
The reason, which is set out in the White Paper, is that we believe that there should be further openness in this area. However, we believe that this is a classic case where steps should be taken on a Europewide basis. As the hon. Gentleman knows, European legislation is in preparation. There would be dangers to the extremely important pharmaceutical industry in this country if we did not proceed on a Europewide basis.
§ Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in practice, it is hard to find the right balance between the ideal of freedom of information and chaotic government in which both Ministers and civil servants are reluctant to commit anything confidential to paper? I congratulate him on taking many steps forward to more open government in the White Paper that he has announced today, especially the two new statutory rights for individuals which seem to meet many of the objectives of those who wrote in to support the Right to Know Bill.
§ Mr. Waldegrave
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. We have taken major steps forward. It was noticeable that the campaign of cards that were sent to many hon. Members—certainly to me—by the Campaign for Freedom of Information concentrated, understandably, on practical rights and acces that ordinary people want in their daily lives, especially with regard to health and safety. We are meeting those rights properly by statutory access and that will be welcomed by many of those people who lobbied hon. Members.
§ Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood)
I congratulate the Chancellor on his ingenuity. He has taken the existing system as far as it can possibly go. He finds himself in the same position as the last Labour Government, who struggled mightily to prevent themselves from having to introduce a freedom of information Bill. They succeeded, and he has succeeded. I welcome some of his ingenuity and the increased powers for the Parliamentary Commissioner. Can he tell the House and 1121 the country why, having come to the point at which the Government decided not to give a statutory right to know or to introduce a freedom of information Bill, he decided to do that?
§ Mr. Waldegrave
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his first remarks. The one difference between this Government and the Labour Government is that they agonised for seven years and did nothing, whereas our Prime Minister pledged in our last manifesto to increase openness and we have done something about it a year later.
The argument for not taking a statutory route was set out by the Labour Government at the time. Opposition Members below the Gangway, who are stalwart upholders of the rights of this House, seem to be on my side in this matter. Their hon. Friends seem to be arguing for moving responsibility for key matters away from the House to judges. On the rare occasions when there will be conflict—I do not believe that there will be conflict often between the Parliamentary Commissioner's advice and the Departments—it will be on a serious matter. Do we really want to delegate those decisions to appointed judges? We would not avoid the politics by that; the political decisions would simply be taken by appointed judges rather than, ultimately, by the House. That is why we, like the Labour Government, believe that we need to increase information at the same time as enhancing the powers of the House.
§ Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)
My right hon. Friend and his officials deserve warm congratulations on what has been a long march through the institutions. I particularly welcome the innovation in respect of the Parliamentary Commissioner. Will my right hon. Friend remind those who are, rightly, concerned to make progress with this issue that, because openness in Government depends on everyday decisions by Ministers and officials, it is just as important to get a new culture and attitude in Whitehall as it is to create new rights and entitlements?
§ Mr. Waldegrave
My hon. Friend is right. In many ways, it would be much easier, putting aside the inevitable arguments about getting parliamentary time, to pass an Act and say that by creating that confrontation the problem is solved. That would not be the case. Let me quote again the advice given to the information commissioner. In talking about legal compunction, he said:The power to compel means confrontation; it could put the information commissioner"—in the Right to Know Bill of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central—in a chronic state of war with government institutions and would inevitably result in the most narrow legalistic application of the law.I believe that to be right. It is far better for the ombudsman to work with Departments and get them to improve their practices, as he has done on administrative procedures, while having in the background the power to compel them, if need be. That is much more likely to change the culture in Whitehall.
§ Mr. Cryer
Will the proposals for a code of practice, as opposed to legislation, enable ordinary citizens to gain access to, for example, the secrets of installations such as Menwith Hill near Harrogate? For many years, concern has been expressed about that institution which has not had formal parliamentary approval. The Minister wants to give Parliament more power. Surely people have a right to know what is going on there, particularly now that any military justification, even by the Government's standards, has long since gone and especially as Menwith Hill is a spy on external, ordinary civilian telecommunications.
§ Mr. Waldegrave
The hon. Gentleman will understand that under my code, as under the Bill of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, proper national security will be protected. It should be protected. If information is requested and a refusal to give it is challenged, there will be an independent adjudicator, in the shape of the Parliamentary Commissioner, to assess whether the Department's decision has been fair.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
As a former civil servant, an occasional historian and a member of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, I welcome what my right hon. Friend has announced and greatly regret the unnecessary traducing of aspects of the Parliamentary Commissioner's work by the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam).
In view of the concern of my constituents about such matters as organophosphorus sheep dips and the results of an important derailing of a train carrying noxious liquids some 18 months ago, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the measures he is proposing on health and safety will greatly help the right to know on those matters?
§ Mr. Waldegrave
My hon. Friend should not worry too much about the hon. Member for Redcar. She always does that.
On health and safety, the new statutory right will provide the sort of legislative clout that is based on statute, because it is proper that it should. In the process of passing the statute, we may need to override some of the statutory bars to the release of information that are listed, which we could not do through a code, and they will help my hon. Friend with the questions that he raised.
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
If the Minister is so keen on open government, will he abolish the Osmotherley rules, which so severely restrict civil servants' ability to give evidence to Select Committees? Will he, his colleagues and their civil servants tell us the criteria for the privatisation of Government agencies?
§ Mr. Waldegrave
There is no secret about the latter as those matters are debated widely. The Osmotherley rules cover the distinction between what it is right for civil servants to answer and what it is right for Ministers to 1123 answer. The rules are broadly correct, but, from time to time, the Select Committee on which the hon. Member serves considers them and the guidance given to civil servants, and comments on them.
§ Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)
Apart from that information to which we have a statutory right and information that is classified for some reason of privacy or national security, what is the status of all the rest of the information that may be given voluntarily, or may have to be prised out of the civil service and Government by the ombudsman?
Furthermore, is it consistent with any sort of freedom of information that the great wisdom and experience of one Government should continue to be denied to their successor Government by the arrangements that exist, or will it be open to the ombudsman to say that some of the things that were done by the Government or their predecessor should be made available, if requested, by their successors?
§ Mr. Waldegrave
All the information laid down in the code belongs, by right, to those who want it. As I said in my original statement, however, the Government should not wait to be asked. We should improve the practice of initiating the publication of information on many subjects, as we are doing.
Advice given to Ministers by officials should be covered by privacy laws, and I think that all freedom of information regimes throughout the world cover it. I believe that the rule that Ministers of a successor Government cannot demand by right to see the previous Government's papers on those matters is correct. It would damage the openness and frankness between officials and Ministers if officials thought that they would constantly have to explain to a successor Minister why they argued in a particular way.
§ Mr. Waldegrave
That seems to me to be an extremely bad analogy, because in the United States large parts of the bureaucracy change with the Government, at great cost to good government there.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Why should anybody take a blind bit of notice of this Tory Government when they talk about open government? We have just witnessed the Prime Minister refusing to answer a question that the Leader of the Opposition put to him three times and he has refused to give an answer about summat that is going to happen next Thursday. If they believe in open government, why do they not tell us where they get the money from for the Tory party—from all the sleazebags round the world? Why does the Minister not tell us the names of the eight Tory Members of Parliament who are in Asil Nadir's pocket? That is open government.
§ Mr. Waldegrave
Perhaps one day the hon. Member will think up a really smart question to ask the Prime Minister, such as when he stopped beating his wife, and be cross when he refuses to answer.
§ Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the publication of the code of practice. I also thank him for his generosity in agreeing to meet me and to publish the criteria for the retention of official documents within Departments and their release by the Public Record Office. Can he confirm that, under the new 1124 regime, the advisory committee that allows the Lord Chancellor to retain documents beyond the 30-year limit will now at least be allowed to read them?
§ Mr. Waldegrave
My hon. Friend is right. The advisory committee, which advises the Lord Chancellor and is chaired by the Master of the Rolls, will have access to papers when there is a dispute. Disputes between Departments about releasing documents are rare, but arrangements are in hand to see how that can best be done so that access to documents will be available.
§ Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
I congratulate the Chancellor on the White Paper and many of the details in it. However, in responding for the Opposition, my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) was right to say that, although the White Paper is well argued and researched and the code of practice furthers the principles of open government well, in practice it will not make much difference, because it contains no means of enforcement.
The Chancellor rests on the ombudsman, but the ombudsman is slower. He rests on Mr. Grace, but everybody knows—and his own research shows—that Canada has the worst form of enforcement. Australia has a better system, with delivery of material in 30 days, as my Bill provides. The Chancellor knows that the ombudsman's present record is, as my hon. Friend said, 14 months and 18 days. What specific extra resources will he provide? Will he publish a target for response times for the ombudsman?
The White Paper's real weakness is that Ministers will continue to decide. That is the position now and nothing will change. Ministers will be in the dock for not releasing information and will be judge and jury in their own case. They have been hiding information consistently throughout last year.
We need a freedom of information Bill and we shall have one, as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and every other country have. The Government know that they have lost this argument this year. They are like King Canute. Having brought themselves to the brink of freedom of information with the White Paper, they have not the courage to jump in the water and accept that the game is up. We cannot be behind the rest of the world by not having freedom of information legislation any longer. I believe that the Conservative party will include freedom of information legislation in the next Tory party manifesto, but they will not have a chance to implement it because we shall be in government.
The British people want the right to know and they will get it. But the White Paper does not give people the right to know.
§ Mr. Waldegrave
Unfortunately for the hon. Member who is a real expert on the subject—unlike the hon. Member for Redcar—the Labour Government's record was outstandingly bad. When we measure progress under the two parties since the war, my party does much better. A famous example was quoted by a former Member of Parliament, Clement Freud, of the resounding minute written by the great Mr. Herbert Morrison saying that people had a right to know which he classified "secret". So that made little progress.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned timing. He said that the response time was 30 days and that is fair enough. We must have proper targets for Departments to respond. 1125 That is not the comparison with the two years which Mr. Grace was talking about. Mr. Grace meant the time that it took for disputes to go through the courts. It does not take 30 days to settle court disputes in Australia.
If the hon. Gentleman is saying that this country is likely to produce a much faster procedure in the courts than Canada, with all respect to my noble and learned Friends, he is a little optimistic. The ombudsman is much more likely to act more swiftly. It will be cheaper for the citizen because there is no need to employ lawyers and others, who tend to waste a lot of money. I believe that the ombudsman has worked extremely well. His recommendations have been invariably accepted by Governments and he is the obvious enforcement agency to use.