§ [Relevant documents: The Third report from the Select Committee on Public Administration of Session 1997–98, on "Your Right to Know: the Government's Proposals for a Freedom of Information Act", HC 398, and the fourth report from the Select Committee on Public Administration of Session 1997–98, on "Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions", HC 820.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a further sum not exceeding £55,642,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to complete or defray the charges which will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1999 for expenditure by the Office of the Minister for Public Service on the central management of, and delivery of services to, the civil service including the delivery of cross-departmental IT systems; expenditure resulting from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster's chairmanship of the Ministerial Committee on Food and Safety; and certain other services.—[Dr. David Clark.]
§ Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)
As Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, it is a privilege to commence the debate on the White Paper and the Select Committee's response to it. We published our report in May, and although it would have been beneficial to hear the Government's response to it today, we must bear it in mind that it was published only six or seven weeks ago. The Government are usually given two months to respond, and we hope that they will manage to do so within that time.
Tonight, we need to emphasise how important it is to pass freedom of information legislation along the lines of the excellent White Paper produced just before Christmas by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Draft legislation should be produced as soon as possible so that the Select Committee can go through it and listen to witnesses. A freedom of information Bill should also be in the Queen's Speech as part of the legislative programme for the 1998–99 Session, and I hope that we shall be enlightened on that subject.
From the Labour point of view, it is important to remember that freedom of information legislation was in the 1974 election manifesto, as well as the 1992 and 1997 manifestos. We formed the Government in 1974, so it is legitimate to ask why people lost interest in the matter. Unfortunately, part of the history of freedom of information legislation to which all commentators refer is that Opposition parties always commit themselves to it, but that, funnily, that commitment always falls by the wayside when they come into government.
I was told earlier today that, towards the end of their term in office from 1974 to 1979—just before they fell and when the Liberal party was committed to voting against them on a confidence motion—the Labour Government suddenly took an interest in Clement Freud's Back-Bench freedom of information Bill. By the time the Labour Government were buying, the Liberals were not selling, so the Bill fell and did not get through. We have an opportunity, 24 years later, to put that right.
799 The issue is always the same. People come into government with a flush of enthusiasm for freedom of information, but that needs to be driven forward to get the legislation on to the statute book before the iron of Administration enters the soul. We are at that exact point: the manifesto commitment has been made, the White Paper has been published, the Select Committee reported on it in May and we are waiting for the Government's response. We have been promised the draft Bill, although it will probably be published in the summer recess, and the expectation is that there will be a commitment to legislate in the next Session in the Queen's Speech later this year.
The events of yesterday, and the revelations in The Observer, serve only to emphasise how important it is to state the principle that was at the heart of Labour's manifesto: I cannot say too emphatically that information should be for the many, not the few. Restricting information to the few would provide those interstices into which lobbyists would insert themselves, and boast about how they could obtain information that was not available to the general public. Absurd though such boasts may be, in a climate of denial of information to the many, the few would seek to profit from that denial. Perhaps yesterday's events were providential in the light of the timing of the debate and the messages that we hope to hear from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
When they come into office for the first time, Governments want to open up government, but there is also the perception that, from time to time, the availability of information will undoubtedly be inconvenient to the operation of government. All Governments have a control freak tendency and a liberationist tendency, and this Government are no different. The Select Committee's report could not be clearer in welcoming the White Paper, but the litmus test of a Government is not what they put in their manifesto or in a White Paper, but what they enact in legislation.
We hope, therefore, that the draft Bill at least will be available before the 18-month period between last May's Queen's Speech and the next one, in November, has ended. We also hope for a commitment to legislate, although I do not expect my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to give such a commitment tonight, because the content of the Queen's Speech has not yet been determined. It is important that we repeat the welcome that the Select Committee gave to the strength of the White Paper, and I hope that the House will back that.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster produced an excellent document, "Your Right to Know: the Background Material". The Government suggested how freedom of information legislation would work in practice by implementing the principle in respect of the White Paper—they published the document. It commits the Government to practising what they preach—what the Americans call walking the walk as well as talking the talk. This useful document states at paragraph 11:The manifesto commitment implies that the Government intends the Act to go beyond the terms of the code of practice on access to Government information, quite apart from the obvious enhanced status of primary legislation over a non-statutory document. In keeping with this, the Government rejected within a few days of taking office options which would have involved simply translating the existing code into statutory form.800 We expect that the legislation will be stronger than the previous Government's code of practice. Having gone back 24 years to the previous Labour Government's commitment, I can go back four years to what the previous Government did and the presumed reasons why they did it. The previous Government introduced a non-statutory code because they believed that a freedom of information Act would cut across the relationship between hon. Members and Ministers. Parliamentary questions could have been asked and not answered, but the Bill of Rights would have been cut across if that had been overridden by an information commissioner. Members of the public would have been put over and above Members of Parliament in their ability to gain access to information from Government Departments.
A Minister may decide not to provide information through an answer to a parliamentary question, and there is little that we can do about that. We can ask another question in six months' time or whatever. A member of the public, on being denied similar information, could go to an information commissioner and that would disadvantage hon. Members, so the previous Government said, "Let us have just a non-statutory code."
Unfortunately, as I think all hon. Members would accept, that code has not worked. It has not established rights clearly. The public are cynical about it. They do not use it much. When they do use it, they find the response is full of delays: Departments can always find reasons to fob off the ombudsman because there is no statutory backing.
Let me cite a recent case. I had submitted a request for information on behalf of Friends of the Earth, Cymru about the Gwent wetland reserve and the mitigating measure for the Cardiff Bay development corporation. I shall not bore the House with the whole thing, but I made a complaint around about Christmas 1996 and it took until a couple of weeks ago—18 months—for the ombudsman to reach a verdict, simply because of the development corporation's dilatory tactics, which the ombudsman could do nothing about. That is the problem with a non-statutory code. The ombudsman, however hard he works, does not have enough stick to penetrate the defences of Departments, next steps agencies or quangos—whichever is seeking to hold the information back.
That brings me to the most important point about the code. It is not merely the fact that it changes the relationship between Ministers, or could make us have to go to members of the public. One of the curiosities is that, if we do not do something about the House as well, by making freedom of information provisions apply much more effectively to information obtained by the traditional route of parliamentary questions, that route could fall into disrepute, and Members of Parliament could be asking members of the public to get information for them, rather than members of the public trying to get information via their Member of Parliament tabling parliamentary questions. What nonsense that would be. It would badly affect the reputation of the House if we did not sort that question out.
I refer to the Committee's biggest difference with the Government's White Paper. I have already read out paragraph 11 of the background document that the Government produced, in which they said that they wanted the legislation to go beyond the content of the code. In one respect—law enforcement—the White Paper 801 retreats from what is in the code. We thought that that was a regrettable step. We believe that law enforcement should be subject to an exemption, as it is in the code, and not an exclusion, as it is in the White Paper.
Why is that difference between two Latin words, which appear to mean the same, significant? With an exclusion, there is no appeal to the information commissioner. With an exemption, there is an appeal to the information commissioner, so there is a possible override from the information commissioner. That is a critical difference. It seemed to the Committee that, if that was good enough to be in the previous Government's code of practice, it should be good enough to be in the legislation, and should have been in the White Paper.
We still recommend strongly that that should be in the draft Bill and in the eventual legislation. Otherwise, that area is untestable. Governments can abuse it if it is untestable and that will undermine the spirit of the freedom of information Bill, if and when we get it. Such a provision is not present in any overseas freedom of information legislation. That area is always testable, in the courts under the American system, or through a commissioner or a third party—an appeal body, if you like—under all the other systems, which do not use the courts as their ultimate court of appeal.
That was the one big difference: we felt that the Government should not have withdrawn that provision. We still need a change of culture in Whitehall. All the arguments that we read in the press over the weekend—about the meetings last week, about cost and about the need to consider what the impact might be in changing the balance between the criminal community and those attempting to detect its members through law enforcement and so on—seem to tell us only one thing: the culture of Whitehall has not yet changed. We believe that that culture needs to change and to be retrained, so that civil servants will participate, in a proactive way, in the passing out of information and will not seek to find every reason either to delay or to deny information to the public.
We also made points in the report about the need to co-ordinate the Data Protection Bill, which was working against the deadline of October this year, and therefore had to be finished in a great hurry, and the Human Rights Bill, which is another major Labour constitutional reform commitment. We said that they should be co-ordinated and linked.
We said that hesitantly, because we do not want any of our recommendations to be used as excuses for delaying the freedom of information Bill. We fear that, almost every time we refer to the need to strengthen or improve the Bill, that can be used by the Sir Humphreys in Whitehall as a reason for deferring it and saying, "Even the Select Committee says that more work should be done on it, so do not put it in next year's Queen's Speech."
That is the last thing that we want. Obviously, we want the Bill in next year's Queen's Speech, but we do not want it to be watered down. We want it strengthened and we want a commitment to it, but we believe that it should be closely co-ordinated with two other Bills that impinge on it—the Data Protection Bill and Human Rights Bill, which are still before the House.
The new Government's constitutional reform agenda—parts of which are already nearing the statute book—over the past 14 months has been massive. The legislative 802 programme has been jam-packed generally and jam-packed with constitutional matters in particular—the Human Rights Bill, devolution to Scotland and Wales, the setting up of an executive mayor and council for London and other matters. Many matters have had to be taken on the Floor of the House because they are constitutional, but this Government's constitutional reform agenda cannot be considered complete without a freedom of information Bill because that is the Bill that will do most to change the culture of Whitehall and, therefore, the relationship between the people and the Government.
For a Government to earn their corn as a great constitutional reforming Government, they need to implement freedom of information. Only then can they really say that they have completed the unfinished business of constitutional reform, modernising this country's constitution and joining the community of civilised nations, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and, most recently, Ireland, that have freedom of information legislation—let alone Sweden, which has had freedom of information legislation for more than 200 years. We cannot join that community unless we take that step of having freedom of information legislation.
From everything that we have read in the newspapers over the past few days, the permanent secretaries and some Ministers have now drawn the covered wagons of Whitehall into a circle and are fighting back. They did not mind the White Paper—after all, what is a White Paper in the end? However, now that it looks as though there could be a Bill in the Queen's Speech in only three or four months' time, they have drawn the covered wagons into a circle.
It is much worse than anything that ever appeared in any script in "Yes, Minister" because this is not a television soap about top civil servants and Ministers in Whitehall. This is the reality of a struggle at the heart of Whitehall and Westminster about what we are going to have in the Queen's Speech and whether, over the next few years, we shall get the culture change and shift in the relationship between the governed and the governing that we want, so that this Government can be seen to be truly a great reforming Government.
The plea of the whole Committee, therefore, is that we want to make an honest woman out of the mother of Parliaments; that is why this issue is so important to the whole House.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) for the manner in which he has introduced this debate, and I congratulate him and his Committee on some thorough work and an excellent report. I know that he will understand if I also say how good it is to see in the Chamber the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), who has taken part in the Committee, and, most particularly, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who has been in the House for almost 20 years and who has campaigned tirelessly, often to his discomfort, on this issue. No one could begin to doubt his impeccable credentials in this regard. I hope that we shall have the benefit of hearing him later in the debate if he has the good fortune to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
803 It is one of the quainter ironies of parliamentary life that we should debate the Government's policy on freedom of information the day after The Observer suggested that some Government information is freer than others—the hon. Member for Cardiff, West also referred to that—and the day before we debate the Government's practice on supplying information to one of Parliament's most important Select Committees.
However, sufficient unto the day is the confusion thereof, and in spite of everything that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said about the support he enjoys, it is fairly clear from articles written by normally well-informed commentators that the Government's policy on freedom of information is far from the seamless robe that he tries to wear. The hon. Member for Cardiff, West referred to that, and I hope that the Chancellor will tonight give us the latest insight into where the Government stand.
It would seem that the Chancellor, backed by another Chancellor in the other place, is fighting off assaults on his territory by sundry ministerial colleagues who have rallied under the Home Secretary's banner. What Labour leaders were happy to proclaim as the ark of their covenant in opposition, they now see as a rather different, storm-tossed ark. A new freedom of inquiry and other intrusions would, some Ministers believe, threaten their ministerial freedom to act.
We do not have to rely merely on press comment to know that there is anxiety in and around Whitehall. We just need to read the memos sent by the Ministry of Defence to the Select Committee on Public Administration. We are told that the Ministry anticipatesan increase in applications for information, which could impose a heavy administrative load…The change to a requirement to provide copies of documents, rather than providing information, will require time and effort to identify specific documents and"—these are the really important words—to decide whether all or part are suitable for disclosure".It seems more than a few months since the Chancellor made his December statement. Although it was subject to one of the major leaks for which the Government have become notorious, it earned the Chancellor more plaudits than most of his colleagues have received for their statements to the House. I very much appreciated, as did many hon. Members, the thoroughness with which the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster sought to investigate that leak, having denounced it very roundly, and apologised to the House for it.
This is the first occasion on which the House has had a chance to debate the White Paper. I make no particular complaint about that, but I do complain a little about the fact that we have yet to see the Government's response to the report of the Select Committee of which the hon. Member for Cardiff, West is Chairman. I appreciate what he said about the deadline of eight weeks, but the Government have chosen tonight for this debate, and it is a pity that they did not publish their response so that hon. Members could read it in time for the debate.
The Chancellor of the Duchy will tell us, I am sure, that he is consulting widely in Whitehall. All I ask is that he tries to get his ministerial colleagues to speed up their replies, because it would be scandalous if we did not get the Government's response before the House rises for the summer recess.
804 I confess to being a little disappointed with the Chancellor. He is an old friend, and I hold him in high personal regard. In what he welcomed as a constructive response to his statement on 11 December, I said that the Opposition would be very glad to take part in talks with him. I pointed out that, although we did not share his zeal for constitutional reform—he knows that only too well—we would be more than willing to participate in a constructive spirit, not least because we are proud of our achievements in government.
Unfortunately, the Chancellor has not yet responded to those overtures. I express the hope that tonight he will pledge himself to seeking to engage all parties, including the official Opposition, in substantive talks when the draft Bill is published, if not before.
As I said on 11 December, if ever there were a subject on which consensus is desirable, this is it. It is a pity not only that the Chancellor has not responded to my offer, but, more importantly, that the White Paper is almost overtly political in the tone of its criticisms of the previous Government. Specifically, it makes light of the code of practice, which was a substantial step forward. It falls back on that code towards the end: in paragraph 7.3 it says:Existing mechanisms for openness—including the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information—will remain in place…to smooth the transition to the fully-implemented legislation.The simple fact of the matter is that the previous Government, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), made very significant strides in opening up government. They established the code of practice and introduced the citizens charter, which the present Government have rightly retained, although with scant recognition of the man responsible for it.
Where precisely do the Government stand now? I have to ask that question not only because of the recent press speculation and the concerns expressed by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which, under Maurice Frankel, has done so much to advance this cause, but because we have not had the opportunity to discuss these issues in the Chamber. We need to know how the Bill will be handled and when it will be introduced.
What about the Chancellor's comments about the White Paper having green edges? How much notice has been taken of the many representations that have been made to him direct—not just those made by the Select Committee—and of the often critical comments contained in the Select Committee report and in the detailed response by the Campaign for Freedom of Information? The campaign's document is substantial: it is even longer than the White Paper.
I shall touch on some of the issues that exercise the Opposition, and that need clear, definitive comment from the Chancellor of the Duchy. How is reasonableness to be tested? After all, sometimes those with the greatest need for information are campaigning individuals or organisations that few would call reasonable. One wonders how a Wilberforce or a Shaftesbury would have fared if he had applied under these rules for information for fighting their, at the time, unpopular and unfashionable causes. What about "substantial harm"? Adjectives are notoriously difficult to define accurately or objectively. Why should the test be reduced to one of mere harm when it comes to Government Departments?
805 The White Paper tells us:Experience from overseas suggests that the essential governmental functions of planning ahead, delivering solutions to issues of national importance and determining options on which to base policy decisions while still maintaining collective responsibility, can be damaged by random and premature disclosure of its deliberations under Freedom of Information legislation.One is tempted to say, "Quite so." Perhaps I can be forgiven a wry smile when I suggest that the Chancellor has had little success in persuading his ministerial colleagues, many of whom seem ready, for the sake of a soundbite headline, to proclaim to the "Today" programme what they have presumably agreed to keep confidential. There is little point in the White Paper defending rules which are so regularly broken unless there is to be a new determination to enforce them. Is there to be such a determination? We have a right to know.
There is a powerful argument to be advanced against the White Paper here, and it has been so advanced with remarkable and persuasive lucidity by Professor Vernon Bogdanor in his memorandum to the Select Committee, published in volume II of the report. I warmly commend the memorandum to any hon. Member who has not read it. He argues:To give Parliament the right to information, which may include official advice, is the only way in which Parliament can be enabled to fulfil its task of pinning responsibility on Ministers.In support of his case, Professor Bogdanor cites this fact:Between 1994 and 1997, the minutes of discussions between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England were released six weeks after these discussions took place. On a number of occasions, the minutes revealed serious differences of opinion between the Chancellor and the Governor.Why, I ask the Chancellor of the Duchy, does the White Paper not refer to that considerable advance in open government, which was quite revolutionary, and which has not continued?
Professor Bogdanor also refers to New Zealand, which is cited in the White Paper on a number of occasions and has constitutional conventions rather similar to ours. In New Zealand,It is now customary to release policy advice relating to decisions once they have been made. A New Zealand citizen can, for 20 dollars, purchase the official advice given to an incoming Government.I would have been happy to pay rather more than that on 2 May last year. I suspect that some of the gentlemen referred to in The Observer yesterday would doubtless have been happy to fill the Government's coffers a little more.
Professor Bogdanor seeks to categorise those who take opposing sides on the issue as either embracing the Whig-Liberal view of the constitution—whose most prominent recent spokesman he cites as Sir Richard Scott—or the viewgiven elegant expression in recent years by two ex Foreign Secretaries, Lord Howe and Lord Hurd. This view starts from the requirements of Government rather than Parliament.At this point, I should ask who it was who appointed Scott, and gave directions that his report should be published. Again, there is a churlish refusal to acknowledge what the previous Government often did.
Professor Bogdanor also argues that we might have escaped the poll tax fiasco had policy advice been readily available. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member 806 for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and I—who steadfastly opposed that item of Conservative legislation—would read that passage in the good professor's case with particular interest.
Professor Bogdanor rests his case by saying that, in the last resort, the fundamental argument for freedom of information derives from the principle that, in a democracy,the people have a right to know what Government is doing in their name.If the Chancellor intends to preserve his White Paper position unchanged, he will have to come up with convincing answers to the Bogdanor thesis.
Central to the policy as advanced in the White Paper is the proposal to appoint an information commissioner. It is a pity that, in his enthusiasm for this new appointment, the Chancellor has—perhaps inadvertently— downgraded the role of the ombudsman. The Committee is rather tough on the Chancellor on that, recommending that he should,in his response to this report, correct the statement on paragraph 5.7 of the White Paper relating to the independence of the ombudsman—and cease to draw the wrong inferences from it.I am bound to say that I am not persuaded that we need a wholly separate information commissioner. Much could be said for giving the extra responsibilities to the ombudsman, even though that would inevitably mean extending not only the scope, but the size, of his office. Such a move would certainly avoid the possibility of clash and confusion, which could arise if two similar but separate high officials exist side by side.
Certainly, if an independent commissioner is appointed, there will have to be a clear understanding of where his responsibilities begin and end and where they are different from those of the ombudsman—who, after all, has a specific role under the code, which will, as we have seen, remain important during the transitional period. Combining both roles would have the added advantage of giving all the responsibilities under the Act to an officer accountable to Parliament. That is not something that should be lightly dismissed.
Other points in the Select Committee report deserve the most careful answers. The Committee has serious doubts that the regime proposed by the White Paper strikes the right balance between privacy and openness, or whether it will be workable. It is important that the Chancellor takes on board the strong arguments advanced by the Committee in that context. The Committee goes further than the Opposition would wish with its comments on the excluded areas, but, again, the cogent case that it advances must be debated fully during discussion of the draft stage of the Bill.
I can sum up the Opposition's position simply, as one of wishing to play a constructive part in all the discussions, but only on the basis of genuine consultation. There has been little enough over the Government's other constitutional policies. They are referred to by the Prime Minister in the preface to the White Paper:We are committed to a comprehensive programme of constitutional reform. We believe it is right to decentralise power; to guarantee individual rights; to open up Government; and to reform Parliament.In response, I would say that we have seen little of a coherent strategy, but rather haphazard, piecemeal reforms based on inadequate consultation, and often no 807 attempt to think things out or to establish any consensus. When I think of the Government lurching from policy to policy in this field, I am reminded of the famous story of Winston Churchill dismissing the pudding at the Savoy because it had "no theme". Where is the Government's theme?
On this policy, Mr. Hugo Young—writing in The Guardian last week—said that the answer to those specific questions is being decided in the secret places. He added that that answerwill be definitive for the entire life and meaning of the Blair Government.The opening sentence of the White Paper is particularly prescient:Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making.I rather suspect that that is a sentence that will come to haunt Ministers. I hope that we shall not see a particularly troubling visitation of the spectre tomorrow night.
§ 8.6 pm
§ Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)
It seems from the attendance in the House tonight that freedom of information is the best-kept secret in Westminster. That is a great shame, but I very much welcome the debate.
I listened attentively to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) and to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P.Cormack). I find it strange that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire cannot find the theme in the White Paper, or in the Committee's response. His speech was elegant, but he lost the thread. He should return to "Your Right to Know" and the Committee's response to it.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
I was not accusing the Chancellor in the White Paper—still less the Committee—of not having a theme; I was referring to the Government's policies as a whole. Mr. Bradley: Those who have read the White Paper attentively and with less cynicism will have found that it is proposing one of the most radical and irreversible departures from the culture to which we have become accustomed over the centuries—particularly in the past couple of decades; an obsession with secrecy by which, in the name of democratic accountability, previous Governments have limited rather than extended the freedoms enjoyed by citizens in this country.
The well-known sociologist and political commentator, Noam Chomsky, said some decades ago that freedom of speech, valuable though it is, depends on those who have the power to define language. The same is true of information. Freedom of information depends very much on those who control the flow of that information, and the White Paper—and the legislation that we hope and expect will follow it—will do much to redress the balance between the governed and the governors.
Until now, freedom of information has been curtailed by interests that are more concerned to limit participative democracy than to allow it to flourish. Ministers, civil servants and those with commercial interests understand that their authority, influence and power over our daily lives would be reduced if we had an automatic right to know and to question the way in which we are regulated 808 and controlled. Now, I believe, we have a right to demand access, accountability and transparency in the conduct of national and local government.
Information is the oxygen of democracy; without it, our democratic system and our institutions cannot flourish. That is why I support what has recently become known as control freakery. I believe that it is important for Government to express messages that are clear, cogent and coherent. People want to know that their Government are under control. They want information to which they can respond and react. Without clear information, there can be no real dialogue or partnership between those who govern and those who are governed; there can be no real bond of trust, and there can be no real opportunity for people to react, to express their views and to participate in the management of their daily lives.
The White Paper is truly radical. It proposes one of the most important constitutional changes that the Government will pursue—indeed, that any Government for many years have pursued. That change will enfranchise and empower every citizen in the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West said, it should be seen in the context of a wide-ranging programme of reform that, as a whole, constitutes a new and mature contract between the Government and the citizen. That is what is known as stakeholding, an expression that was current a couple of years ago but has fallen out of fashion—sadly, I believe, as it is an important concept.
The Government have been criticised for control freakery, but they are pursuing a wide-ranging programme of reform. That programme includes Scots and Welsh devolution, the return of democratically elected government to London, the introduction of regional development agencies and the modernisation of local government—as expressed in, I think, six recent consultation documents. There have been experiments with proportional representation, and Liberal Democrats have been put on to Cabinet Committees—I do not think that anyone could argue that that is entirely necessary, given the majority that the Labour party enjoys in the House, but it is welcome none the less.
Moreover, the European convention on human rights will be incorporated into our legislation and a White Paper on better government will, I hope, be published in the autumn. I should also mention the reform of the House of Lords and the whistleblowers Bill, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)—I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to his part in bringing forward legislation on both freedom of information and on whistleblowers.
Freedom of information is the flagship of the programme but, as I said, it is a well-kept secret, which is a pity. That is partly because the press's obsession with personalities overwhelms its interest in policies. For example, when, a couple of months ago, the Lord Chancellor gave evidence for two and a half hours to the Select Committee on Public Administration on the Government's programme of constitutional change, he discussed the most far-reaching changes that citizens in this country will enjoy for a generation—indeed, for many generations to come. The press, however, were interested in one thing only. Those who recall that Select Committee meeting will remember that, the following day, the radio, the television and the newspapers were consumed by one issue—the Lord Chancellor's wallpaper. The story was 809 not even new; it was a reheated version of a story that had kept the newspapers going for a couple of days in the previous week. The media's failure to discuss important issues seriously and to involve people in a proper debate represents a great disservice to the citizens of this country.
§ Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, on that occasion, the Lord Chancellor seemed to be grateful for the distraction provided by the cost of his wallpaper, as he did not want to talk about hon. Members' criticisms of the way in which judges are appointed? As the record of that meeting shows, the Lord Chancellor instigated most of the dialogue on the choice and the cost of his wallpaper.
§ Mr. Bradley
My recollection is not the same; suffice it to say we discussed constitutional change for two of the two and a half hours, whereas for half an hour two members of the Committee—the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) was not one of them—pursued Lord Irvine on what can be described only as trivia. I put it to the House that the Lord Chancellor's home furnishings are far less important than those constitutional issues.
This time last year there was much speculation about the delay in publication of the White Paper. When it was published, it was welcomed for its thoroughness; the delay had been caused by the pains the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Lord Chancellor and others involved in the drafting had taken to ensure that it was right. Indeed, the White Paper is exceedingly good.
It is important that the Bill preserves and builds on the key principles identified in the White Paper. I am relaxed about whether the Bill will form part of this year's Queen's Speech; I hope that it will, but it is far more important to ensure that the Bill is right than to have it quickly. So long as it is worth waiting for, we should, having waited for centuries, wait a little longer. The key issue is that there should be no retreat from the principles set out in the White Paper.
The Select Committee's report makes clear our disappointment at the relatively few examples of temerity in the White Paper. I hope that the lobbying done by and for the utilities—which is the subject of press speculation—so that they can escape public scrutiny will not be tolerated. When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave evidence to the Select Committee, I found his reasoning unpersuasive that all police operations should be excluded from public scrutiny. If the public had had proper opportunities to know what happened in the tragic Lawrence case, for example, I doubt that we would be where we are now or that the Lawrence family would have suffered so much and for so long.
I find it inexplicable that the public should not have the right of access to information about police operations, particularly failed police operations. I have in mind fairly humdrum examples, such as were discussed by the Select Committee, relating to the management of disorder or of football grounds and football crowds. Police plans to control public events should be confidential but, after the event, especially when something has gone wrong, the public have an absolute right to know the police's dispositions, what instructions were issued and what 810 accounted for the failure. That is a weakness in the Home Secretary's argument and the Select Committee stated its case plainly in the report. I hope that those who draft the Bill will resist any temptation to retreat from the report's recommendations on this important issue.
The conflict between the right to privacy and freedom of information is a problem. I believe that the right to privacy is very important; I also accept that freedom of information, while important, is not an absolute right. It is crucial that the Bill, and consultation on its drafting, strikes the right balance.
Once we have freedom of information legislation, the world will not be the same. It is doubtful whether the BSE crisis could have deepened as it did had the public had proper access to information. It is also doubtful that the arms to Iraq affair could have taken the course that it did had there been proper scrutiny through access to information. Quangos and utilities will not be able to operate under the cloak of secrecy as they do today.
The role of the press will undoubtedly change, not least because there will be fewer leaks and less of a market for leaking information that ought to be in the public domain. One would hope that there will be less scandal because the people in control of information will be much more careful to ensure that they are beyond reproach and those whose job it is to scrutinise their activities will have more access to information about the way in which they are governing us and the country.
Freedom of information will also come as something of a shock to Members of Parliament. As a new Member I frequently hear older Members in particular telling us about the sovereignty of the House and how important that is. In principle, in our parliamentary democracy, that sovereignty is important, but if it means a barrier being set up between Members of Parliament, Ministers and the people we serve, it is not a good thing. Freedom of information will do a great deal to lower the barrier between the people who sit up in the Strangers Gallery and the people who sit down here in the Chamber. Freedom of information will make truly participative democracy possible. In future, there will be a presumption to disclose information, instead of the culture of secrecy and denial.
For 10 years I was a member of Westminster city council, which was the subject of possibly the greatest political scandal of the century. When I and other members of the opposition elected by our constituents to serve them as well as we could asked for information from council officers because we suspected that something was going on that should not have been, we were consistently denied access to the information. We were asked to demonstrate why we needed it—to demonstrate our need to know. Frankly, one can demonstrate one's need to know only when one has the information and can justify the request. That is simply unacceptable.
One of the strongest features of the proposed legislation is that no one should be required to demonstrate why he or she wants certain information. There should be no denial of an individual's right to information on the ground that it is a fishing expedition. If my friends and colleagues on Westminster city council and I had had access to the information when we asked for it and had been given the right to scrutinise the administration as we were elected to do, many of the scandals with which everyone is so familiar about Westminster would not have 811 happened. That would have been far better for local democracy there and it would have saved thousands of our constituents a great deal of suffering.
Freedom of information will make our democracy truly participative. When people have access to information, they can react and play their own role in decision making. It will no longer be possible for the great and the good, that small coterie of those elected and otherwise who dominate public affairs, to do so to the exclusion of our constituents. I enter a plea that, when we have an information commissioner, he or she should not merely have the common touch but common sense so that they can be truly representative of the people they are appointed to serve.
One of the most pernicious features of social exclusion is the exclusion of individuals and communities from decision making. Freedom of information and the technology that is making information so much more accessible will bring a radical cultural change to the way in which our affairs are managed. The onus is on the Government to ensure that freedom of information is truly liberating—not merely a subject for Hampstead and Islington dinner parties, but something that will be meaningful to every man and woman in the country.
In welcoming the White Paper, may I enter a plea to the Government? May it come soon, but above all may it certainly not be diluted. I hope that the White Paper is not diluted by those who are paranoid or retentive—by civil servants who feel that they will lose influence and control or by sectional interests who would rather cloak their activities in secrecy. The Government should keep up their courage and stick to the principles of the White Paper. If they do, it will be one of the enduring achievements of this reforming Government.
§ Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)
Like all hon. Members present tonight, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this subject. Like the Chairman of the Select Committee on Public Administration, I and other hon. Members are disappointed that we are debating the matter when we have not yet had the Government's response to the report that the Committee worked so hard to achieve. I must pay tribute to our chairman, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) for all his work. I also compliment the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who is the most experienced member of the Committee and who held the line on more than one occasion, preventing some of us from being misdirected. I am grateful for his help and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), who I am sure will want to make some observations, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about information that he has tried desperately hard to get out of Ministers in the past 12 months and the frustrations that have caused him to ask close on 1,000 parliamentary questions,
§ Mr. Hancock
Yes, very expensive. I am glad to say that not all his questions were directed at the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
The Committee's deliberations could have been entitled, "The tale of the two Chancellors" because we had a different approach from both of them. The hon. 812 Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) was right to remind us of the fun morning when we questioned the Lord Chancellor. Some of us expected a little more than we got and some were disappointed that he seemed to want to rush quickly on to discuss the quality of wallpaper, where he should buy it and his domestic activities, rather than the serious questions that we wanted to put to him. How different it was when we questioned the Chancellor of the Duchy and how right he was to take the issues so seriously and to spend some considerable time going into detail with Committee members on the rights and wrongs of the White Paper and his ambitions for how it would develop.
I also hope that the White Paper will develop into a Bill in the Queen's Speech, and will become an Act. That will give us a terrific trinity of good new legislation, with major breakthroughs—data protection, human rights and freedom of information—a trinity of usefulness for the population as a whole to use. Hon. Members stressed to the Chancellor of the Duchy that we hoped that this aspect would not develop into legislation that is available only to the rich and powerful, to big business and the media. We hope that the people whom we represent will have access to it.
In one of my contributions to the Select Committee, I reflected on the problems of my constituents. I considered five different areas. One was the nuclear test veterans—many of whom were national service men in the Army, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy—who went to the Pacific 30 or 40 years ago and took part in the tests, which affected their lives. Sadly, many of them are now dead, but there are still unanswered questions relating to the activities of some 40 years ago. Those involved have been stonewalled decade after decade and there is widespread frustration that the Ministry of Defence is still cloaking in secrecy what happened and the position of those men.
Many Gulf war veterans live in the Portsmouth area. Once again, they are frustrated by their inability to get answers to questions. Service personnel in general are frustrated by what they come up against, particularly when they have recently left the service and want to query issues relating to their activities.
Immigrants are often frustrated by the fact that they cannot get answers when relatives are refused entry or they are denied citizenship. Portsmouth prides itself on being a cosmopolitan city, and we have a large immigrant population. The most notorious citizenship case outstanding is that of Mr. Fayed. Under the legislation, he would still not be able to find out who said what about him to frustrate his application. That cannot be right.
Only this morning, I had a conversation with a constituent who was a party to the arrest of two people who had robbed and assaulted him. He identified them to the police on not one but three occasions, including at an identification parade. When the case went to court, he was not even informed of the court date, and he subsequently received a letter saying that the police had dropped the case. There was no explanation from the Crown Prosecution Service or the police. He could get no answers and came to me in frustration. Under the current proposals, we shall never be told why that blatant crime went unpunished. The frustration will continue, and that cannot be right. Even at this late hour in the consultation on the legislation, we should consider those points carefully.
813 On 14 September 1996, the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Prime Minister said:The case for a freedom of information act and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law is now generally agreed outside the Conservative Party and even by some within it. The onus must always be on public authorities to explain why citizens should not have access to information and not vice versa.In the Tribune of 29 September 1995, the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Home Secretary wrote:Labour wants to see far greater openness in government. That is why we will introduce a Freedom of Information Act to give people clear rights of access to information collected by public authorities. The balance of the presumption must be reversed so that in most cases information will be made available to the public unless there is a good case for secrecy.I hope that both right hon. Gentlemen, who now hold high office, will remember their words and act accordingly. I was somewhat frustrated when the Home Secretary expressed to the Select Committee the view that we should still close the door on information from the police.
The conflict between civil servants and the ballot box should be won by the ballot box every time. The House and the will of the people should not be subverted by powerful Whitehall mandarins who might feel that their past life style and the ease—the deft touch of the unaccountable—with which they have governed the nation are being interfered with. We cannot allow this opportunity to slip away, because the nation would not forgive us.
The main purpose of the legislation is to allow people access to information that is pertinent to their personal lives. The balance has to be drawn carefully between the right to know and the privacy of the individual, but I believe that we can find the right blend when the Bill is drafted.
Some of the most intimidating agencies have been wholly excluded. At present, the police, the security services, social security and immigration are all excluded, except for administrative records. We want that to change. It cannot be too late for that.
Hon. Members have asked about the role of the commissioner, which is limited to a judicial review, concerning procedure rather than substance, so a Department has only to act "properly or reasonably", and if the statutes are drafted to give wide scope for what is proper and reasonable, the commissioner will have almost no opportunity to intervene. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) made the same point when he said that the use of words could provide an easy route to stop information being made available. We should not allow ourselves to be frustrated by words. We must explore the situation positively.
Committee members were frustrated when we could not further examine the position of the public utilities. The monopoly companies appear to have lobbied successfully to escape the provisions, except where their activities are directly accountable to the public. Southern Water, which serves my area, is an offshoot of a much bigger company, and the larger implications of that multinational company's activities have a bearing on what happens with water in the area that I represent.
We need the right to question the parent company about its activities, and not only about its responsibility to provide clean water and decent sewerage. We need to 814 explore the motivation that leads to investment being contracted or expanded and the pressures that exist on the board. Companies working in the public interest must be open to public scrutiny. Anything short of that would be a travesty of what most reasonable people would expect from the legislation.
We need time to scrutinise the legislation. I hope that the Select Committee will have that opportunity and that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will give us a timetable that will allow us to invite back previous witnesses and question new ones. Many groups would welcome that, and we would relish the opportunity of developing the draft legislation into the reality of a Bill to be introduced in Parliament.
We must ensure that the legislation on data protection and that on freedom of information interface correctly and do not become a means of foiling one another. They should work in tandem to develop freedom, transparency and openness. We must insist that those points are taken on board. Anything short of that will leave people sadly frustrated.
We must take careful note of the points made by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, whose submission to the Select Committee spoke of the harm test and how it is to be applied. In its report of March this year, it listed the factors that needed to be demonstrated to give real authority to that test. Those factors included which parts of the requested information would cause harm; the nature of the harm; the mechanism by which it was believed that the harm could be caused; why it was believed that it would be substantial; and the measures that had been considered for excluding part of the data or seeking the consent of a third party to make information disclosable.
All those factors need to be a fundamental part of the legislation. The harm test—the protection test—should be there. It should go both ways. It cannot be good enough for a Department simply to say that information would be harmful. The Department should need to demonstrate publicly what the harm would be.
Liberals have campaigned for the best part of five decades for freedom of information legislation. The White Paper goes a long way to delivering on our expectations of the incoming Labour Government. I am particularly grateful to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for his leadership and commitment in getting us this far. It would be a great disservice to the House to suggest anything other than that he is the right person to take freedom of information through its next stages, and I wish him well in his endeavours to do so. I congratulate him on what he has done so far, but ask him to take note of what hon. Members on both sides have said. Not one of us here—few though we are—wants anything but good from the White Paper, and 55 million people see it as a stepping stone to greater freedom to live better lives and to understand a little more about our country's government.
§ Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)
I apologise for any unintentional discourtesy to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Public Administration or to other hon. Members arising from my absence at the start of the debate. I received a late invitation to meet a Minister, whom I had asked to see, and I felt it best to accept. Unfortunately, that made me a little late.
815 From what I have heard, I realise how united is the House's welcome for the White Paper and the Government's clear-sighted commitment to freedom of information. I join the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) in commending the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on his drive to ensure that the proposals are wide-ranging enough to create a climate in which open information is normal. I hope that the legacy of the legislation to arise from the White Paper will be that people will ask in future what all the fuss was about. People should find it normal to have access to information about what Governments, public bodies and elected representatives do, and there should be no question that it could be otherwise.
We should not underestimate the revolution in public affairs that that will require. It is good to hear the official Opposition being generally supportive of proposed legislation. That is a revolution in itself. It has not always been that way, although some on the Opposition Benches have always been conspicuously courageous in their tireless advocacy of freedom of information. Indeed, a full 33 per cent. of those now sitting on the Conservative Benches fall into that category. It took a careful mathematical calculation to reach that figure.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin said that the Opposition's new attitude towards legislation might create a climate in which we may receive, from someone, an apology for what happened in Westminster. No apology has been forthcoming from the Opposition leadership, but that case exemplified what can happen when there is a climate of secrecy in local government and when councillors and officers make sure that people do not have the information on which to make proper judgments. Things go dreadfully awry when that happens, and we do not want those circumstances to recur in local government.
Nor do we want to see again in national Government the disgraceful circumstances of the arms-to-Iraq scandal. There was clear evidence in the Scott report of dissimulation by Ministers and civil servants, and that was engendered by the assumption that information was the property of those who had initial access to it, and was a privilege to be handed out in teaspoonfuls to anyone else.
Some people dismiss freedom of information as a problem merely for the chattering classes. However, the problem for freedom of information—or, in our case, lack of it—is that change must come about in public perceptions of what politicians and public administrators are up to. We must demonstrate our good will, our good intentions, our probity and our willingness to engage in proper debate about the issues on which we legislate. Public trust has been lost because of what the public have seen of many people engaged in public administration in recent years. It will take a lot of hard work to restore trust. We cannot do it overnight, or by a single stroke of policy. It will require consistent application over many years. That is why freedom of information is so important.
As the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South said, an Act such as the one that I believe that the Government will introduce will rank as one of the Labour Government's seminal achievements. It will create a climate in which the contract between the politicians and civil servants and the public can perhaps be built anew. Partnership and participation are essential to democratic government in any country, and especially so in ours.
816 I am pleased that the Select Committee's report broadly supports the Government's initiative. However, a thread—best described as fear of the implementation of legislation—runs through the report's examination of the White Paper and the evidence of witnesses. There were suggestions in the press and among those who gave evidence to the Select Committee that Ministers might seek to restrict the flow of information. It was suggested that Ministers might push for tight definitions of harm, or might argue for an extensive definition of commercial confidentiality.
It also appears from the White Paper that such bodies as the police and the security services might be given a blanket exclusion, perhaps because of fears of the effects that freedom of information would have on them. I can well understand that substantial parts of the operations of the police and the security services must remain operationally confidential. The reports coming out about the history of the troubles in Northern Ireland tell us that there are matters of which the public cannot be made aware for national security reasons.
However, we need not necessarily jump from those facts to the introduction of a class exclusion. The tremendous difficulty in making a distinction between policy and operations has systematically bedevilled implementation of freedom of information in local government. It also came to the fore in recent discussions between the Prison Service and the previous Home Secretary. A host of other examples exists. To put administration within freedom of information legislation, while other activities fall outside, could cause difficulties. The matter should be clarified, because the public must have confidence that the Government are conducting their business in an open, fair and even-handed manner. When it comes to the police, public confidence is vital at all times.
I shall tell the House about the fears that many people justifiably—in some cases, less justifiably—have about implementing the legislation by relating my experience of attempting to introduce a freedom of information platform when I was leader of Southampton city council. When my party took control of the council in 1984, there was a very tight regime in place. It was generally presumed that information was the property of officers, and sometimes of councillors, and items that came before the council for discussion were coded on paper of different colours—hon. Members who have served on local authorities will be familiar with the colour-coding obsession in which those authorities have historically indulged.
In the case of Southampton, an item coded on white paper could be talked about to anyone. If business came before the local authority on yellow paper, it meant, curiously, that one could not talk about it until the afternoon of the council meeting and subsequent to that. If it came before the council on pink paper, one could not talk to anyone about the matter before or after the council meeting—although most of the business on pink paper was systematically leaked to the press by persons unknown. Most importantly, that regime was put in place by officers who effectively had carte blanche in deciding what coloured papers went before the council for discussion. A catch-all definition allowed officers to grade the confidentiality concerns of the local authority.
As soon as my party came to power and I became council leader, I decided that the system should be reversed and that papers would be regarded as 817 confidential only if the reasons for their confidentiality were written upon them. There were seven such reasons—including commercial confidentiality and the personal disclosure of details about a council employee—but no general catch-all clause that allowed someone to declare that a paper should be confidential. Every paper had to bear the reason for its confidentiality. That order completely turned around the atmosphere in the council. I am delighted that the White Paper says that Ministers or any other public servant who wishes to persuade the public that a matter should be confidential must make a case as to why that is so. The onus must be upon them to make that case, which is the right and proper way to proceed.
At the time, I received advice both nationally, and particularly locally, from several local authority officers that I was a foolish council leader—many others have told me that since then, but, on this occasion, it related to the confidentiality issue.
§ Dr. Whitehead
I seem to recall that the hon. Gentleman was particularly complimentary some years ago about the wonderful way in which Southampton city council was run. I am grateful for that historical compliment.
It was suggested that my order would lead to a rash of inquiries and that the council would come to a standstill. The phrase "nutters' charter" was used—not an expression that I would choose—and I was accused of stirring up trouble. People said that, within a few months, I would regret my foolish actions and we would have to put the genie back into the bottle. However, there were no such complaints. The method of operation was not unmanageable and the system worked well. I believe that the public had much greater confidence in the city council as a result of the changes. The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985, in which the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) had a substantial hand, installed the regime across local government—although in a slightly different form from Southampton.
There has been considerable resentment subsequently in local government circles about the difference between what local government is required to disclose, and how the House requires it to conduct its business, and the way in which central Government operate. There are startling differences in the level of disclosure required in the civil service and in local government service. Among other things, it is vital that freedom of information legislation rights that wrong: the same rules must apply across all public service. The public service generally must be required to give an account of what it does and the public should have access to that account in order to judge whether the public service is doing a good job on their behalf.
In that context, it is also important to consider carefully the disclosure of parliamentary information. The Select Committee's background paper refers toan implied repeal of the Bill of Rights, which declares that the freedom of speech in debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.818 I do not see how what we do in Parliament fits that description. I think that Parliament should take a lead in this area. We must restore our good name through our deliberations with the general public. In my short time as a Member of Parliament, I have observed that hon. Members overwhelmingly deliberate in good faith: they examine the details and think carefully about their actions. The Government take great pains to get their consultation right so that everything is in order and the public are protected properly by the legislation that we pass in the House. The more the public know about the process in this place, the more they will understand that, despite occasional press comments about us, the House is an effective guardian of probity in public life. If that is made apparent, public confidence in public life will be restored.
My small contribution in this area was to publish in my annual report a full financial breakdown of my income and expenditure as a Member of Parliament. The lucky citizens of Southampton will receive about 20,000 copies of that document in the near future—whether they like it or not. That financial information may come as a surprise to people in the first year. However, if I publish that information every year, it will be assumed that that is a natural occurrence. As soon as it becomes the norm, no one will worry about the new regime and the new climate. If the legislation can bring about that new climate and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster can ensure that it permeates the conduct of public life in this country, he will have done our country a great service.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)
The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) spoke about the difficulties of this process. Twenty years ago, the then Home Secretary, now Lord Merlyn-Rees, used to sit in a little room behind the Speaker's Chair with the representatives of the Liberal party to thrash out the details of freedom of information legislation. The splendid Lord Merlyn-Rees told us during various debates on official secrets legislation that he often used to nod off in those long dark nights as the Liberal party made a vigorous case.
Lord Merlyn-Rees nodded off because he recognised three features. First, there was no will among his colleagues for freedom of information legislation. Secondly, he could not necessarily command a majority on it. Thirdly, the life of the then Labour Government was coming to an end and it was unlikely that the legislative programme would have allowed the legislation. Those were the conditions of 20 years ago and it has been a long haul since.
There was Clement Freud's Official Information Bill. I notice that two great men are within the precincts of this building: a former chairman of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, who is now an adviser to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the director of that organisation, Maurice Frankel, who is sitting under the Gallery. It is due to the efforts of extraordinary private citizens for little or no return that a society—a great society, I would argue—advances. It is undoubtedly the assiduity of such people in pushing, cajoling and helping Members of Parliament introduce a raft of important legislation that has given citizens rights of access to personal information and a range of other details.
We are debating the Government's White Paper and the observations and comments of the Select Committee on Public Administration, on which I have the honour to 819 serve under the distinguished chairmanship of the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan). I hope that I can look forward to a positive Government response to some of our comments. The White Paper has introductions by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. They are the most positive advertisements and arguments for freedom of information. They forced to me to think of the arguments that I had adduced over the years in the House. Why do I believe that freedom of information is important? I do not have the eloquence of the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, or of the Cabinet Committees that brought this together.
First, I had always argued that we want freedom of information because of who we are as a people. It is our sense of ourselves and our responsibilities, the nature of a public society, the relationship of the citizen to the Government. We are the elected representatives of the people, ours is a democratically elected Government. Freedom of information affects the relationship between the two. It is in our language. In his "Areopagitica", Milton says:Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely".Those are the essences of our society and who we are as a people.
Secondly, I have always argued that freedom of information is central to accountable government. Again, we can invoke our literature, poetry, language and constitutional development. Remember Pope's "Essay on Man":What can we reason, but from what we know.It is the knowledge of what Government are doing, the knowledge and arguments that form public policy, for which Governments are responsible to us in this House as elected representatives, that gives equality of argument. Governments in Britain have never feared the expression of public opinion. They fear the ability to argue on an equal basis about facts.
That gives me my third reason for arguing for freedom of information. If we have open government with free access to the information that is available to Government, public policy is more likely to be better. We are likely to make better decisions and judgments. What the Government have done is not only important and purposeful but important in a very specific respect.
In the first edition of his "Freedom of Information" Professor Birkinshaw notes:Information is inherently a feature of power. So too is its control, use and regulation. Take away a government's preserve on information, and its preserve of when and what to release, then you take away a fundamental bulwark of its power".What the Government are going to do is remarkable, which is why we watch with anxiety the translation of a White Paper into a draft Bill. I would draw attention to certain causes of that anxiety: for example, the dark clouds that have gathered in the past week, whereby journalists were so much better informed than Back Benchers, seem to show some resiling as Ministers come to reflect on the burden of what the measure may mean. British government has always been deemed to be traditionally a secretive thing and I have tried to argue that that is a product of war, the Defence of the Realm Acts and "Careless talk costs lives".
I noticed that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), in his excellent speech from the Dispatch Box, referred to the distinction between 820 types. I think that I must be a Whig Liberal—whatever that means—in terms of constitutional development, so I give a cheer to what the Government have put down in the White Paper. That is not just my view, that of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, or that of Members of Parliament; it is the view expressed in an extraordinary report from the information commissioner in Canada, Mr. John Grace—a man for whom many of us have great affection and regard for his advancing of freedom of information in Canada. In his last report, a section reads, "Left in Britain's dust". He praises the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Minister responsible and observes of the Chancellor of the Duchy:What he has drafted, represents nothing other than a breathtaking transformation in the relationship between the government and the governed.He quotes the Chancellor's words, that the legislationwould transform this country from one of the most closed democracies to one of the most open.That is a profound compliment, paid across the waters, for we should never forget that Canada is also a parliamentary democracy.
All the arguments that have been adduced in the past—ministerial accountability, responsibility to the House of Commons—have been used to shore up secrecy, not to open up government, but, as I have argued, how can we have accountable government if we, as Members of Parliament, and informed public opinion cannot participate in understanding the balance of the argument? When I look back on the only period from which I can draw examples, I see that most of the major difficulties that previous Governments got into were a consequence of the extraordinary holding on to secrecy—the when and why and where to release information.
Some of the most shaming and difficult episodes for our Government have lain in that culture of secrecy. We had a distinguished former Foreign Secretary defend the secrecy surrounding the change to the arms guidelines on the ground that, had the British public and the House of Commons known that they had been changed, they would have been outraged because they had been influenced by Saddam Hussein's bombing of the Kurds. He was defending the culture of secrecy on the highest grounds of grand bureaucracy, in the belief that only experts can know best. Ours is a public society: that is what the White Paper recognises and that is what my party now profoundly believes.
I cannot give such an open-handed compliment to the major players in all this without also saying a few words about the exclusions, in respect of which hon. Members on both sides have made valid points. We are concerned about the role of the commissioner: I do not want to see any rowing back from the extraordinarily strong position identified by the Lord Chancellor, the Chancellor of the Duchy and the Cabinet Committee that issued the White Paper, but newspaper reports give one cause for pause. Another important issue is the nature of the damage test—"where it is necessary". Both the Select Committee and the Campaign for Freedom of Information have expressed concern about the proposal to exclude a number of bodies and functions from the scope of the legislation. The most serious of the proposed exclusions relate to the law enforcement functions of the police, police authorities and Government Departments such as the immigration service. Others include security services, prosecution functions of the Crown Prosecution Service, personnel records and legal advice.
821 I am particularly concerned about the police. There is, as far as I know, no other freedom of information Act, in the advanced democracies and parliamentary democracies that follow our model, that excludes the police wholesale. I must express some disappointment with the Home Secretary's evidence. The right hon. Gentleman was rather like the Queen in "Alice in Wonderland"—"Off with their heads." There was no reasoned argument. Instead, we had the assertions that we have heard under previous Governments—for example, that it is quite improper, that somehow by aggregation, by putting together little pieces of information, the entire law enforcement edifice of the United Kingdom would crumble.
I do not think that anyone could take the argument at that level very seriously. It was so totalitarian and absolutist. No one has suggested that the operations of our police forces should be under the scrutiny of freedom of information legislation. However, every other society has enabled certain questions to be asked.
The Home Secretary instigated—it was by his fiat, no one else's—the Lawrence inquiry, an inquiry into the murder of a fellow citizen. None of that information was available. As the evidence has come out in front of the Lawrence inquiry, we understand why some of the police want to be so secretive. It is the most appalling outlaying of information. It must be deeply damaging to many people's perception of the most important service for the protection and well-being of us all as a civic society. It is extremely important, so of course they say, "Keep it closed." In fact, it is only by opening it up that we can see where faults lie, that we can insist on improvements, that we can encourage and we can get it right.
I represent, as does the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley), a constituency in the west midlands. The serious crime squad there had to be disbanded. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has told us that a high proportion of police officers are inadequate, dishonest and not suitable. These are drips of information which do not enable us to give a balanced view of what matters. That is a real argument for including certain aspects of the police in the legislation.
I shall push that point to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, as has the Select Committee on Public Administration and other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. I know that these battles are not easy and I know that, instinctively, the Home Office is anxious about anything that could undermine the police and the integrity of law enforcement. I am suggesting that, on the periphery, inclusion can reinforce and elevate the esteem in which the police are held by their fellow citizens.
The difficulty about exclusion is that no information about a body or its function would be available, even if disclosure would cause no harm. As I have said, no overseas freedom of information law adopts such an approach. Information should be available unless disclosure is shown to be potentially harmful. That is the test set out in the White Paper. I hope very much that, in managing the Committee with the continuing help of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Lord Chancellor will ensure that the Bill features in the Queen's Speech for the next legislative programme; that is all-important. I am disappointed to note that it will not 822 be published until the summer recess, although the Committee on which I serve can meet in September to review it. I am concerned, as I said, when the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis talks of his minority of officers who are corrupt, dishonest and unethical. However grave the misconduct, it should not be excluded.
There was an important development in the years before the White Paper—the code of practice introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). That seems so small a step now only because we are offered such a great prize, but it is still the governing principle of freedom of information. We should not forget that the code is more liberal than the White Paper in one important respect: access to information on immigration matters. That that should be a matter of difficulty in the White Paper disappoints me, but I commend my right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister on his action. Each time we take a step, it is forward, and the White Paper is also a step forward.
§ Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)
I want to reflect on why the right of freedom of information is so important and to focus not only on the big issues, as many hon. Members have done, but on some of the smaller issues. Freedom of information legislation is crucial, first, because the Government make mistakes. Unless we know what action they have taken, what they think and what information they have, we are unable to correct them. For many people, and in much decision making, that is one of the crucial reasons why we need a legislative guarantee of freedom of information.
Secrets can have devastating effects on people's lives. It was, after all, only when a Minister went to court and admitted that he had lied that people who risked going to gaol because of arms exports were freed from that risk. It is essential that we have a robust mechanism that ensures that information about the truth is available.
That is why I share the disappointment that many hon. Members have expressed about some of the exclusions in the White Paper. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), whose record on freedom of information is second to none, referred to the information about policing that has come out as a result of the Lawrence inquiry. I cannot believe that the basic inadequacy of police officers' knowledge of the law and appropriate procedures has expressed itself only in that single case. Yet we know about that case only because of the inquiry. There should be a general presumption of the right to know about policing, and it should be subject to a harm test only on the grounds of prevention of crime, public order and so on.
As many hon. Members know, I am particularly concerned about immigration issues. I praise the Government for showing greater openness than any of their predecessors on one important point: for the first time, the instructions to immigration officers and entry clearance officers overseas on how to interpret the immigration rules have been made publicly available. They are available in the House of Commons Library and will one day, I hope, be available on the Home Office website.
Many of us who have been worried about the rights of people subject to immigration control have campaigned for that step for many years. It is a huge step forward on 823 openness. I am really depressed that a Government who have the courage to do that—unlike their predecessors, who consistently refused to do so—do not have the courage to say that the operation of the immigration service should be subject to freedom of information measures, provided that it does not harm the proper administration of immigration control.
The effects on people's lives of what is done by the immigration service are devastating. It determines whether they can live with their families or whether they can ever see their grannies again. Such matters are the day-to-day concern of my constituents, and are not sufficiently subject to public scrutiny because of the inadequacies of parts of the appeal system.
The other crucial issue is that, unless we have freedom of information, the relationship between the Government and the governed is one of feudalism—those who hold the information are the masters and the people are the servants. That is upside down. We are in government to serve the people of Britain. We cannot do that adequately unless they know, and can use that knowledge to hold us to account.
In an information age, when information is power, when people are used to greater openness and trust in their dealings with others, the lack of that information, openness and trust between Government and the people is a key factor in creating disaffection and alienation from the political process. That can be overcome by stripping away secrecy and being open.
I believe that many hon. Members share my horror at the behaviour of some young oiks who have been selling information, and have been ticked off by our newspapers for doing so. That reminds us all how valuable this information is, and reminds us that sometimes it is available only to people who can pay for it. There is a very simple way of changing that: give it to the many, not the few. The Government can give it away or, at least, allow such information to be made available without excessive charge. When the Bill is introduced, we must ensure that, as far as possible, information is given away, so that it can be the people's information. I urge the Minister to ensure that.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
I point out, for the record, that the type of information that The Observer managed to get, as it were, ahead of time, is not really that with which the Bill is concerned. The hon. Lady plays it down rather, but did not The Observer find that people from new Labour who were in the know, in the right pressure groups and lobbies, could get information of commercial value out to clients, perhaps 24 or 48 hours before it would have been released anyway?
§ Fiona Mactaggart
I believe that the hon. Gentleman suffers from an excess of credulity. My reading of the piece in The Observer is that the charge was that these people claimed that they could provide such information. I did not see that any of them had actually done so. I called them oiks earlier; it is not very wise for anyone to trust oiks' claims.
In the historical debate, since I have been a Member of the House, I have pooh-poohed those cynics who said that the strategy that the Government chose to use—to start with a White Paper, to have a debate and then to introduce legislation—would lead to the failure of the possibility of 824 legislation because, once we had tasted power, we would fall into the nasty habits that every other Government had shown, and would want to keep our secrets to ourselves and under our jumpers. I have always said that that is not true. I hope that I shall be proved right by what happens next.
I believe that the evidence shows that I am right. The Government's record of giving away power and opening up the process of government shows that they have done that more dynamically than have any other Government this century. They have given power to the Welsh assembly and the Scottish Parliament. They have given the people rights through a "Bill of Rights"—the Human Rights Bill—and, let us make no mistake about it, that is how the incorporation of the European convention on human rights will work. That is one of the tools for fundamentally changing the constitutional relationship between the Government and the people. I believe that we will do that, but it is easy to be frightened, and there is ample evidence that the civil service is frit. Successive reports from ombudsmen show Departments scuttling around trying to find reasons why they do not need to provide information under the code—in the words of one of the ombudsmen, "haggling about issuing information". My message is that Departments should not be scared and Ministers should not listen to them.
We have a chance to end the popular vision of government in this country as a bunch of Sir Humphreys pushing Ministers around intellectually. The Sir Humphreys must be put back into the cupboard and the secrets taken out of the cupboard. If we do that, we have a great opportunity to change Britain's democracy radically. We should ignore the fearful, be bold and implement the words that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) quoted, predicting that they might prove to be our downfall. Those words were not only in the introduction to the White Paper, but in Labour's manifesto.
We know what the truth is. Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and ineffective policy decisions. We have a chance to show definitively that this Government will end the arrogance of government and improve the quality of policy. We will do that by introducing an effective freedom of information Bill. The White Paper is a step on the road. Let us take the next leap.
§ Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)
It is wonderful to be in the Chamber to speak on the subject of freedom of information and the Government's radical proposals. One of the reasons why I entered politics was my commitment to the freedom of information. It is a building block on which so much else rests, and if it is not right, so much else suffers.
I agree with the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) in his analysis. Bad government follows from secrecy; better government follows from freedom of information. For that reason alone, every Member of Parliament should embrace proposals to open up government. Moreover, it is people's right to know what is going on. When Government get it wrong, people at large gain the information and pull Government back on track. For those two reasons, freedom of information is essential.
825 I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) and his Committee for keeping their eye on the ball and not being deflected; to hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills who have campaigned so hard on the issue; and especially to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who has been unswerving in his commitment since the election in May last year and, no doubt, before that as well. It is disgraceful that attempts are continually made through the national media to disparage the Minister, probably by people who are after his job, and I hope that, under the freedom of information proposals, we will find out who is responsible.
§ Mr. Baker
I hope so.
The White Paper was very good indeed. I have only two main comments. The first relates to the total exclusion from the proposals of the security services and the police. Why is not the test of substantial harm applied to the security services, as it is in the rest of the paper? I accept that that means that a great amount of material relating to the security services would not be released, but if the substantial harm test were applied, some information would come out.
Why are we not even allowed to know, for example, how the money allocated to the security services is split among MI5, MI6 and GCHQ? Why do we not know how many telephone lines are tapped, as opposed to warrants issued? There is much information that could be given out without in any way endangering national security. That will not be taken forward by the proposals in the White Paper.
Secondly, I am disappointed that the 30-year rule is not to be reduced to 20 years. I note for the record that, last Friday, the Government Whip blocked my Bill to achieve that. I would be grateful if the Chancellor would explain whether the objection is on principle, or is on the basis of the cost or the practicality of reducing the limit.
I do not wish to strike a note of discord, but there seem to be two sorts of Labour Member, at least in the Cabinet and possibly outside. That is one way of looking at it, anyway. Let me simplify what I am saying: some members of the Cabinet are good guys, and some are not. At present, a battle seems to be in progress for the soul of where the Government are going in regard to freedom of information. Members of the Cabinet have woken up to the fact that the issue may embarrass them, that it will produce difficulties for them and that it will mean matters they would prefer to remain secret becoming public. As hon. Members have said, a rearguard action is in progress in an attempt to stop the Bill—not overtly, because that would be too unpopular; to delay it for a Session, and then another Session. Then it will be a question of "It is too near the election, Minister. You cannot do it now."
We have had that sort of thing before. In 1979 the Conservatives came to power having promised such an Act, no doubt in good will; that was put off and put off, and never materialised. I do not underestimate the forces of darkness, if I may call them that, which will conspire to stop such legislation.
§ Mr. Baker
826 I ask for a clear commitment from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that the Queen's Speech will include legislation, and that legislation will not be delayed for a further 12 months—and possibly 12 months after that, when everyone else has lost interest.
I have spoken of the dichotomy between members of the Cabinet who wish to pursue matters openly and those who wish to keep them secret. Let me now say something about the other report, which has not been dealt with at much length. I refer to parliamentary questions—a subject that the Chancellor might be disappointed if I did not mention tonight. Contrary to what was said earlier, tabling written questions costs nothing; it merely means that civil service time is redirected towards answering questions from Back Benchers rather than matters raised by Ministers.
It is clear from answers given that not everyone in the Government shares the commitment of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to freedom of information. The report from the Public Administration Committee recognises that written questions are crucial: that is the wording that it uses, and I am grateful for that endorsement. The Chancellor himself has said:Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest".—[Official Report, 16 December 1997; Vol. 303, c. 78.]I asked the minister Without Portfolio, in a parliamentary question, whether he would listpersons within his office who have complained to the media about the reporting of the Government's activities."—[Official Report, 10 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 452.]The answer wasNo.I asked him whether he wouldestimate the percentage of his working time spent on…Ministerial duties",and was told:I devote whatever time I judge necessary for the fulfilment of my ministerial and other duties."—[Official Report, 28 July 1997; Vol. 299, c. 25.]That is not a blocked answer—I refer to a point made in the report—but an answer that, although not blocked, tells us nothing.
I asked the Prime Minister tolist the meetings and events since 2 May at which the Minister Without Portfolio has represented the Government.The answer wasSince 2 May my hon. Friend has had a wide range of meetings with ministerial colleagues and others."—[Official Report, 29 July 1997; Vol. 299, c. 114.]I knew that before I asked the question, but I was not told much more than I knew before I asked it. Such answers are designed to give no information. They are designed to cock a snook at Members of Parliament who want a freedom of information Act.
Only recently, I asked the Prime Minister—I think this was very germane—whether he would listLabour party events which have taken place since 14 May…at…10 Downing Street…11 Downing Street…Carlton House Terrace and…Chequers.827 We know that such events are taking place, because they are in the papers. The Prime Minister said:Any private receptions have been held in accordance with the Ministerial Code."—[Official Report, 25 June 1998; Vol. 314, c. 597.]In other words, he will not tell the House something that we ought to know.
There are good guys and bad guys. My money is on the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is doing a splendid job. I hope that every hon. Member will support him in his attempt to bring about a freedom of information Act.
§ Miss Melanie Johnson (Welwyn Hatfield)
I thank the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) for curtailing his remarks so that I can contribute, although I wonder how many written questions he could have tabled in the time that he was on his feet. Perhaps we should have detained him a little longer.
I was a little bemused by some contributions from Opposition Members. Do they see the vessel as largely full, half empty, or more than half empty? There is no doubt in my mind that a massive step forward is being made with the White Paper and the draft Bill, which I hope will be published later this year—that is the thrust of the report of the Select Committee, of which I am a member.
We are on the brink of a revolution in information. That is being brought about not only by the White Paper and legislation, but by the advent of greater access to information via the internet and all the implications that that has for our society, for neighbouring societies and for the whole globe. That revolution will have a great impact on how much progress we make with the legislation and how we make that progress—although it is interesting that few hon. Members felt the need to refer to that.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P.Cormack) commented on the code of practice and complained that we have not given it sufficient credit in the debate, but much larger steps forward will be taken through the White Paper. The Select Committee report refers to crucial differences between the code and the White Paper. For example, the scope of the code is much more limited in general; documents can be withheld under the code, whereas people will not be able to do that under the proposals in the White Paper; the test under the code has been one of harm, but we propose a test of substantial harm in many cases; and there is no means of enforcement under the code—the ombudsman only has powers of persuasion to bring to bear. All that makes a marked difference, which is one reason why the code, which was introduced four years ago, has not been given the place that it could have occupied.
As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, there is no doubt that freedom of information will change things for the vast majority of people: we have to introduce it for the many, and it will be a meaningful step forward for the general public. It is easy to forget that, although some hon. Members may be exercised by the burning issue of how many receptions have been held at No. 10 Downing street, for many members of the public freedom of information will mean that they can get from the Intervention Board, the Inland Revenue, the Milton Keynes development corporation, the Commission for the 828 New Towns, the Child Support Agency, the Benefits Agency or the Marine Safety Agency answers to the various questions and problems that they have had as individuals.
Such matters—information on the fees paid to lawyers, for example—sometimes go beyond the individual, but are often confined to an individual's difficulties with gaining access or recourse to something to which, under the current system, he cannot gain access. Although hon. Members worry about access to information in the corridors of power, those other issues matter to many people—they affect their lives.
As a society, we have developed many anxieties about the presumption that information should be accessible, and we have a secretive culture. It is interesting to look through the report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration on what has happened with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in respect of contracts for the disposal of cattle infected with BSE. We have already commented in the report and again this evening on the fact that the course of the BSE saga might have been different, and the cost to the public purse and to farming might have been much less, if a freedom of information regime had been in place. It is clear from the commissioner's report that, in response to a question, the MAFF people would not release details about the contracts because they did not refer to the code of practice at all. The report shows that MAFF and many other Government Departments are only just—there is a list of the improvements that are being made by Government Departments in that document—beginning to take steps, with the civil service, to become much more open and that the anxieties to which I have referred are still to the fore.
We need to have legal backing to the right to information, as the Government propose. That is crucial. When we went to Sweden and Ireland, we found that the improvements that need to be made in the civil service are important. Much time has been spent, particularly in Ireland, where this is a new issue, looking at the changes that need to to be made in the civil service, in civil service training and in codifying practice and manuals.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) about the improvements that have been made in the openness of immigration procedures and manuals, although she made other comments about that as well. However, there are other areas where we need to codify practice and make it more readily available to people. We need to explain what information is kept, how it is kept and why. Those are not the sexy parts of freedom of information, but they may make a big difference to people's lives.
The confidence and competence of a Government are to be tested against the extent to which they will open information and against the belief that they represent the interests of many people, so that their interests will not differ from those of many people. A Government who are confident about their competence will be prepared to share with people, and to take the step towards freedom of information. Once that step is taken, I believe that we will not go back on it; we will only make progress. The prospective legislation is part of a major constitutional change towards more open and accountable government. It brings about the presumption of openness. For that reason, it is a major improvement.
829 We have heard much about striking the right balance on privacy. That will be difficult. When we went to Sweden, we heard how, if an under-age pregnant girl wrote a letter to Sweden's Prime Minister, that letter could, because of that country's freedom of information regime, become public property, which would be highly undesirable. If, however, the same girl wrote to Sweden's Ministry of Health about those matters, the letter would be protected and the privacy of the individual would be rightly preserved. We need to strike the right balance. It will be difficult, but we need to include safeguards to ensure that people in this country do not run into such problems.
I endorse what we say in the Select Committee report: this is aradical advance in open and accountable government",of which this Government should be justly proud.
§ The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. David Clark)
This has been an excellent debate. The House is indebted to the Chairman and members of the Select Committee for examining the White Paper and for persuading the Liaison Committee to recommend to the House that this item should be debated. I welcome the debate and I have listened carefully to the almost unanimous views of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
It is interesting that the House appreciates how critical freedom of information is to our democracy. We have been through a difficult time and, because we are all aware of the breakdown of trust between Governments and citizens, we are beginning to realise, as we move into the next millennium, that democracy is more than casting a vote every five years, important though that may be. I am enthused by the mood of the House, which showed that hon. Members recognise that freedom of information and the right of our citizens to know information that affects them is a critical part of our democratic institutions. They also appreciate the fact that open government is good government. I have believed in that thesis for many years and I am delighted that others now share that view.
I shall try, in the time at my disposal, to deal with as many as possible of the points that have been raised. I apologise to the Select Committee for not giving it a formal reply, but work on the Government's response is well advanced and I hope that we will meet the two-month deadline. We shall give the Committee a detailed and considered response.
This is a well-produced and well-thought-out report. It has raised a number of issues that we are considering. We take the Select Committee's point that this is a particularly difficult concept to understand and get right. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson) made the point forcefully that there is a fine balance between openness and privacy and that we should learn from the experience of other countries. In preparing the White Paper, we spent a long time studying the experience, often over many years, of other countries.
830 The Government take on board the Select Committee's 44 detailed recommendations. We may not agree with all of them, but we shall examine and test them. The Select Committee recognises how fine the balance is, and accepts that this isan ambitious and highly complex piece of legislation".It is conscious of the fact that it has taken us a long time—rightly, in my view—to ensure that we attained the correct solution. It says:we have some serious doubts…about whether the Government has been able to give sufficient attention to the relationship between the Freedom of Information Bill and the Data Protection Bill.As we have followed the debate and weighed up the results of the consultation, we have shifted our position slightly on the relationship between freedom of information and data protection and have looked anew at some of the concepts.
No one should doubt our commitment to freedom of information. It is clear in our manifesto. My hon. Friends and hon. Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches have acknowledged that the Government intend to push ahead with a radical programme of constitutional change. Freedom of information is a key part—I would argue, a central part—of the programme to modernise British politics. As the Prime Minister said, freedom of information is not some isolated constitutional reform, but a change that is absolutely fundamental to how we see politics developing in this country. He is absolutely right and the overwhelming majority of hon. Members share that view.
In our 1997 manifesto, we said that we would introducea Freedom of Information Act. leading to more open governmentand we will. Both parts of that statement are correct. They are related, but not dependent on each other. Governments can, should and will be open in providing information to citizens and to Members of Parliament.
§ Dr. Clark
I shortened my speech to allow everyone to get in and I do not want to exclude anyone, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not give way. I want to try to answer points raised by the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members.
We have to be more open. That is why we published the background papers leading to the White Paper and why we have published much more information on the internet.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) criticised me for not acknowledging the code of practice, but we do acknowledge it in the White Paper. We have not laid great emphasis on the code because we intend to surpass it, but it has had a part to play. It has been the yardstick against which we have tried to measure our progress but, by and large, all hon. Members—including the hon. Gentleman—believe that the time has come to move on.
I should point out that the annual monitoring report for the code—which I announced only last month—states that the Government recognise the continuing value of the code. In planning the transition to a statutory regime, the Government will therefore seek to build on the experience gained and the lessons learnt from operating the code. We acknowledge the importance of the code in taking forward the White Paper.
831 We have made progress in the White Paper. As has been pointed out this evening, we are extending the coverage to almost the whole of the public sector. We are widening and deepening the information available. It is no longer just information that people will have access to, but the original document. We are reducing the exemptions from 14 to seven. We are creating an information commissioner. Some hon. Members may not have quite understood the full powers of the information commissioner.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) was a little critical—I put it no higher than that—because he felt that all the commissioner could judge was the reasonableness of the decision of the civil servant. That is not the case. Under our proposals, the commissioner will examine and rule on the merits of the refusal to disclose information. The point of reasonableness comes in when we have a final appeal—if there is one—under the judicial review. The hon. Gentleman can be reassured by that point.
We have, for the most part, imposed harm tests that are much more stringent than any of the existing mechanisms. I think that the House will accept that we are moving forward from the code and that we are making a quantum leap.
I am encouraged by the response of hon. Members on both sides of the House, particularly by that of the official Opposition, who are now prepared to change their stance and to support a statutory freedom of information regime. That is welcomed by Labour Members and by Liberal Democrats, who spent many years trying to persuade the previous Government that they were wrong on this matter.
Hon. Members have also raised the issue of process, which is a difficult matter to get right. I assure the House that the process remains on course and that progress is good. I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) and other members of the Select Committee who have expressed concern that the Government have an agreed timetable to publish a draft Bill by the end of September for pre-legislative consideration. Indeed, nothing whatever has happened to affect the Bill's candidature for inclusion in the Queen's Speech later this year; I cannot be more open or definitive than that.
The Government's declared intention is that there will be further consultation. That is why we are publishing the draft Bill and why the Select Committee will have the opportunity to consider it before the legislation is finalised and brought before the House after, I hope, the next Queen's Speech. The Opposition will have the opportunity to feed in their views on the draft Bill, but the issues are so difficult that, unless the Government give a lead after consultation—as is their duty—we shall have no framework within which to work. The White Paper "Your Right to Know" is a declaration of the Government's intent. It contains the principles on which the Government will build and from which they will derive their draft Bill.
As has been acknowledged, we are going much further than other countries. That is right and proper, given that we have been so far behind. However, I want to correct one or two of the points that were raised today. It is 832 important that hon. Members understand that we intend to exclude only the security services; we shall not exclude the police or the immigration service per se. Paragraph 2.21 of the White Paper states thatthe Act will exclude information relating to the investigation and prosecution functions of the police, prosecutors and other bodies carrying out law enforcement work such as the Department of Social Security or the Immigration Service.We do not intend to exclude administrative functions of the immigration service or the police.
Deciding what constitutes administration and what constitutes investigation has taken up much of our time and attention; finding the right definition is a difficult task, but we are trying to do it. Once we decide that a matter is not excluded, we shall have to determine whether it belongs to one of the seven specified interests and, finally, whether disclosure is against the public interest.
We are trying to bring forward a Bill that strikes the right balance between privacy and freedom of information.
We have taken on board the fact that the Select Committee pointed out that we should integrate data protection and freedom of information. When the Lord Chancellor appeared before the Select Committee, he pointed out that the two pieces of legislation must be dovetailed. We are very much persuaded by the Select Committee's argument that we need to get that absolutely right. Probably, most of the applications on subject matter will be under the data protection legislation, but we are also aware that it does not go as far as we would like and does not cover as much as the freedom of information legislation.
§ Question deferred, pursuant to paragraph (4) of Standing Order No. 54 (Consideration of estimates).
§ It being Ten o'clock, MADAM SPEAKER proceeded to put forthwith the deferred Questions which she was directed by paragraph (5) of Standing Order No. 54 (Consideration of estimates) to put at that hour.