"We are assuming that there is a possibility that any information supplied to the Countess by the Minister could be made public. We have been extremely careful locally not to disclose any information … which could be considered clinical in confidence.
"Therefore, we are providing you with full background information. This is in italics which indicates that it is being supplied in confidence to you. Our view is that if you wish to provide any of this information to the Countess, or to make it public in any other way, that is a matter for you.
"In an attempt to be as helpful as possible (within the obvious time constraints) a suggested response for public consumption is given after the information relating to each point".
§ That was last summer. I know that it is not the only incident where such duplicity has arisen. I was trying to help the Department of Health at that time. It would have been much more helpful if I had been told the truth, which, incidentally, I already knew. I rarely ask a question without first knowing the answer. That is me giving free information.
What I want is for the Government to be able to acknowledge that there have been mistakes made and that these mistakes have been very human and understandable mistakes in most cases. Even within our family situation, when we have committed an act which has hurt some other member of the family, we all know that the first thing we do is blame that other member. We then try to cover up our tracks. I learnt early on not to try to do this because my granny used to say, "Be sure your sins will find you out". That has happened with the BSE problem with MAFF. I have a suspicion that it will happen with organophosphates.304
§ I commend to the Minister, if he wants an example of the free issue of information, the BSE inquiry. There, absolutely everything is available to the public, from the evidence that is taken right through to the scientific papers. That is how, with the limitations that have been expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and other Members of the House, the job should be done. Most of the information I have on organophosphates has had to come from the United States of America, where, as noble Lords know, they have a freedom of information Act. Let us have a freedom of information Act in this country. I heartily support the noble Lord.
§ Baroness Wilcox
My Lords, I rise first to congratulate my noble friend Lord Lucas on his passionate and most excellent argument in introducing the Bill. Openness is an issue that I have raised on a number of occasions in this House, so this is a very happy moment for me to stand up and plug it again. I only wish that on this occasion we were debating the Government's own freedom of information Bill. I am sorry to see that tonight there is no Peer sitting behind the Minister who wants to take part in this Second Reading or even to share the enthusiasm for what the rest of us are debating this evening.
Given my involvement in the consumer world, particularly the National Consumer Council and the National Federation of Consumer Groups, I am particularly interested in a right of access to information for consumers. Unlike most noble Lords here this evening, I should like to focus on the public provision of that information, as my noble friend Lord Lucas did so eloquently. Every day up and down the country decisions are made by government and their agents that affect all our lives. Contracts are let on our behalf, such as computer systems to guide our ambulance services or buildings to house our hospitals. Services are provided directly to us by government, such as education and healthcare. Others are regulated on our behalf, such as the medicines that we take, the trains in which we travel and the food that we eat. Increasingly, we are dependent on government to regulate the arrangements that we make to provide us with care when we can no longer look after ourselves, and for our income when we retire.
We mostly take on trust that the Government spend our money prudently on the services that they buy for us. We take on trust that the Government give us good value when they provide services themselves. We also take on trust that they do a good job in regulating matters on our behalf. Occasionally, sadly, events erode that trust. The quality of cervical screening services or children's heart surgery is called into question. Even today one sees grieving parents who learn that the hearts of their dead babies have been removed, in many cases without their permission. Millions are spent on a computer system for ambulances that fails on its first outing. Train and ferry disasters show up worrying lapses in safety precautions. We are mis-sold pensions in huge numbers and over a long period, and redress is slow in coming. We have had an E. coli outbreak in Scotland and the incidence of food poisoning appears to 305 rise fairly unabated. The BSE inquiry has highlighted governmental and regulatory failures in protecting the human food chain from contaminated meat.
Actual failures, possible failures and fudges account for only a small proportion of government activity, and I know that we must keep them in perspective. But that said they can and do sap public confidence in what government do. This point was highlighted earlier this week with the publication by the Cabinet Office of a MORI poll commissioned by the Government. It showed a general lack of trust in government, particularly politicians, Ministers, civil servants and government scientists. A number of specific questions were asked but two in particular related to groups that people trusted most and least to advise on the risks posed by BSE. Those trusted least were, again, government Ministers (41 per cent.) and food manufacturers (28 per cent.). Those trusted most, by a fairly wide margin, were independent scientists.
I suggest that for government these are worrying findings. They highlight the need to rebuild trust. The same MORI poll showed that 94 per cent. of those surveyed thought that the Government should be more open about how they made their decisions. Eighty per cent, thought that if the Government were unsure of the facts, they should still publish the information that they had available. This is the reason why a freedom of information Act is so vital for consumers. It is the key to rebuilding public trust.
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, agrees that access to information about risks and benefits should help consumers to make informed choices about the level of risk that they are prepared to accept, whether it be related to a medicine, pension or BSE. It is the power to choose. It should enable consumers to check that they pay a fair price for essential utilities and that profits earned by the privileged gas, electricity and water suppliers are fairly divided between customers and shareholders. It should enable us to see how the Government choose a contractor from a number of tenders. Perhaps it will restore the public's trust in Ministers and politicians about decision-making.
It boils down to a balancing act that every government must perform whenever they make important decisions: the public interest against commercial, economic and political interests. I am sure that such balancing will be all too familiar to my noble friend Lord Lucas, he having been a Minister of and spokesman for different departments in his time. What weight is each interest to be given? It may not always be appropriate to let the public interest prevail. But when the Government decide to give priority to another interest, perhaps even against the recommendations of their advisers, they should be prepared to say so and justify that decision to the public.
Times change and so do expectations. We live in an era in which we expect government to be open and accountable to us, in which we expect government to make important matters known as a matter of course, often before they are asked to do so, and where there is a presumption that openness will prevail unless someone can make a very strong case for secrecy.
306 We also live in an era where more people are likely to complain about poor goods or services. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, referred to the Citizen's Charter. As the chairman of the Citizen's Charter Complaints Task Force set up by John Major when Prime Minister, which considered complaints about public services, I found it gratifying to read the Cabinet Office's People's Panel's most recent MORI poll published last month. It indicated that people believe that the public sector has become better at listening to complaints over the past four years; and that is the trust and expectation that we need to build on.
What should be the test for allowing secrecy in an open culture? If we are talking about governing in the public interest, then wherever there is a public interest in openness—and in most cases there surely will be— the harm that openness will cause must be substantial indeed to justify secrecy. Nothing less than substantial harm—as proposed in the White Paper, Your Right to Know—should justify secrecy in a culture that is truly open and transparent; otherwise it will be very hard to convince consumers that cosy deals are not being sewn up by monopolies and the powerful, and special interests behind closed doors at the expense of the ordinary person in the street.
One particularly welcome initiative is the draft legislation establishing a new regulatory body, the Food Standards Agency. We are told that one of the agency's guiding principles is,to make the decision making process open, so that the public can make their views known, see the basis on which it makes its decisions and to enable people to reach an informed judgment about the quality of the Agency's decisions and processes".That guiding principle has now been translated into legislation in Clause 18 of the draft Bill. It is required in that clause to keep records of decisions and the information on which they are based. The records should be,made available with a view to enabling members of the public to make informed judgments about the way in which it is carrying out its functions".Hurrah, my Lords! That is a most welcome step.
I only hope that the Government are as serious about openness in other areas of our life. We are waiting for the Government's own draft freedom of information Bill which should make a significant difference to openness across government activity. Perhaps the Minister can reassure us today that the draft Bill will be published soon. Perhaps, too, he will confirm that the Government are still intent on sticking with the substantial harm test, and not weakening it, as recent press speculation suggests, as my noble friend Lord Lucas highlighted, and to which the noble Lord, Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, alluded.
I hope that the next time we have a Second Reading debate on a freedom of information Bill in this House it will be in the next Session of Parliament and on the Government's own Bill implementing the White Paper commitments in full.
I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Lucas for seizing the moment and bringing forward this most important Private Member's Bill. I shall be supporting 307 him at every point in his laudable endeavour; and I am delighted to support him here tonight. I commend the Bill to your Lordships' House.
§ 9.22 p.m.
§ Lord McNally
My Lords, it is a pleasure again to be on the night shift with the noble Lords, Lord Williams and Lord Hoyle. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, reminded us of the wider aspects of freedom of information. Perhaps I may add one further aspect contained in an excellent parliamentary briefing by the Royal National Institute for the Blind. I shall not go into its case today, but, as did the case made by the noble Baroness, it illustrates that freedom of information is much broader than simply freedom of information inside government.
I welcome the Bill moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. Certain aspects of his speech sounded like that of a repentant sinner, but it was all the better for that. As a number of speakers have reminded us—my noble friend Lady Williams did so most clearly—freedom of information has been a commitment on these Benches for a quarter of a century, as it has been on the Government Front Benches; and it has been a clear Labour Party commitment over that period.
I was slightly worried when my noble friend Lady Williams began her historical review. I had some involvement in the commitments of the Labour Party in 1974 and 1979—my chequered past. No freedom of information Bill was brought forward during that period. My only defence, having worked inside No. 10 with the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, during that period, is the American saying, "When you're up to your armpits in alligators it's often difficult to remember that the idea was to drain the swamp". We did not have a majority and we had opted for devolution in a complex and time-consuming way.
This time, the opposition parties were given a long time to prepare their thoughts on the issue, with 18 years of Conservative government. The Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party had a joint commission on the constitution which became known as the Cook-Maclennan Commission. The philosophy behind it was what my noble friend Lady Williams referred to as working towards an active democracy. It was a major exercise in cross-party co-operation, including the present Home Secretary and Government Chief Whip on the study group.
I am drawing attention to that because we saw constitutional reform in the round. We saw it as a package of interlocking measures to re-engage people with the process of government. One of the amazing aspects of the document, which was published by the two parties prior to the general election, was that, of the dozen recommendations it made, in less than two years more than half have been brought into legislation.
I do not accuse the Government of dragging their feet on constitutional reform. However, we consider that freedom of information was a cornerstone of that whole reform package. We believed that it would break down what has been referred to on a number of occasions as the culture of secrecy which pervades Whitehall. We 308 believed that it was important because it would tip the balance between an over-powerful Executive and an underperforming legislature: it is the reform which empowers the citizen by giving right of access to government and other official information for both factual information and policy advice.
The general election gave the Government a clear mandate for reform. We on these Benches were disappointed when the first Queen's Speech made no mention of freedom of information. But we looked forward to Dr. David Clark's White Paper. When it came, we were not disappointed. The Canadian High Commissioner commented,It leaves Canada trailing in the dust and represents nothing other than a breathtaking transformation in the relationship between the Government and the governed".That is praise indeed from a country which has been a pathfinder and pioneer in freedom of information. But what happened? Then came the reshuffle, and goodbye Dr. Clark. The director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, to whom reference has been made, said:If any replacement is drawn from the massed ranks of the lukewarm the chances of an early and effective legislation must be poor".Well, his worst nightmares became a reality. Responsibility for the freedom of information Bill was transferred to that Lubyanka for open government, the Home Office. Now, instead of the brave words of Dr. Clark, rumours began to abound of delay and watering down. We now have the situation in which the Conservatives and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, are ahead of the Government in this matter. That is very, very serious.
I warn the Government that the need to break down Whitehall secrecy and the culture of secrecy is as serious and as urgent as ever. I remain an admirer of the Civil Service. I spent five happy years as a temporary civil servant. But I remember then—and I was reminded of this listening to the noble Countess, Lady Mar—that I was always fascinated by those documents which had at the top, "line to take", and then at the bottom, "if pressed". I always moved straight to "if pressed", to find out what was the real answer to any question. But the first inclination was not to give the full information. The Government should beware of the mandarins' embrace. It comes on very quickly and they are very good at it. I still believe that there is a strong need not just at the beginning of a government but throughout to have a political input of advice. Otherwise, Ministers succumb to that mandarins' embrace.
We must look at these issues in the round. I want to see the House of Commons extending the powers of Select Committees and not just making Parliament more family-friendly. There is a concern that the freedom of information commitment is being diluted. We have already talked about the delay. A number of noble Lords have addressed the question of "substantial harm". We look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that and to finding out whether that commitment on "substantial harm" is to be watered down.
There is also the question of exclusions. The White Paper proposed that a number of authorities and functions should be excluded altogether from the scope 309 of the legislation. Rather than excluding such matters, appropriate exemptions should be relied on to protect information in those cases where disclosure is likely to be harmful. That is the line taken in the Bill brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.
I turn to the powers of the commissioner. The White Paper proposed that the Act would be enforced by an information commissioner, as does this Bill. However, there should be no further weakening of the commissioner's role as a result of the Home Office review of those proposals. Again, we await the Minister's reply on those matters.
The noble Lord, Lord Hardinge, said that perhaps we should not believe all we read in the papers. But only five days ago, Andrew Grice, a very well-informed political writer on the Independent, said:The Government has watered down its long-awaited plans for a Freedom of Information Act, which will be published next month".Mr. Andrew Mackinlay, the Labour Member for Thurrock, who follows these matters most closely, said:The White Paper was a ground-breaking document and should be enacted in full".On these Benches, we believe that to be the case.
My noble friend Lady Williams talked about creating a participatory democracy. Like her, I am a great fan of American politics. Something which always gives me a tingle in reading American documents is that majestic start to the legislation: "We, the people". For a quarter of a century, we have been contemplating how to involve "We, the people" into the decision-making process and what the Bill describes as,better informed discussion of public affairs; … greater accountability of public authorities; and … more effective public participation".Those are the opportunities which a really radical freedom of information Bill would bring.
There is a real opportunity for the Government, with all-party support, with Cross-Bench support, to bring forward such a radical Bill. I hope that in a short time the Minister will give us a reassuring recommitment to such a Bill. As I say, at this moment, there is all-party support and there are indications of public support for such an assault on secrecy. I sincerely hope that the Government will take that opportunity.
§ 9.35 p.m.
My Lords, we have had an extremely interesting debate and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lucas for bringing it forward this evening. It does not seem to have attracted very much support on the Government Benches. I am afraid the Minister is unsupported by his colleagues. It seems the only interest in this Bill is to Members of your Lordships' House who were former Members of the Labour Party. I suppose the answer is that freedom comes when one leaves the Labour Party, or at least an interest in freedom.
In the Queen's Speech the Government promised to publish a draft Bill—I am delighted to see that the Minister now has a supporter, even at this late hour. The central question is: where is that Bill? I spent last night 310 reading the Labour Party manifesto. I recommend it to anybody who suffers from insomnia. Under the paragraph, "Open government" it says,Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions. The Scott Report on arms to Iraq revealed Conservative abuses of power. We are pledged to a Freedom of Information Act, leading to more open government, and an independent National Statistical Service".It seems that one has to read that piece of paper rather carefully. Although the manifesto says that they were "pledged" to a freedom of information Act leading to open government, I am told by insiders that the word "pledge" is less firm than "will introduce". The fact that the manifesto uses the word "pledge" allows the Government to wriggle out of their promise.
That provided an upset for the noble Lord's colleagues in another place. I understand that almost 80 Members of the other place, including 11 Commons committee chairmen and four ministerial aides signed a Motion calling for legislation to be introduced in the autumn. Then the Home Secretary who took charge of this policy was forced to make an announcement and said on 30th November:The Government will publish a … Bill early next year".— [Official Report, Commons, 30/11/98; col. 528.]But here we are, early next year, and we have not yet seen one. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, said, this has been a Labour Party policy for a long time. It was first promised in Harold Wilson's 1974 manifesto. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, was unable to include it in his time in government. What is interesting, is that the Labour Party has not expressed the slightest interest in this issue during the 18 years it was out of government. It has not been one of the issues they have pushed.
One of the difficulties is that the Government have a different view of what is meant by "information". Look at their record: their first step in government was to sack respected press and information officers. We now receive information by "leak" and by "spin". Every announcement has its gloss; selected stories are pushed; journalists are cajoled into writing the party line; Parliament comes second when announcements are made; and we read about Statements in the morning paper. The tradition that they first come before Parliament seems to have gone by the board in many cases.
However, those who live by spin, die by spin and the demise of the "King of Spin" shows that. And with regard to the media, the worm has turned. The Government have lost their honeymoon period and are now trying to bypass the national media. Government Ministers appear more in magazines than in the press. We have seen the Prime Minister on "This Morning" with Richard and Judy. No doubt we shall soon see Ministers on cooking programmes. Of course, they are experts on every subject from football to Buddhism. We have a Government who are now dependent on trivia. We sometimes cannot get information from government departments by asking questions; it has to be forced out. Consider the difficulty in getting information about the travel expenses of Labour Ministers. The reason we did 311 not get it is because the only people I can see who live like Lords are government Ministers when they travel abroad.
On a more serious note, concerns have been raised about, for example, genetically modified food. The Government are secretive about their meetings with that industry and are not telling us what they are doing. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, has been involved in a long campaign on this issue. Have the Government not learnt from the mistakes made regarding BSE? They should have, but they have not; and I am sorry about that.
As regards government information, this week a Commons Select Committee published a report about the Sandline affair. Originally, the Foreign Secretary seemed to blame the civil servants. Now, the Government blame the committee. That is surprising as the majority of members of that committee are Labour MPs. This is a government who have to prove that they are committed to freedom of information.
Earlier this week the Minister and I debated the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill. Editors are concerned about restrictions on press reporting under that legislation. However, I must give credit where credit is due. The Minister has kindly agreed to look at these issues and I am sure that he will. I hope that it will work better than one instance I experienced with the Data Protection Act. The noble Lord will remember that he and I debated that Bill in this House.
A month ago my bank informed me that someone had applied for a credit card using my name. I wrote to the bank asking if, perhaps, I could have the information that it was holding on me. I received a polite reply stating that that was not possible. I wrote to the Data Protection Commissioner enclosing correspondence and asking if, perhaps. 1 could have the information I required. I received a wonderful letter stating that he did not think I could have the information because such information was not about me; it was about someone who was purporting to be me. I hope to win that battle and I shall certainly inform the Minister if I do not.
I believe that the public has a right to know about many issues. The Government profess that they want an open government. That is important because otherwise the great issues we face are trivialised. The debate on Europe has become: more about the cost of changing one's holiday money into euros or euro traveller cheques rather than the real concerns of accountability and democracy in Europe.
I am sure that the Minister will give a confident answer this evening about the Government's policy. He is an honourable man. He will valiantly defend the Government with style and charm. No doubt he will gild his speech with the odd clever jibe at the Opposition and our record on this issue, and I accept what that record is.
However, the Minister must address the Bill proposed by my noble friend Lord Lucas. He must state those parts with which he agrees and those with which he disagrees and state whether the Bill will be allowed Committee and Report stages in this House. I believe that my noble friend Lord Lucas said that the Minister faced a difficulty of being seduced by Sir Humphrey. I think that is perhaps a little unfair on the Minister. 312 There is one point on which we might agree. I think it is wrong to blame civil servants. I do not blame civil servants for any of the things that happened when we were in power, when previous Labour Governments were in power, or indeed, while the noble Lord is in Government. Bad government comes from weak Ministers. Ministers have the power and they must accept the responsibility. I hope that the Minister agrees.
We look forward to the Government's response. I am sure that the Minister has a lot to say about his proposals as well as about the Bill proposed by my noble friend.
§ 9.44 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for introducing the Bill. I thank also all those who have spoken. It is almost breath-taking to have to reply, but I shall do my best.
I agree that bad government is the fault of weak Ministers, just as was selling-off the railways at £10 billion under value. I cannot remember how many times I asked the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for details about, for example, the consequences of the "Sea Empress" disaster and answer came there very rarely, and, more often, came there none. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, mentioned the Scott Report. Like the noble Lord, Lord McNally, I was in the Chamber and can remember the justified bitterness with which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, complained that he was a former Chancellor and a former Home Secretary but he was being given the infinite courtesy of five or 15 minutes to read that vast report so that he could give a response. Quite rightly, the noble Lord refused that insulting offer. Was that the result of weak Ministers? Yes, it was the result of weak Ministers in a government in which both noble Lords served vigorously. I am trying not to be unduly harsh.
Ministers do not hide behind officials at the Home Office. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Longford is not in his place because he would like to hear me say that one of the first things that we did was to do away with the relics of "Howardism"—my noble friend has been waiting for me to use that word for some time. We have said that when things go wrong in the Prison Service, we shall take the blame and the responsibility and that we shall not blame the Prison Service.
I am amazed to be chided that we had not been all that interested for 18 years. I seem to remember that the Conservatives were, apparently, in office for 18 years and did absolutely nothing, except to batten down the hatches in the most ignoble way.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said that we have done nothing since coming to power. The noble Lord, Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, said that he did not want to hear simply a list of our actions. Well, I propose to outline them because they matter. We have been in power and in office for a little more than 18 months now. It is wrong to say that Jack Straw was forced into anything last November. One of the truly inexpressible, ineffable delights of membership of the Labour Party is attendance at the Labour Party Conference. I was there when Jack Straw made his speech. In September last 313 year, he said to rapturous applause—the Prime Minister repeated it—that we would introduce a freedom of information Bill. I am sorry that I am insisting on fact rather than rumour, but I do so insist. Following that, what was the important milestone in this Home Secretary's tenure of the Home Office? It was the setting up of the Lawrence Inquiry in public, and publicly funded, with the knowledge that everything would be laid out. If Jack Straw ceased to be Home Secretary tomorrow—I put that only as an absurd hypothesis—he would still have reaped the proper reward of courage and openness in an area where many of his predecessors would have done nothing.
Now, when the Chief Inspector of Prisons produces reports and they are checked for accuracy, I immediately sign them off for publication, whether or not their contents are popular. That is our policy. We do not hide behind anyone. The crime statistics are published immediately and regularly, not when convenient for party political purposes. I have spent the past year discussing with the Coroners' Society, those in the Prison Service and, more recently, the police service, how we can make inquests more open and more readily accessible to those who have the prime requirement for that; namely, the families of those who may have died in state-coerced circumstances. I do not mind if that is called a collection of actions. I believe that it is a noble collection of moral actions.
I repeat for at least the sixth time in your Lordships' House, either orally or in Written Answers, that this year we have undertaken to provide a draft Bill for the Public Administration Committee chaired by Rhodri Morgan. We have written to him and the Home Secretary and I have discussed it. I repeat the promise that the Bill will go for pre-legislative scrutiny to Rhodri Morgan's committee. That is not a sign of a lack of confidence or wanting to hide. Is it going to be suggested that somehow Rhodri Morgan has been recently emasculated or had his teeth drawn? I do not believe that anyone could say that he was not a vigorous proponent of the ideas put forward this evening. He has at least been consistent. His voice was heard over 18 years, but perhaps he was speaking rather quietly and nobody heard him.
What else have we done? I agree that we have done small things, but they are indicative ones. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked me for the contract on Campsfield House, which is the detention centre. It was provided and lodged in the Library with only the commercial and confidential material removed. The principle was there. The Home Secretary has published almost the entirety of the IND casework notes, volume after volume, for immigration and asylum seekers. No one thought of doing that before, but we have done it.
That is the collection of actions. I now come to something which may be more significant. We have introduced and delivered two enormously important Bills, the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act. We promised to do that and we have done so. They are intended to transform the way in which this country is governed. I say as firmly as I can—and I cannot over-emphasise—this Government's commitment to the 314 introduction of a Freedom of Information Bill. There is now growing a new relationship between government and the public. There is no doubt about that. The wind has changed. As the noble Baroness said, human rights, devolution—very rare acts of an over-centralised Government and Executive volunteering to devolve power to those to whom it properly belongs. We have done that.
We believe that a Freedom of Information Act is the central part of our agenda for change. We mean to introduce it. It is not a case of the Government's honeymoon disappearing. I cannot remember whether Mr. Hague's opinion rating is minus 27 or 28, but I do not believe that any sensible indicator of public opinion shows that the Government's honeymoon is over: in fact, quite the opposite. I believe that the people of this country want reform to continue and are pleased with the way in which it is about to continue even though it means that four or five speakers in your Lordships' House this evening may no longer be here to share our joy and amusement late in the evening.
We are not approaching these matters in a frivolous way. I have to chide the noble Lord, Lord McNally. The Home Office is not the Lubyanka. In fact, I do not believe that it has ever been run in such an open way for the past 20 years. As regards the Human Rights Bill, for example, we invited doughty campaigners like the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to participate. He came regularly. There were also visits from Liberty and Charter 88. On the question of freedom of information, we asked Mr. Frankel to join us. He has given us advice and so have many of his colleagues who have an interest in this field. I do not believe that anyone can suggest that we have not been open about consultation.
It has been said that the prize was snatched away from the former Minister in charge and given to a Minister who is notoriously secretive. I am perfectly happy to listen to any complaints about the Home Secretary, but I cannot imagine any legitimate ones. To say that he is secretive or not open is simply not true and neither is it fair. By the collection of actions I have demonstrated a reasonable defence of what I have said.
We are going to deliver a Freedom of Information Bill. It is a perfectly simple concept, but it is not an easy thing to construct. Of course, departments are notoriously territorial, but they do have legitimate interests. The interests, for instance—I take them at random—of the Ministry of Defence are not coincident always with the interests of MAFF and they are not coincident with the interests of the Home Office. It is foolish and I think extremely short-sighted and unduly contentious to suggest the opposite.
We took over responsibility for this matter essentially in August. We want to develop the policy by means of all kinds of changes. I entirely agree with what the noble Baroness said. What we are about is trying to change the culture of this country. I object to the suggestion that there is a government and the governed. I believe that public information properly describes itself. It is essentially the property of the public. However, it is not every piece of information which is capable of being disclosed fully and contemporaneously. Anyone who 315 suggests the contrary is, I think, living in a dream world and has not attended to the experience of the more liberal regimes that obtain in other countries.
I was asked to indicate and demonstrate yet again the commitment of the Government. I say again that we remain fully committed to freedom of information, to promoting a radical change across government in the way government conduct business, and to a new relationship between government and the citizens they serve. I do not think I can make it plainer than that. The present Bill which the noble Lord has put forward—I agree he has done us all a service in bringing it forward—has certain flaws. I shall not speak for too long as I have already consumed 11 minutes of your Lordships' time. However, it is not, we think, adequately drawn. Clause 2(2) proposes that the Bill should override,any statutory or common law prohibition on the disclosure of information".That simply cannot work. One cannot simply ride roughshod like that. It is a simple mechanism but it is not practicable. There is a long list of legislation which impinges on freedom of information. Some requires the disclosure of information, some the withholding of information. Every single example and every legislative provision has to be looked at discretely. It cannot simply be overridden in that way.
We have international obligations, after all. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, spoke about data protection. We are, of course, subject to European directives, which is why we were obliged promptly and timeously to bring in the Data Protection Act. We have obligations in the European context with regard to access to environmental information. We simply cannot produce a Bill that would be found to be unlawful in the European context.
There are other matters which are of importance which would have to be amended or deleted. There is no mention of the Scotland Act or the Northern Ireland Act, for instance. Clause 12 simply states that the Bill will apply to Northern Ireland. That is at odds with the principle of devolution which I mentioned. There is no mention of Scotland. I do not raise these questions to be dismissive of the effort that has gone into the Bill. I am simply indicating, not in response to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, but in response to the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, that there are deficiencies in the Bill. I could go on but I think it is rather an arid exercise. I am simply responding to the invitation to say what is wrong with the Bill. There are difficulties but I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has put forward his Bill in that spirit. I think that what he has wanted to do is to establish the following principle, with which I agree and with which I believe everyone who has spoken this evening agrees. We want to approach this matter in a new and more open way.
I cannot give your Lordships a precise timetable. In any event I cannot anticipate the next Queen's Speech. However, I reiterate that we intend to have a Bill. We want it to be subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny—which your Lordships normally think is a good idea—in Rhodri Morgan's committee. If your 316 Lordships wish through the usual channels to seek the same scrutiny here, that is of course a matter for the usual channels.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his remarks. I realise that he cannot pre-empt the Queen's Speech. However, will he give the House an assurance that the draft Bill will be published during this current Session?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
Yes, my Lords. I do not think I can be more free with information than that!
§ Lord Mackay of Drumadoon
My Lords, I apologise for intervening as I have not spoken in the debate. I am particularly interested in which month of the current Session the Bill will be published as those of us who intend to take an interest in the Government's Bill when it comes forward anticipate that there will be a great deal of work to be done in researching the issues and studying the Government's proposals in the detail that the Bill will contain. It would be of considerable assistance to know in which month we may see the draft Bill.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, it will be of considerable assistance to me. I shall have to do a fair bit of reading myself.
I cannot go any further than I have. I reiterate that this is a commitment that we wish to deliver. I repeat, it is in the context of human rights, data protection and devolution.
Let me go back to human rights and data protection. The noble Viscount was of great assistance on data protection, and we spent a long time making sure in the context of public and published information that we fully protected the Article 10 rights of the press. We went to a lot of trouble on human rights. We went to a lot of less conspicuous trouble—both the noble Viscount and I were party to these discussions—about the protection of the press interest. Freedom of information, in other words, in the context of data protection. It was a rather less spectacular Bill—not quite as headline sexy as human rights—but it was still very important indeed.
Of course we support the principle behind the Bill. I do not mean to be tendentious when I say that the Bill does not have the necessary detail—it is too general— and it has certain deficiencies. I cannot support the Bill. Of course, in keeping with the usual traditions of the House, we shall not oppose a Second Reading today. What happens thereafter about timing is of course for the usual channels. I know it is getting late now, but let me finally reiterate that we intend to produce this Bill— Jack Straw has said so, the Prime Minister has said so, and, very low in the pecking order of humankind, I have said so again tonight.
§ 10.3 p.m.
My Lords, I am grateful to everybody who has spoken tonight. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, got it right when he called me a sinner called to repentance. I feel like a sinner called to repentance, and 317 a grievous sinner indeed, who finds himself among a congregation of the godly and the wise, but is suddenly struck by the fear that the priest is in the brothel that I used to manage.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has given me a sort of comfort. I am delighted by his reaffirmation of the principle. I and everyone else who has listened this evening will await the Government's Bill with great interest.
The noble Lord has said two things about the timing: he said "this year" and "this Session". This is rather putting back the expected date, yet again, until maybe some time in June or July—or possibly into the autumn—when we were looking at a Bill which we were originally promised, or hoped we might see, in January or February. But the noble Lord did say that it would come before Rhodri Morgan's committee. Given that Rhodri Morgan will clearly assume high office in Wales in the not too distant future, I hope that it will be exactly what it sounds like and be with us within the next few months. I do not see any elucidation forthcoming from the Minister. I think we will have to be content with what was said this evening and hope.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, made mention of my sudden appearance with liberal ideas. The previous Lord Lucas was a Minister in the Liberal 318 government. Perhaps I have something of him in me because we were both very much in favour of the reform of the House and the end of hereditary peerages. I suspect that there is a good deal of support across the House for that this evening.
I shall be sorry to see the House lose the likes of the noble Lord, Lord Hardinge, who I feel brings a great feeling of gravitas and depth of understanding. He will at least have the opportunity to vote for the Labour Party in the next election too and help to keep their support at its present level.
As always, I am grateful to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for her words. She was a doughty opponent when I was in government; I soon learnt that I had very carefully to question everything that I was told because she always knew more than I, and knew exactly what was going on. As she said, it was more to make the government honest. Looking back on it, I appreciate it enormously. I hope that she will find that we have a Bill worthy of her aspiration.
I am grateful for everything that has been said today. I do not know where the Bill will go now. It rather depends on what the Government's plans are for their own Bill. But if, in a month or two, we have had no further opportunity to see the real thing, we might look to see whether we can have an opportunity to discuss some of the weightier matters in Committee. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
§ House adjourned at four minutes past ten o'clock.