§ The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. David Clark)
I am today publishing a White Paper on freedom of information. Its full title is "Your Right to Know—the Government's proposals for a Freedom of Information Act".
I am delighted to be able to make this important announcement to the House today. "Your Right to Know" is the latest example of how the Government are delivering the radical agenda for constitutional change set out in our manifesto.
For our agenda to be effective in modernising Britain, it is essential to identify the linkages between each of the Government's reforms. That has been assured by the role of my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, who chairs the Cabinet Committee on freedom of information. Under his chairmanship, we have also published the White Papers on devolution for Scotland and Wales, and the "Rights Brought Home" White Paper on the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into UK law.
Now this White Paper provides a further essential element in our constitutional agenda. "Your Right to Know" sets out clear and detailed proposals for legislation, which would give every individual a statutory right to know about the information and records that the Government hold. That is a right which will transform the culture of government and make it more open and accountable. It is a huge step towards rebuilding trust between the Government and the people.
These proposals for legislation realise a commitment set out in Her Majesty's Gracious Speech last May. Our White Paper is the outcome of a root-and-branch examination of this complex and difficult policy area. Within seven months, the Government have addressed the sensitive issues involved and arrived at the firm proposals described in the White Paper. On that basis, I believe that few can question our commitment to fundamental constitutional reform.
Our proposals start from the premise that open government is good government. They are accordingly radical, and with your permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to draw the House's attention to the key features of our FOI regime.
The first such feature would be wide coverage. We propose that an FOI Act should apply right across the public sector, covering Government Departments and agencies; local councils; quangos; nationalised industries; the national health service; schools and colleges; courts and tribunals; police authorities; the armed forces; and public service broadcasters. It should also include the privatised utilities and some private sector organisations carrying out duties on behalf of the Government. Instead of the few hundred public bodies subject to the code of practice on access to Government information, tens of thousands of bodies will be covered by the Act.
Secondly, there would be access to documents, not just to information. The right of access would be broadly based, and would apply to official records and information held by the bodies covered by the Act. That goes far beyond the code, which provides a non-statutory entitlement to information, but not to records or documents.
Thirdly, fewer exemptions would be allowed. The system for protecting information would be based on seven specific interests, instead of the 15 exemptions in 1184 the code of practice. Significantly, in most cases, information could be withheld only if its disclosure would cause substantial—I repeat substantial—harm. That is a further important advance on the code, which laid down a simple harm test.
Fourthly, a duty to publish would be introduced. I want the legislation to encourage public authorities to take a positive approach to openness, by requiring them to publish information as a matter of course, whether it has been requested or not. My Department will be developing an action programme to support the move from a culture of secrecy to one of openness.
Fifthly, there would be strong enforcement. An independent information commissioner should oversee the implementation of the legislation. To do that effectively, the Government have agreed to give the commissioner wide-ranging powers, including the power to order disclosure. At present, the parliamentary ombudsman, who supervises the code of practice, can only recommend disclosure.
Finally, we need an integrated system. Access rights to current and historic information would be brought together through the integration of the relevant sections of the Public Records Acts into the freedom of information Act. That would ensure a single legislative approach to the release of both past and present records.
Those points broadly summarise the Government's proposals for a freedom of information Act. It is fitting that this White Paper marks the start of an extensive and open consultation process, which will continue through much of the next year. First, there will be a period of consultation on the White Paper itself. That will give Parliament and the people a clear idea of the freedom of information Bill, which we intend to introduce as soon as a suitable opportunity occurs.
Before I conclude, let me mention two further initiatives connected with "Your Right to Know", the results of which will inform the consultative process even before the draft Bill. Indeed, I expect to publish both of them shortly after the Christmas recess.
The first is a separate consultation exercise on the management of Crown copyright. This is the system which protects the status and the integrity of official Government information. It also underpins the charging regime that exists for certain tradeable information-based services. Crown copyright is clearly relevant to our White Paper proposals, and we have almost completed an examination of its operation. I hope to publish the results of that in a Green Paper very shortly.
The second initiative will be a published paper setting out factual and background material relevant to the production of this White Paper. That fulfils the commitment that I made while the White Paper was being prepared, and is in line with the good practice set out in the White Paper itself, which commits Government to the maximum possible disclosure of factual and background information behind policy decisions.
Openness is fundamental to the political health of a modern state. This White Paper marks a watershed in the relationship between the Government and people of the United Kingdom. At last there is a Government ready to trust the people with a legal right to information.
There are matters, such as national security or personal privacy, where information must be protected. The Government need some protection for their internal 1185 deliberations. I believe that our proposals strike the proper balance between extending people's access to official information and preserving confidentiality where disclosure would be against the public interest. It is a new balance, with the scales now weighted decisively in favour of openness. I believe strongly in these proposals, and I am delighted to commend them to the House now as a basis for public debate in the coming weeks and months.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in supplying me with a copy of the statement earlier today. I also endorse your remarks on Tuesday, Madam Speaker, in thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his full apology for the most unfortunate and deeply deplored leak that occurred on that day. When he responds to my questions, will the Minister inform the House how far his inquiries have progressed?
I have several general and some specific questions for the Minister. Does he agree that, if ever there were a subject where consensus was desirable, this is it? Will he institute talks with representatives of all parties during the lengthy consultative process? He will know that the Conservatives do not share his zeal for constitutional reform. However, we shall be more than willing to participate in a constructive spirit, because we are proud of our achievements in opening up government in a real and tangible way. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman—for whom I have a high personal regard—did not see fit to pay tribute to the Conservative Government's work in instituting the citizens charter, producing league tables in health and education, and making many other important advances in open government.
Does the Minister agree that any freedom of information legislation should be submitted to a Special Standing Committee, so that it can be scrutinised most carefully? Does he accept that government, the parliamentary process and the integrity and impartiality of the civil service are undermined by leaks? Will he ensure that any Bill includes penalties for breaches of confidence and that any such provisions cover special advisers?
Does the Minister further agree that it is important that any Act should be a bulwark against the intrusive state, and that often people are best served by being given information and being allowed to decide for themselves? Will the Minister ensure that any provisions in the Bill apply in equal measure to the proposed regional development agencies, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly? Will he comment about that matter?
The Minister referred to seven specified interests. Will they cover the sensitive issues of foreign trade and commercial confidentiality? Will they cover the work of the Northern Ireland Office? Will the right hon. Gentleman spell out a little more clearly what he means by the word "substantial"? Finally, will he say a little more about the rather nebulous role of the commissioner and how his work will relate to that of the Parliamentary Commissioner?
§ Dr. Clark
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome to the White Paper. We appreciate his sentiments. I listened to his offer of consultation, and I agree that we would welcome consensus on the issue. There will obviously be many opportunities for the widest consultation regarding both the White Paper and the draft Bill. I shall certainly consider ways in which we may take forward discussions in that respect.
1186 As to the inquiry that I promised to establish in an attempt to discover who was behind the leak, my investigations are progressing. I shall obviously try to find out who was responsible.
The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about the regional development agencies. Freedom of information would apply to them. The White Paper also refers to the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. It makes it clear that while the Scottish Parliament will be responsible for taking decisions on matters pertaining to it, it is intended that it should have a freedom of information regime.
The substantial harm test is a key part of our policy. It is a liberal approach. I do not think that any freedom of information Act in the world includes substantial harm. It makes it harder to withhold information from the general public: unlike the code, which uses a simple harm test.
As I was drafting the White Paper, at the forefront of my mind was the ordinary citizen: not big business and not even the press, but the individual citizen. I am conscious of the fact that the legislation must be simple and straightforward. I was disappointed in the American system, which allows no appeal other than to the courts. I felt that it was sensible to avoid litigation, and to avoid going to the courts, so I advocated the creation of an independent information commissioner. The main purpose of the Act is more open government, and an information commissioner would be able to check the papers held by public bodies, and would rule on appeals by individuals who have had their applications rejected. He or she would have the mandatory authority to order the disclosure or withholding of information.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Being prepared to make uncomfortable facts known to the general public is a sign of a self-confident Government. Is he aware that the previous Government, at the end of their tenure, had a deliberate policy of concealment of information? They established various subsidiary agencies, which constantly bleated and used commercial reasons to justify hiding facts that should have been in the public domain. Will my right hon. Friend guarantee that his Bill will be framed in such a way as to enable Parliament to know not only what is good and comfortable, but what is uncomfortable and awkward? That is the sign of a mature and sensible Parliament.
§ Dr. Clark
I thank my hon. Friend for her welcome for the statement. I share her view that openness is good government. On occasion, one must face up to unpalatable facts. The Government have a good record on the disclosure of information, such as the recommendations of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee on BSE. We have been prepared to discuss with the British people the recommendations of our scientific advisers, and we have followed their advice.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)
Is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends broadly welcome this fulfilment of a commitment made in agreement with my party prior to the election, to introduce a comprehensive, wide-ranging and enforceable freedom 1187 of information Bill? I welcome his openness to suggestions for amending and improving the legislation during the various deliberative stages to come.
I shall make a couple of points that do not, in any way, fundamentally attack the Government's approach. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is some risk that prior agreement between the receiving body and the giving body to treat matters in confidence could lead to an unacceptable exclusion of information? Does he further agree that the harm test for policy advice to Ministers and to the Government, which he describes in the White Paper, is too low and could limit public participation in the discussion of practicable options? Does he accept that there will be some disappointment that the 30-year rule is being retained, although modified, and that that may unnecessarily limit historical research?
§ Dr. Clark
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I appreciate his general welcome of the White Paper. I shall try to conduct the consultations in an open way, as he wants.
The question of information given to the Government in confidence is a real difficulty; it is impossible to run away from such issues. I hope that we shall raise it, and that it will be raised with us, during the consultation period. As for the harm test and policy advice, I do not apologise for saying that the Government need space to conduct their deliberations, especially in a modern society. Having said that, however, I must add that the Government are very conscious that there is still unnecessary secrecy, even in information coming to Ministers. We have tried to differentiate between specific policy advice given to Ministers—and conveyed between Ministers—and simple factual and background papers given to Ministers. We hope and intend that the background and factual papers will be available, and will not be subject to the exemption.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the 30-year rule. We must bear it in mind that, while after 30 years documents are passed to the Public Record Office, under the new regime the Departments will disclose much more information during those 30 years. For that reason, shortening the period was not such a priority as it had been.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite all the criticism that he has received over the past few months about delay, many Labour Members now realise that his statement has been worth waiting for? The headline should be "Labour recaptures the high ground".
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when he talks of getting a consensus with that lot over there—the Tories—he should be careful? They will procrastinate for as long as possible. They will talk the hind leg off a donkey in the hope that they can delay the legislation for year after year. At the end of the day, the Labour Government must legislate—so do not hang about with that lot, because they will be frightened to death of having to reveal where they have got their money from under freedom of information legislation. When we get that information, we shall find that some of the money came from heroin dealers in Hong Kong.
§ Dr. Clark
I take it as a high accolade to receive compliments from my hon. Friend.
1188 It is clear that we need to get the legislation right, and we intend to get it right, because we shall probably have only one opportunity to do so. I hope that my statement underlines the Government's commitment to push through—after as much consultation as possible—wide-ranging and radical freedom of information legislation that will change our whole political culture. I hope that we can move from our obsession with secrecy to a modern society based on openness.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)
Like others, I welcome the statement. If legislation follows, with the breadth and scope that the right hon. Gentleman described, it will emancipate many individuals, as well as the press itself and Her Majesty's loyal Opposition.
May I ask what will happen when an issue falls within, say, the scope of the Official Secrets Act, and could fall within the scope of a damage test? I have in mind, for instance, information given in confidence by a foreign Government. More specifically, what will happen in the Council of Ministers, which is one of the legislative bodies for this country?
§ Dr. Clark
The hon. Gentleman has a long and worthy history of trying to bring about freedom of information legislation. I pay tribute to the work that he has done over the years.
There must clearly be an interface between the Official Secrets Act and the freedom of information legislation. We must examine very closely the levels of harm and damage in both, to ensure that they are compatible with each other. On the hon. Gentleman's specific point about the Council of Ministers, the test is one of simple harm under the Official Secrets Act. However, such issues need to be explored. When I say that we need consultation because we have to get the legislation right, I refer to such matters of detail, which we intend to pursue over the next few months.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on—on any test—a remarkable and historic statement. We promised a freedom of information Act in five manifestos, we tried through private Members' routes to enact one, and, despite the report of Sir Richard Scott and, a Select Committee report in which a Conservative majority recommended action, the previous Government failed to do anything.
Will all the exempt areas be subject to a test of substantial harm? At the moment, we have the curious convention that new Governments have no access to policy advice—albeit of a background nature—that was available to the previous Administration. That is conspicuous in the case of BSE. Will my right hon. Friend's proposals change that, so that we may see some of the evidence on the policy disasters of the recent past?
§ Dr. Clark
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. He has taken a particular interest in this area since he has been in Parliament. For all exempted areas, with the exception of policy advice to Ministers, the substantial harm test will be the required test. For policy advice to Ministers, the test will be one of simple harm. My hon. Friend referred to the convention that papers are not made 1189 available to succeeding Governments. Clearly, all such issues will be raised during consultation, and we shall have to wrestle with them.
§ Sir Raymond Whitney (Wycombe)
While I fully endorse the benefits of open decisions that have been openly arrived at, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, in any organisation, there is always a need for some degree of confidentiality if it is to function effectively—whether it is a family, a parochial church council, a company or the Government? Does he further agree that those who write thunderous editorials about the need for ever more open government are themselves most jealous in keeping their own secrets? Does he agree that his high-minded attachment to the benefits of open government, which I fully accept as sincere, sits somewhat oddly with the record of how we had to drag out of the Government their dealings in the formula one affair?
§ Dr. Clark
We take on board the point that Governments need space in which to conduct their deliberations and come to their decisions. In deciding on and framing the White Paper, we specifically make the point that it is important to maintain the collective responsibility of government; that it is vital that we retain the political impartiality of public servants; and that we appreciate the importance of free and frank internal discussions in coming to conclusions as a Government. It is because of that that we have a slightly different exemption on policy advice.
§ Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)
My right hon. Friend has made a bold statement, which I am sure the people of the nation will warmly welcome. There is nothing worse than fighting bureaucracies. However, will he ensure that people who are seeking legitimate information will not be harassed in any way by, for example, being asked awkward questions about why they want the information, and that they will get information without prejudice?
§ Dr. Clark
I thank my hon. Friend for the question. Clearly, it is not the business of Government to determine why an individual citizen wants a piece of information that is held by the Government. There is no bar, no proposed requirement, no stipulated reason why a person should need the information. It is purely a case of an application, per se.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
Will the right to know extend to the real Government of Britain—the Commission of the European Union—as it is the master now and the Labour Government are the puppets?
§ Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)
Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that this historic statement will be as welcome outside the House as it is to Labour Members, although judging by the grinning and grumbling of the Opposition, it is clear that they have problems with accountable and open government and public service? On the question of expedition, will my right hon. Friend set time limits within which organisations must respond to requests for information? Will he also illustrate, for the 1190 benefit of the House, the sins, blunders, omissions and conspiracies of the previous Government, which would not have been visited on the people of this country had freedom of information legislation been in place?
§ Dr. Clark
In the annexe to the White Paper, we set out the times in which departments in various countries have to respond to queries. The period is usually between 20 and 30 days, and we have specifically included that subject in the consultation. My hon. Friend tempts me when he asks me to talk about the sins of the previous Government. For my sins, I was a Front-Bench spokesman for 10 years, on agriculture and on defence. I certainly believe that, if we had had the sort of legislation that we propose, we would have been able to discover much information about BSE, which might have saved a lot of money. We might also have saved much hurt and harm after Chernobyl, which was the subject of a considerable cover-up. In latter years, as defence spokesman, I tried to explore what was behind Gulf war syndrome and, if I could have had access to the information that I would have been able to get under our legislation, much harm and hurt could have been saved and we might have got to the truth more quickly.
§ Ms Tess Kingham (Gloucester)
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and the fact that it extends to police authorities. I have been frustrated since being elected that I have not been allowed access to Police Complaints Authority reports, and I know that my predecessor was also frustrated by that. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether PCA reports, especially about investigations of deaths in custody, will be covered by the legislation?
§ Dr. Clark
The administration of the police is covered in the White Paper. For reasons that we all understand, we distinguish between the operational arm of the police and the administrative arm, but the latter should be covered by the legislation. It is my impression that the information that my hon. Friend requests will be covered, but I shall look into it and write to her.
§ Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds)
Does the Minister believe that the Minister without Portfolio, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), had something to do with the disgraceful leak of the contents of the White Paper earlier this week to the BBC? Will he confirm that those conducting the leak inquiry will seek personal interviews with the Minister without Portfolio?
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
On the narrow issue of the misleading of Parliament, and after spending 11 days in 1191 the Old Bailey during the trial of Clive Ponting, may I ask whether the issue of the protection of deep throat information, for want of a better phrase, will be addressed?
In particular, will civil servants who know that the House of Commons is being treated by Ministers using an economy with the truth have somebody to go to, rather than being told that they must report it to the Sir Robert Armstrong of the day? It is unreal to expect civil servants to go to their permanent secretary or the Cabinet Secretary and say, "Please, sir, a Minister is lying." Is that problem addressed?
§ Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)
Had the policy just announced been in force in October, would the minutes of the meeting held by the Prime Minister with representatives of formula one at No. 10 Downing street—on 18 October, I believe—have been disclosed as a matter of course?
§ Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)
Does my right hon. Friend share my view that this is the most important piece of unfinished business since the disgraceful way in which the Conservative party dealt with the Scott report? I congratulate him on the scythe that he has taken to the deep undergrowth of the culture of secrecy in government. He is today lighting a fire that will ultimately cleanse the democratic process and begin to restore the trust between Government and people.
§ Dr. Clark
I might just disagree with my right hon. Friend, in that the business is not exactly unfinished; until today, it was unstarted business. We have made a start today, and we intend to push it through. We shall push away the cobwebs of secrecy, and have a modern democratic society where the people of Britain will know the secrets that their Governments hold.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
We in the House all know that we are entitled to ask questions, and that the questions must have answers. However, it is the quality of the answers that we are worried about. We were all sympathetic to the right hon. Gentleman until he answered my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) and clearly did not intend to reveal the information that he said was available.
The Government can set their own policy without an Act, so will the right hon. Gentleman now tell the House that they will act as if the Act were already in place, rather than waiting years for it to be passed? For instance, I recently gave a list to the Prime Minister's office in a 1192 parliamentary question asking him to say whom he had met—people from among his blind trust contributors—and I got an answer which, although honest, told me absolutely nothing. Would that be covered?
Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced that the electricity companies were extending coal contracts for six months, yet this morning the electricity companies did not know that they were doing that. Would we be able to find out where that information came from?
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
I can tell my right hon. Friend that when I used to ask the same sort of question of Tory Ministers, all my answers were always blocked. It is clear that the regime will change, and this is a triumph of common sense over the secret state, which has been a burden on the British people for far too long. It will transform the relationship between the individual and the state.
May I ask my right hon. Friend a specific question? He used the word "substantial" to qualify the word "harm". Can we have an absolute assurance that the word "substantial" will find its way into the final legislation, because that word will ensure that no attempt is made to block the provision of information to the wider public?
§ Dr. Clark
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the word "substantial". I believe that its use is unique in freedom of information legislation. It means that it will be more difficult to withhold information. The Government have made it quite clear that that is the key component of the White Paper.
§ Mr. Clifford Forsythe (South Antrim)
We on the Ulster Unionist party Bench give a warm welcome to the Minister's announcement today, and I think that all hon. Members representing Northern Ireland will do the same. We have particularly suffered from quangos, and we look forward to being able to ask questions about those bodies. Will the Anglo-Irish Secretariat be included in the bodies about which we can ask questions?
§ Dr. Clark
I thank the hon. Gentleman. We have published a consultation paper on quangos, and he and I have had an exchange on the subject. On his specific question, I suspect that the body to which he referred would not be covered by the freedom of information legislation, but I shall try to ascertain the precise position.
§ Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)
I, too, would like to congratulate my right hon. Friend, who has fought a long, hard and personal battle to produce the White Paper. It is good to have it today. Will the intelligence and security services be covered by the White Paper, particularly as MI5 is increasingly carrying out investigations into matters that cannot be described as national security, such as fraud and computer fraud in Whitehall? Will he assure us that those matters will be covered by the legislation?
§ Dr. Clark
I am afraid that I have to disappoint my hon. Friend. We have made it clear that we believe that 1193 the intelligence services are vital to the security of our nation. However, we have shown that although we are prepared to release information about the intelligence services, we hope that the new culture of openness and a new interaction between the House and the intelligence services can be built on, to create more openness in ways other than through the White Paper and legislation.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) got a response to his question, so I will give it another go. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster state whether the Minister without Portfolio will be questioned about any involvement that he may have had with the leak? When will he be questioned? If the right hon. Gentleman will not answer those questions, this debate will be about not our right to know, but our right not to know.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I really do feel that that question does not concern the White Paper. The Minister has gone as far as he can, and came to the House a few days ago very genuinely to tell us what had happened. With great respect to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), his question has nothing to do with the White Paper that the Minister is presenting today.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on his groundbreaking statement. I have a specific question about public money going to private individuals for some alleged public benefit. Will individuals who receive public money to allow access to land under the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food agricultural schemes for environmentally sensitive areas, and landowners who receive conditional exemption from inheritance tax for allowing people on to land, but are not required to publicise that access, be covered by the White Paper?
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
In keeping with the principles of the White Paper and the importance of the proper release of Government information, will the Minister now tell us whether, in future leak inquiries, Ministers as appropriate will be interviewed—yes or no?
§ Dr. Clark
Leak inquiries are nothing to do with the White Paper. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Let me just—[Interruption.] I can only state the facts, I am afraid. The White Paper concerns the release of information. We all understand that there are set procedures for a leak inquiry. I have set in train measures to look into those reports, and the permanent secretary is conducting those measures.
§ Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)
I congratulate the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on the publication of this strong White Paper—the product, perhaps, of a successful marriage of Clark's shoes and Cardinal Wolsey's socks. The new commissioner's power of enforcement is unprecedented in the way in which we 1194 have conducted our business in this country. Therefore, the key is the appointment of what one might call a person with the right, challenging mindset. Will my right hon. Friend tell us how such a commissioner is to be appointed, and can we be sure that we shall not finish up with a cosy establishment figure?
§ Dr. Clark
In view of the key role that the information commissioner will hold, it is important that we get the right man or woman. The commissioner will be the principal officer, acting under the principal purpose of the Act, which will be to encourage more open and accountable government. It will be his or her job not only to adjudicate on whether information should be disclosed or withheld after an appeal, but to act as a facilitator, to find out whether there are ways in which citizens can find the information if they lose their appeal. Therefore, it is a key role. It is vital to understand that we have gone a long way in this process by insisting, in groundbreaking terms, that the commissioner will have mandatory powers to order withdrawal or disclosure of information.
§ Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)
I welcome the statement. Is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster aware that many people, both inside and outside the House, have waited years for such a proposal? Is not it a breath of fresh air, compared with the suffocating secrecy under the previous Government?
To follow on from the point made by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), why are the security services exempt from this proposal? Bearing in mind the fact that the legislation dealing with those services is tightly drawn, would not it be possible for the substantial harm test to be applied to them as well? Inevitably, that would prevent any leakage of materials that were damaging to national security, and I accept that a higher percentage of documents would be held, but it would allow some release of material. Can the Minister comment on the access to information in regard to European Union documents held by the Government in this country, as there is a problem with freedom of information in Europe as well?
§ Dr. Clark
On the hon. Gentleman's first point, that is a dilemma, but I think that every country excludes—the word is not exempt; it is exclude—the security services from freedom of information legislation. That might not be entirely true, but certainly most countries do. We took the view that if there was only an exemption, it could be challenged. We felt that the security of our nation took precedence in this respect. The House has an Intelligence and Security Committee. There are moves to try to open up the intelligence services, and we shall try to continue with that process.
On the latter point about European legislation, we started to explore that, but we have been wrestling with so many complex issues in the past seven months that we have left it for consideration in the consultative period. We shall have some time between now and producing the draft Bill to sort out many of the matters of detail.
§ Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)
The Minister stated that our right to know would extend to public bodies and companies. Will he confirm that British Nuclear Fuels plc is one of the public bodies that will be covered by the 1195 Act? Will he also confirm that the operations of that company have been clouded in secrecy for far too long? It has been hiding behind excuses of commercial confidentiality and national security, to prevent the public from knowing what is happening within it.
§ Dr. Clark
We have made it clear that we shall include private sector industries that operate on a statutory basis, as well as the privatised utilities and the nationalised industries.
The security exemption will apply to British Nuclear Fuels, as to other organisations, but we are getting much more openness from British Nuclear Fuels these days, and I hope that that will continue. I mentioned Chernobyl earlier; we have moved a long way in the 10 years since that happened, and we now get much more help from British Nuclear Fuels.
§ Dr. Lynda Clark (Edinburgh, Pentlands)
I congratulate the Minister on the White Paper and I look forward to the open consultation process, which I hope will form a model for other legislation. I am concerned that information will become of no use to people if they do not receive it quickly. Will there be mandatory time limits in the Bill? Will there be any role for Members of Parliament? Is it intended that constituents should come to us before going to the commissioner?
§ Dr. Clark
There will be a period within which we would expect Government or other bodies to reply to an application. We have suggested times applied in other countries in the annexe to the White Paper, but that is open to consultation. On the latter point, we considered whether we should follow the ombudsman route and direct inquiries through Members of Parliament, but we felt that that was unnecessary and that it was right and proper that the individual should be able to apply for the information on his or her own behalf, directly to the Department and then directly to the commissioner.
§ Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)
I add my congratulations to the Minister on his statement, which struck a blow for all who believe in transparent government. What consultations does he intend to hold with local government, to ensure that the present machinery under the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 is transferred smoothly into the provisions of whatever Bill is passed?
§ Dr. Clark
I have already had meetings with local government leaders, and I have been most encouraged by their enthusiasm to be brought within the legislation. They rather enjoyed being able to say that they were more open than us in any case. That is very positive. I have also had 1196 discussions with national health service representatives, and they, too, have been very positive. We shall continue the discussions, because it is very important that all those public services should be able to work together and to interrelate.
§ Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)
As a former publisher and director of William Heinemann, which published "Spycatcher", it is music to my ears to hear the legislation outlined today. I have a practical question: given that the Minister's Department has one webcaster, but that there are no others in the civil service, how are we to get information from the civil service? What plans are there to train people and improve internet access, which is a matter of concern at the moment?
§ Dr. Clark
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words, and I can reassure him. I hope that the White Paper is being put on the internet at this very moment. That has certainly been my approach, and we may well consider how to put the consultation papers on the internet. I believe that the information technology at our disposal will allow us to put many more Government papers on the internet, and to do it extremely quickly.
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
Does my right hon. Friend recall that, following an incident in my constituency in which a lorry carrying munitions caught fire, the previous Government refused to answer questions, on the ground of confidentiality, but that when the identical questions were tabled in the Congress of the United States, the information was given that the lorry was carrying cluster bombs and projectile missiles and was a considerable risk to my constituents?
Does my right hon. Friend further recall that the information from an inquest held in my constituency on a boy who was killed by mustard gas was kept secret in this country, but revealed by the United States navy? Will information about this country that is freely available in other countries be made available here when the legislation is passed?
§ Dr. Clark
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, which I came across in dealing with the aftermath of Chernobyl. One had to go to the United States and Sweden to get the information that appertained to our country. We have made it clear that the Army will be covered in its routine activities by the Act, although obviously operations are a different matter. The case to which my hon. Friend referred should be covered by the legislation that we propose.