HC Deb 30 July 1997 vol 299 cc321-3
1. Dr. Lynne Jones

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what actions he has taken to improve public access to Government information. [9706]

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. David Clark)

The manifesto on which we were elected made it clear that we must rebuild the British people's trust in the way the Government work. Central to this is our commitment to more open government. We shall introduce freedom of information legislation to improve access to Government information. The need to improve access and accountability underpins our reform of the charter programme. We are actively pursuing developments in information technology to enhance and extend the ways in which people can obtain information on Government services.

Dr. Jones

We appreciate that it will take time to enact legislation. In the meantime, will my right hon. Friend look at ways of bolstering the existing code of practice? For example, will he consider amending the usual practice of not disclosing legal advice to the Government? I am thinking of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General's recent refusal, in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), to disclose his legal opinion on arms sales to Indonesia. It is difficult to see how any possible harm arising from such disclosure could outweigh the public's right to know.

Dr. Clark

We have already said that we shall try to examine the code of practice in a more liberal vein. Our priority is to press ahead with freedom of information legislation. That means that most of our resources have been involved in preparing that piece of legislation, not in overhauling the code.

Mr. Baker

In looking to improve public access to Government information, will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster consider the role played by the Minister without Portfolio, who is allegedly responsible to the House through written questions only, notwithstanding the statement by the Leader of the House last week? Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on the fact that the Minister without Portfolio has refused to give details of journeys he has undertaken at public expense and details of meetings that he has undertaken on behalf of the Government—in fact, he has refused to give any details whatsoever? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Minister without Portfolio is becoming the Minister without accountability?

Dr. Clark

I cannot answer for the Minister without Portfolio. He answers written questions put to him by hon. Members and I understand that he has a slot in the time allocated to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in order to answer oral questions in the House regarding his responsibilities for the millennium dome.

Mr. Thompson

While I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's assertions about more open government, will he instruct the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to encourage more open government in Northern Ireland, especially in relation to the Maryfield secretariat and the meetings of the Irish and British council?

Dr. Clark

I may have many powers, but I do not have the power to instruct my right hon. Friend. However, I am sure that she will take note of the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mrs. Shephard

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House how his plans to improve public access to Government information will be implemented in respect of the new joint consultative Cabinet Committee when the Prime Minister admitted yesterday in a written answer that he cannot yet set out its terms of reference? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how that contributes to open government?

Dr. Clark

We have followed the practice of the previous Government in publishing information about the membership of the various Cabinet Committees and we shall continue to do so. We shall continue to give as much information as we possibly can.

2. Mr. Mitchell

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make a statement on his plans to publish a freedom of information Bill. [9707]

Dr. David Clark

I intend to publish a draft freedom of information Bill early in the new year, which will follow a consultative period after the freedom of information White Paper.

Mr. Mitchell

I am grateful that my right hon. Friend says that because we need a Bill with a definite timetable in this Session. I do not know why he does not take off the peg the Bill proposed earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), now the Minister for Arts, which seemed pretty good to me. The important principle that he should bear in mind is not that it should be watered down but that it should be enforced by an independent commissioner rather than by a House of Commons Committee with a Government majority.

Dr. Clark

My hon. Friend has almost made the case for our not having legislation in this Session. We must get the legislation right. It is no use having a half-baked scheme. My hon. Friend has just raised one of the many issues on which it is right and proper that there should be debate, not only in the House but across the nation.

3. Mr. Dalyell

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make a statement on his responsibilities for freedom of information in respect of matters relating to Scotland. [9708]

Dr. David Clark

Our proposed freedom of information Act would have application throughout the UK, but, on the assumption that the Scottish people will vote for a Scottish Parliament in September and that Parliament will approve the legislation, it will be for the Scottish Parliament itself to determine the approach of the Scottish Executive and Scottish public bodies to openness and freedom of information in areas of devolved competence.

Mr. Dalyell

In that case, who resolves differences of opinion between Westminster and Edinburgh?

Dr. Clark

There would, in effect, be two areas of jurisdiction, depending on whether the information in question related to a matter that is reserved or devolved. The law applying to reserved matters would be for Westminster and it would be for the Scottish Parliament to decide and legislate on the level of disclosure on devolved activities carried out in its name.

Sir Patrick Cormack

A moment or two ago, the right hon. Gentleman said he did not want to have anything to do with half-baked schemes. Is not this a classic example of a half-baked scheme? What will be the precise responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Scotland to the House in this matter?

Dr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman's point is covered. Other countries have similar situations. A situation similar to that which exists in the United States of America would apply where there is a central freedom of information Act and, in addition, different Acts relating to it in various states. The United States has two jurisdictions, as will Britain.