HC Deb 26 January 1978 vol 942 cc691-4W
Mr. Rooker

asked the Prime Minister if he will publish in the Official Report the letter which he sent to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr dated 14th December 1977, and the letter issued by Sir Douglas Allen which he enclosed with his reply.

The Prime Minister

Yes. My letter of 14th December 1977 to my hon. Friend read as followsThank you for your letter of 28th November. As requested, I enclose a copy of Sir Douglas Allen's letter dated 6th July 1977 to Heads of Departments in which he advised them of changes we have approved for making available more official information. Following is the text of the letter from Sir Douglas Allen: During the Debate on the Address on 24th November last, the Prime Minister announced that it would be the Government's policy in future to publish as much as possible of the factual and analytical material used as the background to major policy studies. A copy of the relevant part of the Prime Minister's speech is attached. I am writing in terms which the Prime Minister has specifically approved to let you know how his statement affects present practice and to ask you to ensure that your Department gives effect to it. You may wish to let your Minister see this guidance drawing particular attention to paragraph 10.

2. The change may seem simply to be one of degree and of timing. But it is intended to mark a real change of policy, even if the initial step is modest. In the past it has normally been assumed that background material relating to policy studies and reports would not be published unless the responsible Minister or Ministers decided otherwise. Henceforth the working assumption should be that such material will be published unless they decide that should not be. There is of course no intention to publish material which correctly bears a current security classification or privacy marking; at the same time, care should be taken to ensure that the publication of unclassified material is not frustrated by including it in documents that also contain classified material.

3. In effect, what is proposed is an increase in the already considerable amount of material put out by Departments. The additional material will mainly consist of deliberate presentations in the later stages of discussion and development of new policy. Some of these will probably, as now, take the form of Green Papers. Some may have kindred form, like the recent Orange Paper on Transport. While most material will be released on the initiative of the Department, probably through HMSO, some of lesser importance, or of interest to a limited audience, may well be put out through other means such as publication in magazines or in response to specific requests in the same way that a good deal of unpublished material is already made available to bona fide researchers. In some cases it may be preferable simply to publicise the existence of certain material which would be made available to anyone who asked. Consideration should also be given to the issue of bibliographies or digests so that interested parties are advised what material is available.

4. In adopting the working assumption described in paragraph 2 above for policy studies, including PARs, the normal aim will be to publicise as much as possible of the background material subject to Ministerial decision once they have seen the study and reached their conclusions on it. When Ministers decide what announcement they wish to make, therefore, they will also wish to consider whether and in what form the factual and analytical material may be published, since there may, as the Prime Minister made clear in his statement, be circumstances in which Ministers will not wish to disclose such material.

5. It is not the intention to depart from the present practice of not disclosing PARs nor identifying them publicly; any question of releasing PAR material in circumstances not covered by a Ministerial decision should be referred to the Treasury.

6. In his November statement the Prime Minister said that it was the Government's wish to keep to a minimum the cost to public funds of the new initiative on disclosure. One inhibition to the publication of background material in the past has been that it has often been incorporated in submissions to Ministers which could not be published in their entirety. Re-writing material specially for publication is wasteful and expensive in staff time. Therefore when policy studies are being undertaken in future, the background material should as far as possible be written in a form which would permit it to be published separately, with the minimum of alteration, once a Ministerial decision to do so has been taken. It will generally assist Ministers to reach their decisions on publications if they can see an identifiable separate part of the report appropriately written for this purpose.

7. The form and way in which material is released will have to be considered on each occasion. The cost of any extra printing, or publishing, falls under present arrangements on the HMSO Vote, and HMSO is of course affected by the current restrictions on public expenditure in the same way as other Departments. HMSO is also responsible for deciding what prices should be charged for published material. You should ensure that discussions with HMSO are initiated at the earliest possible opportunity on any proposal which will add to expenditure. The following particular considerations should also be borne in mind:

  1. i. Great care should be taken to keep costs to a minimum. If copies are to be run off in advance of demand, the quantity should be carefully and prudently assessed, to avoid waste rather than to offer instant response. (But of course, there is a countervailing need to aim where appropriate for the economics of longer reproduction runs. The right balance here may be difficult and decisions should not be left to too low a level).
  2. ii. In general, double printing should be avoided, eg the published form of the material should be the same as that used internally (and the same print).
  3. iii. There should be a charge for all material, at a price set by HMSO for each item, to include all aspects of reproduction and handling, but not of course any of the costs of the primary study itself.
  4. iv. As regards Crown Copyright, attention is drawn to CSD General Notice GEN 75/76 dated 12th August 1975 (and corrigendum of 8th October 1976).

8. The Government's decision on this question is in a form which should not involve substantial additional work but which could all to easily be lost to view. There are many who would have wanted the Government to go much further (on the lines of the formidably burdensome Freedom of Information Act in the USA). Our prospects of being able to avoid such an expensive development plan could well depend on whether we can show that the Prime Minister's statement had reality and results. So I ask all of you to keep this question of publicising material well on your check-list of action in any significant areas of policy formulation, even at Divisional level; and to encourage your Ministers to take an interest in the question.

9. Since the Prime Minister may well be asked what effect his announcement has had on the amount of information made available, I should be grateful if you could arrange to have some kind of record kept of the relevant items made available by your Department. Where the material is of an unusual kind, or of a variety not usually made available in the past, it would be useful if a copy could be sent to CSD. In cases where it has been decided not to publish material which might be expected to be of considerable public interest, I suggest that the reasons should be briefly recorded.

10. The greater publicising of material can hardly fail to add to one cost—that of responding to the additional direct correspondence to which it may well give rise. In a Service operating under tight resource constraint, it may not always be possible to afford to give to such additional correspondence the kind of full and studied replies to which we have long been accustomed within the sort of Nevertheless, Departments must do their best Nevertheless, Department must do their best in these matters, and should inform a correspondent if the timescale for a reply is likely to be longer than normal.

11. I am copying this to Heads of Departments as on the attached list."

Forward to