HC Deb 17 December 1997 vol 303 cc315-7
5. Mr. Canavan

If he will make a statement about progress with legislation for freedom of information. [19604]

7. Mr. Sutcliffe

If he will make a statement on progress towards legislation on freedom of information. [19607]

Dr. David Clark

The White Paper "Your Right to Know" sets out the Government's clear and radical proposals for freedom of information. We now invite comment and debate. In the light of that, I will publish a draft freedom of information Bill in the new year.

Mr. Canavan

Although there will be a general welcome for the White Paper, why should there be a blanket exemption for the security and intelligence services and on information relating to the arms trade and the advice that Ministers receive from civil servants and policy advisers? Would it not be better to allow the commissioner or some form of independent panel to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not it is in the public interest to conceal such information?

Dr. Clark

I believe that we have produced a radical White Paper which will roll back secrecy in public bodies across the country. The Campaign for Freedom of Information welcomed the proposals, which it said went further than it expected any British Government would ever go. We must set a new balance between disclosure and confidentiality, which is firmly weighted towards openness; there is, and needs to be, a balance.

As for the intelligence services, I must tell my hon. Friend that I am determined not to jeopardise national security. That is why that exclusion has been set out so openly and honestly. As regards detailed policy advice to Ministers, we believe that in a modern society the Government need space in which to do their business. That is why we have established a simple harm test in that case, but we have made it clear that factual and background information, which is given to Ministers as they form their opinions, should be made available.

Mr. Sutcliffe

I welcome the radical proposals in the White Paper. Is it not the case that my constituents, and many ordinary people, will benefit from them because they will have the right to access information about themselves?

Dr. Clark

Yes. In drawing up the White Paper, I tried to look at it not through the eyes of big business or the press but through those of the ordinary citizen. That is why it is clear, simple and straightforward. I want to get the message across loud and clear that the information is for the people, and for them first and foremost. That is why we have sought to minimise the cost and to make the system easier.

As well as publishing the White Paper in print and on the internet, we are distributing 40,000 copies of a leaflet explaining the main proposals. That leaflet is straightfor-ward and will be available in seven minority languages, in large print, in Braille and on audio cassette.

Mr. Ruffley

In view of the Minister's commitment to open government, will he tell the House whether the leak inquiry that he appointed last week has personally interviewed the Minister without Portfolio about the disgraceful leaking of the contents of the White Paper earlier last week? It is a simple question—yes or no?

Dr. Clark

There is a procedure for that sort of inquiry. I have handed it over to my permanent secretary, and it is not the job of a Minister to interfere with an independent neutral civil servant and tell him how to do his job.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply, but will he say a little more about the progress of the inquiry? He knows that I would not for a moment doubt his personal integrity, but is he completely satisfied that no ministerial colleague was involved in the leak last week?

Dr. Clark

My permanent secretary, whom I requested to look into the leak, is doing so, and is conducting a wide range of interviews. He has done that, and is still doing the work. It would be premature for me at this stage to give any disclosure of what conclusion he has come to. It would certainly be wrong for me to interfere in any way with his inquiries.