HC Deb 01 April 1998 vol 309 cc1241-3
3. Mr. Flynn

What recent representations he has had on his freedom of information proposals. [35803]

9. Mr. Jim Cunningham

What response he has received to his White Paper on freedom of information. [35810]

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

I have received more than 550 responses to the freedom of information White Paper "Your Right to Know". The great majority of the respondents supported our proposals. I am today placing in the Library a list of those who responded and copies of the responses received, except where confidentiality was requested. Moreover, I shall place that information on the internet.

Mr. Flynn

Does my right hon. Friend recall that so neurotic were the previous Government in their intense 18-year denial of information programme that it was necessary for me to go to the United States Congress to have questions tabled about an accident that occurred in my constituency, and that information about a death from mustard gas in my constituency in 1943 was obtained only through the United States navy?

Now that a freedom of information Act is on the way, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what he intends to do, before the Bill is considered in the House, to ensure that we have improved freedom of information?

Dr. Clark

I well remember my hon. Friend's valiant efforts to obtain the information about his constituents. The fact that those efforts were required emphasises the necessity to introduce freedom of information legislation in this country, and the Government intend to do so. Meanwhile, we shall continue to operate the code, but we believe that there are other initiatives that we can take.

I have ensured that quangos make their annual reports publicly available, and that public appointments and Departments' plans for tackling the millennium bug are placed on the internet. We believe that the internet is a powerful tool for making government more open, and that the new technology now available goes hand in hand with open government.

Mr. Cunningham

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but may I press him further? Given the tremendous interest in a freedom of information Act, when will he publish the Bill, so that there may be the fullest possible discussion about what should be in it?

Dr. Clark

We are currently considering the responses from the formal consultation. We have already issued instructions to parliamentary draftsmen, as it is our hope that a draft Bill will be published before the summer, so that we can have a further period of consultation to make sure that we get matters right.

Mr. Baldry

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is all about more open government? Does not that become increasingly ludicrous when we see press stories of the Secretary of State for Social Security and her Minister of State being reprimanded by the chief press officer at No. 10 for going on "Woman's Hour" and other programmes without having cleared it with him first? Is it not a pathetic representation of Government when members of the Cabinet must get clearance from press officers at No. 10 before they are allowed to speak to the general public? I cannot believe that any Minister in any of the Governments over the past 18 years would have countenanced such a situation. How can one talk about more open government when that situation is allowed to prevail?

Dr. Clark

I thought that the hon. Gentleman would speak about more open government. The points that he made were nothing to do with freedom of information.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Further to that, have any of those who responded to the White Paper commented on the quality of information supplied by Government? Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the way in which information and news management is handled by No. 10 in particular is compatible with his ideas of what true freedom of information should be?

Dr. Clark

There was very little in the responses that referred to the present Government's openness, which is certainly far greater than the previous Government's. While we await a more perfect form of freedom of information legislation, we are using the previous Government's code, so that people still have some access to Government papers.