HC Deb 17 December 1997 vol 303 cc312-4
2. Mr. Clifton-Brown

If he will make a statement on the extension of the principle of open government. [19601]

Dr. David Clark

My proposals for a freedom of information Act, set out in the White Paper "Your Right to Know", would transform government in this country from a culture of secrecy to a culture of openness.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman wishes to transform this Government from a culture of secrecy to a culture of openness. In that vein. will he consider the role of the Paymaster General in government, now that the hon. Gentleman has been given a role in considering closing the loopholes in offshore trusts when he has numerous offshore trusts and benefits from them financially? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider that conflicting role, given that the Paymaster General's solicitors have denied that he has control of the Orion trust yet he is able to influence that trust in relation to what shares are bought? Surely, in the interests of open government, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster should now require the Paymaster General to make a personal statement to the House so that these matters can be cleared up once and for all.

Dr. Clark

The Paymaster General abided by all the rules of ministerial conduct. He took advice from Her Majesty's Treasury, which he then followed.

Mr. Stevenson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the publication of the freedom of information White Paper "Your Right to Know" is an extremely important event in open government? Does he further agree that that contrasts directly with the attitude of the previous Administration who did not believe in freedom, except for the favoured few—and who certainly did not believe in information because they presided over the most centralised and secretive Government in living memory?

Dr. Clark

The Government believe that, in a modem democracy, the citizens should have a presumption of access to information held by public bodies unless there are very good reasons why they should not have that access.

Mrs. Shephard

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, last week we supported his proposals for more open government. In the light of his statement last week, can he explain to the House why, if the previous Government were able to calculate and make public the effect on employment of different levels of a national minimum wage, his Government, committed as he said last week to more open government, refuse to do so?

Dr. Clark

We debated that issue very fully in the House yesterday evening. Right hon. and hon. Members can raise other points in Committee.

3. Fiona Mactaggart

What steps he has taken to make his Department more open. [19602]

Dr. David Clark

I have published a White Paper on freedom of information which will open up not only my Department but the whole of government and public service. I intend that my Department will set an example on openness. I have therefore undertaken to publish the background material relevant to the formation of the White Paper's proposals.

Fiona Mactaggart

I welcome my right hon. Friend's response and the openness that he has shown by publishing background material on that and on the millennium question. Does he agree that, before his proposals on open government and the reform of quangos take effect, public bodies have the opportunity to be more open and to release more information as a matter of course, as he has shown? What steps can he take to ensure that that happens?

Dr. Clark

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that public bodies become much more proactive in releasing information. We must practise what we preach on open government. When I announced our assessment of how Departments were dealing with the millennium problem, I published all the reports on the work being done, some 1,200 pages. The internet is also a useful tool in lifting the lid on secrecy. There is no reason why more information should not be put on the net. I was pleased that when we published the freedom of information White Paper, we included for the first time a reference to a debate on the consultation documents relating to it, which are running on the internet.

Mr. Evans

Does the right hon. Gentleman's commitment to open government extend to leak inquiries? Does he believe that the public have a right to know who is being questioned in leak inquiries, particularly when that may involve Ministers and their answers to questions?

Dr. Clark

There is a long agreed system for inquiries into leaks. That will continue, as it has continued over many years.

Mr. Llew Smith

When my right hon. Friend launched his freedom of information proposals last week, he said that they would cover the commercial activities of British Nuclear Fuels plc, but a reply from the Minister for Transport in London says that details of future plans to transport plutonium fuel are a commercial matter for BNFL."—[Official Report 16 December 1997; Vol. 303, c. 156.] Can my right hon. Friend say who is correct?

Dr. Clark

We have not excluded BNFL from the scope of the White Paper. Obviously, any information requested from BNFL would be subject to the same substantial harm test as applications to any other body within the scope of the Act.

Mr. Gorrie

In his good work of trying to create more open government, will the right hon. Gentleman consider making the access of hon. Members to civil servants' information simpler so that we do not have to go through the tortuous route of devising questions, which wastes much more of people's time? In local government, the right of each councillor to access to officials works well. Would he, in a sensible manner, allow that to happen with civil servants?

Dr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point, with which I have considerable sympathy. I am well aware that many hon. Members feel that the relationship between them and officials in central government is different from their experience in local government. We can learn much from local government. I accept that there are difficulties on issues such as ministerial responsibilities, but I believe that we should work towards making purely factual information from civil servants much more available to hon. Members. I emphasise that we must bear in mind the fact that civil servants are responsible to Ministers, who act as their spokesmen.