HC Deb 08 July 1998 vol 315 cc1055-6
1. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

When he intends to publish the proposed freedom of information Bill. [47908]

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

I am in the process of drawing up the draft Bill, taking into account representations following the public consultation and the views expressed in the report of the Select Committee on Public Administration. I intend to publish the draft Bill for pre-legislative discussion before the end of September.

Mr. Baker

I am pleased to hear that, but can the right hon. Gentleman directly confirm or deny whether senior members of the Government, including the Home Secretary and the Minister for every portfolio, have been trying to weaken the Bill and take out its sharp edge to secure their positions? Will the Bill be as radical as the White Paper produced earlier this year or will it be weaker?

Dr. Clark

The White Paper sets out the principles of the whole Government towards freedom of information. Clearly, as the Select Committee's report showed, there are many complex issues in the White Paper and the draft Bill. As one would expect, there has been healthy discussion of those issues.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

Will my right hon. Friend—in whom I have every confidence, if that is not too sycophantic—ensure that the Bill is the strongest possible opening to information and that it is in the Queen's Speech for the next Session so that we can end the situation in which people claim that they have wholesale access to information and try to retail it at inordinate profit for themselves?

Dr. Clark

I can assure the House that we have an agreed timetable to publish the draft Bill by the end of September. There is nothing in that timetable that precludes its candidacy for inclusion in the Queen's Speech later this year.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

In addition to the legislative change on freedom of information mentioned by the previous two questioners, do we not also need a cultural change? Without both, will not greedy and loud-mouthed young men continue to seek information and contacts at extortionate prices?

Dr. Clark

I agree entirely with every sentiment expressed by the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that if we have radical freedom of information legislation, it will mean that the milieu in which such people purport to operate will be diminished.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

In reply to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), my right hon. Friend referred to "healthy discussion". I wonder whether he was using those words with great care. Can we have an assurance that everyone is equally committed to taking this legislation forward in the way for which Labour party branches throughout the country have argued for the past 20 or 30 years? We believe that this is the litmus test of a Labour Government. Do we deliver on this agenda that everyone wants?

Dr. Clark

I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said; I choose all my words with care. Clearly, there is a healthy debate, but, at the end of the day, we are committed to the principles contained in our White Paper. I was certainly encouraged by the support that I received, not only from my hon. Friends on the Government Benches, but from Opposition Members, when we had a full discussion of the issue on Monday.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I welcome the Chancellor's openness on the matter. He will be aware that the Royal Society of Chemistry is keen on freedom of information because it is part of the scientific world; but will he bear in mind the society's concern that such freedom might be misused by others and that that issue might not be taken care of in the Bill?

Dr. Clark

We are aware of that sort of difficulty and that there is always a balance to be struck between privacy and personal freedom. We are also aware that there must be protection for genuine scientific research and we have built into the Bill the seven special exemptions that can be considered when deciding whether information should be withheld. If information were to be withheld, the information commissioner could make a judgment, based on the merits of the case, as to whether that decision was right. It is a robust piece of legislation, designed with the ordinary citizen—the ordinary men and women—of this country in mind.