HC Deb 19 November 1997 vol 301 cc309-10
1. Ms Julie Morgan

When he will publish the White Paper on freedom of information. [15090]

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

A White Paper on our proposals for a freedom of information Bill will be published shortly.

Ms Morgan

I thank the Minister for his reply. How does he propose to make the information that will become available under the legislation accessible to the ordinary citizen, not just to lobbyists?

Dr. Clark

It will be important to give a great deal of publicity to the freedom of information Act. The code has been partly ineffective because of inadequate publicity. I also believe that the amount of press publicity surrounding freedom of information will ensure that virtually everyone is aware of the legislation.

Mr. Lansley

When the Chancellor of the Duchy publishes the White Paper, will he at the same time publish the advice that has been rendered to Ministers by officials about the scope of freedom of information and its method of application?

Dr. Clark

When we publish the White Paper, it will contain the Government's proposals for consultation. Part of the process of that debate will concern how we deal with information to Ministers. On the one hand we need to be as open as possible; on the other, we must retain the central confidences that will allow the business of good government to continue.

Mr. Bennett

Will the freedom of information legislation apply to devolved government in Scotland and Wales? If so, will it be introduced via the devolution legislation or by a subsequent Act of this House?

Dr. Clark

The parts of public information that relate to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly will be matters for those authorities. How we bring that about will be a matter of detail that we will examine as we work through the consultation period.

Mr. Maclennan

As much public business today is carried out on behalf of the Government by contractors in the private sector, will the Chancellor of the Duchy ensure that the White Paper does not exempt such contractors from the requirements of disclosure that would be in place if the business were carried out in-house by the Government?

Dr. Clark

The right hon. Gentleman has a fair point. The nature of government has changed a great deal in recent years. With so much privatisation and contracting out, public business that would in the past have been carried out by Government Departments is now being done by private organisations. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt the Act, but this is the sort of issue that we are examining in the committee that is considering the White Paper.

Mr. Caplin

Will the Animal Procedures Committee under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 be part of the freedom of information Act, thus ending the shabby secrecy that vivisectionists have been able to hide behind under the Tories?

Dr. Clark

I believe that that particular legislation is one of the 200 Acts which contain clauses relating to the release or disclosure of information. If my memory is right in that respect, we shall deal with it in the White Paper. If not, I shall write to my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Shephard

In the interests of freedom of information, will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House why he found it necessary to make trips to Australasia, the United States and Canada in order to study open government? In connection with those trips, as reported in The Times on 20 October, we on the Conservative Benches at least hope that it is not the case that a smear campaign is being conducted against the right hon. Gentleman by a senior colleague—not, surely, something that we would want to expect from an open Government.

Dr. Clark

We on the Government Benches take the view that, if we are to modernise our constitution, the freedom of information legislation is very important. We also take the view that we will probably have only one opportunity to put such legislation on the statute book, so we must get it right on the first occasion. Therefore, I felt that it was right and proper not to reinvent the wheel but to learn from experiences elsewhere. It just so happens that, whereas the Conservative Government did not have the guts to face up to that difficult issue, we are prepared to grasp the nettle.

I felt it right and proper to go to the United States of America, which has a long history of freedom of information, and also to go to those three Commonwealth countries, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which have introduced freedom of information Acts in the past 15 years, so that when we compiled our legislation, we could ensure that, we were using the best practices from the experiences in those Westminster models.