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The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. William Waldegrave) : That was a most eloquent and persuasive speech. Of course, I shall be instituting the usual leak inquiry after the debate. I begin by picking up something that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) said at the end of his speech when he quoted Robert Hazell. It shows a profound truth : whatever we do in legislation, nothing ultimately changes unless the culture of organisations genuinely changes. It is always possible to find a way round rules if those working within them really want to. That is a fair point, whatever approach we take to the matter.

There has been a certain symmetry in these debates over the years. I have been reading some of the debates in the past few days, as one would expect. Governments of all parties tend to argue one way and Oppositions of all parties tend to argue another way. Great departmental mandarins tend to argue one way until they leave their Departments, in which case they tend to argue the other way. Journalists--when they are talking about the workings of government, though not quite so much when they are talking about the workings of their own newspapers--tend to argue one way and business people the other. There are exceptions, and honourable exceptions in all cases, and I am sure that they can be found.

There are two responses to this issue. One is a response of total cyncism : everybody is corrupt. The other is a more realistic response which is to say that there are people playing different roles honourably in different parts of a civil society and they look at things from their different points of view. The resolution of those conflicting and legitimate interests is what this argument is all about.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central is an eloquent representative of one of the legitimate and ancient strands of the argument. The argument goes back to Wilkes ; it is not a new one. Over the centuries, I suppose that getting the balance right has been partly what the growth of democracy has been all about. I sincerely


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congratulate the hon. Gentleman and the Campaign for Freedom of Information which has helped him to present the Bill. I join him in paying tribute to the courtesy and competence of Maurice Frankel. The hon. Gentleman uses the language of the right to know. One can make the argument in other languages, but let us use that language today. The conflicting interests that must be resolved can be well expressed in this language. One conflicting interest has been discussed in the House recently--the right to privacy. That is a right and a need which musters campaigners. Those campaigners were rightly heard in the House a few Fridays ago.

There is also a right, which was much in evidence in the recent American election, to fair trade. Why should jobs be at risk because foreigners have different rules from us? It is not difficult to rouse a campaign for that. Great trade union interests can and do legitimately campaign for that right. As the hon. Gentleman said, a level of commercial confidentiality comparable to that of their overseas rivals may often be one of their demands.

A fourth right is the least easy for which to campaign. Indeed, I have never heard of a campaign for it, although I believe that most people instinctively understand it. It is the right to have a system of government that is organised in a way which makes it possible to take efficient decisions. All freedom of information campaigners who are serious recognise those conflicting rights--the hon. Gentleman certainly does--and try to order them in some sort of hierarchy. It is not surprising that, when we are engaged in a debate led by the proponet of the right to know, that right tends to come rather dramatically to the top of the pile. I shall argue that the other rights are a little too far behind. It is not surprising that those who put the arguments from the Government side--that Governments, if they are to fulfil their duties to citizens, have a duty to maintain some secrets--have perhaps the hardest time of it. Parliaments are there to limit the Executive--it is their essence--and to call Executives to account. The press live off information. A banner reading "Hands off Government secrets" would not immediately fill Trafalgar square.

In this debate, it is our duty to balance all those rights and their attendant duties together--and there are others. It is for us, while marching to those other more catchy tunes, to remember that they have a counterpoint. In "Troilus and Cressida", Ulysses said : "There is a mystery --with whom relation Durst never meddle--in the soul of state".

Shakespeare drafted it even better than Lord Franks. In a free society, most government is a matter of negotiation. Totalitarian governments do not have to negotiate ; they just tell you. Negotiation must take place not only with other Governments but constantly at home with warring and contradictory pressure groups, financial markets and Parliament. Anyone who has ever run anything, from a corner shop to a great Department of state, knows that administration in a free society, in which one cannot compel people, except exceptionally and with the powers given by the legislature, is much more like playing poker than playing chess. One cannot always have all the cards face up.

What is more, when Governments use compulsion with powers given by the legislature, they often do so for the collection of information from people who are unwilling to


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give it in the first place. Such people believe, in some cases rightly, that they retain rights over it. The Inland Revenue, the Department of Social Security, a variety of regulators and inspectors and compilers of statistics may be unwilling to provide information. In many cases, information taken by power should be covered by privacy. No one has such powers of invasion of privacy as do Governments.

Mr. Rooker : I do not disagree with anything that the Minister has just said, but I wish to give him two examples of where the suspicion is borne out because of what happens in the culture of government. Following the change of Government in 1979, when Sir Clive Whitmore was Mrs. Thatcher's private secretary, a letter was sent around Whitehall about openness. It told people to be more open. That letter was classified and will not be available until the year 2010. In 1977 when the Croham directive was issued under the previous Labour Government, it was a hell of a job to get it published. A wheeze had to be used to put it in Hansard. When such things happen, they naturally breed suspicion that other matters that legitimately could be open are not opened up. That culture within the Government needs to be changed. So far there is no sign that it has changed.

Mr. Waldegrave : I can give the hon. Gentleman some other examples. I read his speech in the 1979 debate. I can give him another example. Lord Hinton--a great man--was given by Mr. Attlee the power to build an atom bomb. The Government of the day did not mention the matter to Parliament or even to the Cabinet. He was given a piece of paper which said that he was allowed to requisition anything to get the great task done. It appears in the official history of the Atomic Energy Authority written by Margaret Gowing--an extremely good book. Unfortunately, the piece of paper was classified as a nuclear secret so he was unable to show it to anyone. So no progress was made. I do not believe that I have said anything so far that sensible freedom of information campaigners would not admit in principle. The difficult issue is where and how the balance is struck. That is what the House is addressing today. I am rather easily persuaded that the balance is not right in Britain. We keep too many secrets. We make secrets of matters that should not be secret. That, incidentally, makes it more difficult to keep real secrets when it is legitimate to do so.

I admit that there is a tendency in all organisations--Government Departments are not immune--to use secrecy for convenience if they can get away with it. There is much more to be done. That is why last May the Prime Minister asked me to start the process of diminishing unnecessary secrecy which was foreshadowed in our manifesto. The hon. Member for Stoke-on- Trent, Central was generous in his tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Contrary to some mythology, there has been steady progress in the past 10 years. I argue that we have done more than previous Administrations, although it will be for the historians to judge that. We began with a task that was not earth shattering but, for those like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) who know the culture of government, it was a sea change. We published the details of ministerial committees and the


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memorandum "Questions of Procedure for Ministers". We have acknowledged the Secret Intelligence Service and have promised legislation to put SIS and GCHQ on a statutory basis. We shall keep that promise. No previous Administration have taken those steps. The arguments have not changed, but we have set the balance differently. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central was fair in saying that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had acted with different instincts from those of his predecessors. I mentioned historians. In June last year, I invited historians to say which Government records they would like to be available. The matter is not unimportant because it affects the relationship between serious students and the state.

Departments are reviewing the documents identified by historians to decide whether they can be put into the public domain. That initiative has been warmly welcomed by the Institute of Contemporary British History and by Peter Hennessy who, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said, is a doughty campaigner for freedom of information. The release of those documents is under way. Papers released to date include the Hess papers, Shingle Street, Derek Bentley, John Christie and Timothy Evans papers, further papers on Suez, and Home Office files about the occupation of the Channel Islands. The Opposition spokesman on the citizens charter was fair in describing that release as a major breakthrough in the opening up of that period.

There is more to come. [ Hon. Members :-- "Tell us."] Very well, I shall. For example, the papers of Professor R. V. Jones and the SOE archive are among those under review. I have announced that the Joint Intelligence Committee papers will no longer be withheld automatically under the blanket ban. In addition, the Lord Chancellor is reviewing the criteria presently used to withhold public records from public scrutiny. I do not envisage that the objective study undertaken as part of that review will lead to a tightening of the criteria.

We have introduced and supported several legislative measures. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central referred to some of them. Some of the measures on the statute book were private Members' Bills, often drafted by the Campaign for Freedom of Information as part of its policy of going alternatively for sweeteners and the grand slam. I mention in particular, as did the hon. Gentleman, the work of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). I would add the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), with whom I co-operated on the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985, which extended access to local authority meetings and documents. That was a course pioneered by the then hon. Member for Finchley in 1960. We have recently been able to read some of the discussions surrounding that, which have been released under the 30- year rule.

As frequently happens, not all the legislation went as far as its sponsors originally asked. Nevertheless, measures were introduced. It was under our Government that the House approved those measures. As well as the Acts that I have mentioned, the legislation includes the Access to Medical Records Act 1988, which gives access to GPs' reports to employers ; the Access to Personal Files Act 1987, which gives access to records held by local housing and social services authorities ; and the Access to Health Records Act 1990.


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In addition to our supporting such measures, there has been important Government legislation. In 1984 we introduced a right of access allowing individuals for the first time to see records held on them on computer. The Education Reform Act 1988 gave pupils and parents access to certain school records. We have introduced measures requiring information relevant to environmental and safety concerns to be made more public. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 springs to mind. It includes pretty rigorous requirements for the maintenance of public registers in the important matter of environmental pollution. I sympathise with what the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said about that. He was right to say that we could find similar concerns in other constituencies around Britain.

Most recently, the Environmental Regulations 1992 came into force on 30 December 1992. They are a considerable step, deriving from a European instrument. They give a right of general public access to information on the environment for the first time.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) : Given the rather good record that the Minister has just described, does he agree that the records of various Secretaries of State for Employment have been contradictory to that record? They have consistentely denied the right of trade union representatives to know whether they were blacklisted by organisations such as the Economic League. The Government introduced legislation to allow people to know what was kept on record about them on computer, but it did not protect people whose records are kept by other means. So organisations such as the Economic League have been getting away with destroying people's lives and opportunities to work for many years.

Mr. Waldegrave : The Bill of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, unlike previous Bills, takes a wide power which goes across not only the Government but the private sector, to look at personal records.

I shall not disguise the fact that I have considerable sympathy with much of what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) says as regards Government personnel files. Perhaps other hon. Members could say whether there has been consultation with industry. The power is pretty widespread and goes further than in most other countries, but I know of the problem that the hon. Member mentioned. I am grateful to her for saying that there has been progress. My friend Hugo Young, who is a fine journalist, wrote yesterday that the Government really deserve no credit for any of this--and produced a self-fulfilling circular argument to prove it. He says that all of the things of which he approved were forced out of the Government, who freely chose all those things of which he disapproved. That argument seems to have a tendency towards bias, and seems like that deployed by Freudians- -if one does not like Freudian theory one has an anti-Freud complex. There is no answer to that--and I did not mean Clement.

I genuinely believe that the fact that the Government have made progress is not a result of tremendous pressures. Some hon. Members of whom Ministers are extremely nervous--above all, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge- Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)--are doughty campaigners on this and many other matters.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) : Nonsense.


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Mr. Waldegrave : But we are not so nervous that we cannot resist him if we choose.

Mr. Shepherd : That is why I said nonsense.

Mr. Waldegrave : Perhaps we are more nervous than my hon. Friend understands.

Progress has perhaps come about because of the changes in zeitgeist to which the hon. Member for Perry Barr referred. Opinion has steadily changed on such matters and the Government have responded to it. I shall not make many party points in this speech, but the proof that one can easily resist pressure groups on freedom of information if one wants to is to be found in the behaviour of the last Labour Government. They managed to put a commitment to a freedom of information Act in nearly every Queen's Speech, but they never carried it out. In many respects, I have great admiration for Lord Callaghan, but I am not sure that that aspect of public policy was his strongest suit.

An objective survey of progress during the past 40 years would show an acceleration in recent years and it is not unfair for the Government to take some credit for that.

Mr. Alan Howarth : My right hon. Friend is fully entitled to claim credit for the advances that have been made, not least in recent years. But what is therein the zeitgeist, or what argument of principle would he advance, to justify limiting individuals' rights of access to information stored on computer but not in manila files?

Mr. Waldegrave : Such a view strikes a chord with me, but one must consider the other side of the argument. For example, in personal files there could be a problem over the frankness of references and an argument about whether protection should be given to third-party information. However, I am not wholly out of sympathy with my hon. Friend's view.

Incidentally, we were right to move quickly on electronic data because of the dangers of hacking into computer files. Expertise in hacking meant that such a step had to be taken relatively quickly. Some legislation, such as the Local Government Act 1992, the Education (Schools) Act 1992 and the Competition and Services (Utilities) Act 1992 stem from the citizens charter. Under that charter, the Government have a comprehensive campaign for opening up information because, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said, behind the theory of the campaign is the idea that the citizen should be empowered to use properly the services that he owns and he cannot do so unless he has usable information. He has to have comparative information that enables him to know what the numbers mean, and that is why we believe so strongly in league tables. In all the 30 published charters, information and performance indicators are crucial factors, against which people can be called to account. In November, the Government published comparative information on school examination results, to provide parents with the information that they need to make more informed choices about their children's educations. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central welcomed that, but the overall reaction from the Labour party was somewhat less enthusiastic than we may be led to believe by some of the speeches today. Perhaps this will be my other party point-- some Labour Members have an inherent tendency to look to producer, professional and


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trades union interests in such matters and to say that it would be unfair to release all the information if it is not carefully interpreted. I cannot accuse the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central of that because he was brave enought to say that we should publish the information and supported us.

Mr. Worthington : I understand the Minister's argument, but the gains seem to be dwarfed by the extent to which huge areas of information that used to be in the public domain have been removed from it by the Government's privatisation programme. There are huge areas that we now do not know about. Do not the Government condemn the practice whereby they choose a consultant, who is no doubt sympathetic to them, use public money to pay him or her an undisclosed amount, receive the report and quote selectively from it? I am thinking of the Government's Scottish water privatisation proposals. If the consultant's report is good, it must be the best research that has been commissioned to decide an important area of public policy, but the public are denied access to the report. Is not that why we need freedom of information?

Mr. Waldegrave : The regulators of former nationalised industries, which still need regulation because there may be imperfect or no competition in the marketplace, are the right route to information about former public utilities. More may have to be done on that respect.

Ms. Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) : If I may refer the right hon. Gentleman back to school league tables, surely the essential question is the accuracy of published information. In the case of Parliament Hill school in my constituency, the results were inaccurate and, on three separate occasions, we failed to get the Department for Education to submit the correct figures for publication.

Mr. Waldegrave : I know that there were some inaccuracies, but I am a little suspicious of that argument. During the past 10 years I have co- operated fully with all the civil servants who have worked for me and I remember that on some occasions people have argued for almost interminable delays in publication, on the ground that one cannot publish until the information is perfect. It is better to get the information out.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington) : So, one publishes the wrong information.

Mr. Waldegrave : The hon. Member is trivialising. I am not saying that we should publish the wrong information. There were hundreds of thousands of pieces of correct information and one or two mistakes. If we did not do anything until it was perfect we would be falling for a very "Yes Minister-ish" ploy.

Mr. Fisher : The Minister will realise that selectivity, as well as inaccuracy, is a problem. He quoted me correctly in saying that I supported publication of the figures, but he will recall that I went on to say that they should be published in the context of all the relevant information. There is nothing wrong with the Government's having performance indicators and saying that those are the preferred statistics and criteria, which should be considered. It is perfectly fair and reasonable for the Government to focus attention on policies in that way. What is wrong is that it is not done in the context of all the


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relevant information. Performance indicators without freedom of information and knowing the whole picture, diminish the Government's case rather than making it.

Mr. Waldegrave : Just for a moment I suffered a surrealist shift because the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central suddenly started to sound just like Sir Humphrey : "Yes Minister we are in favour of publication ; however I have to tell you that unless all the information is to be published I would really advise against the publication of this information."

Several Hon. Members rose--

Mr. Waldegrave : May I press on because I suspect that some extremely good speeches are waiting to be made and I do not want to delay them.

I must not be unfair, but perhaps I should give an example from another Department, which is not traditionally thought of as being in the forefront as regards freedom of information. Under the 30-year rule, I direct hon. Members to the pleasure of reading the engaging file of Professor Sam Beer, who published a book about the Treasury. In recent years the Treasury has made great steps forward. Hon. Members may have thought that the documents beside me are part of my brief, but that is not so. I know that we are not allowed to use visual aids in the House, but I should like to point out the difference in the scale of the information about public expenditure. In my right hand I have the two documents about public expenditure that were published for 1978-79. The information that is published about public expenditure now is not in my left hand because I cannot lift it. The amount of information published about public expenditure has increased greatly, and it is used by the House and Select Committees to our gain. I assure hon. Members that the weight of current documentation is not just the packaging and, however thick the covers of the little documents published for 1978-79, much more information is now available.

Mrs. Barbara Roche (Hornsey and Wood Green) : I am most impressed by the right hon. Gentleman's visual aids. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) mentioned privatisation. Opposition Members have had great difficulty in obtaining any information about the Wolds prison, which has been privatised, because what we have requested has been covered by rules governing commercial sensitivity. How does that square with the right hon. Gentleman's claim that the Government are releasing information?

Mr. Waldegrave : I believe that there is a consensus on both sides of the House, with some exceptions, that it is legitimate for the Government to look to a wide variety of suppliers to obtain good public services. I do not want to divert the debate into one about contracting out, but many Labour councillors in local government and many on the Opposition Front Bench believe that the fact that the Government are the supplier does not mean that everything must be provided in-house. I believe that there is more work to be done on the possible obligations of private- sector suppliers to meet public sector need. I have not got the solution today, and I suspect that more work could be done on it.


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Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) : Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the programme to contract out local government services has had a retrograde effect because it is now out of order and illegal for the public authority to know anything about the employment set- up of the various contractors, private and public, that tender for the services?

In Sheffield, we had instituted a system whereby we insisted that private firms had to meet their responsibilities on training by operating a ratio of one trainee to 10 employees. That system was accepted by private firms as well as the council, but, after the contracting out legislation was passed, it was illegal for the public authority to continue to operate that system. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that one retrograde step could be reversed quickly?

Mr. Waldegrave : I remember well the debates on whether we should use contract compliance--a method sometimes used in the United States--to insist on various policies being carried out in the private sector. At that time, the House decided that if we wanted the private sector to do things, we should pass the necessary laws to make it do them.

I have considerable sympathy for the point raised by the hon. Member for Bradford, South about health and safety. I have received hundreds of postcards from those campaigning for the Bill and it would be fair to say that 90 per cent. of the requests were for information about health and safety and other broadly consumerist issues. That is understandable because that is what people are really interested in. I have some sympathy for those requests.

Today we must decide whether the next logical steps are best taken by a blockbuster Bill of this kind or by a steady increase in the pragmatic steps that we have taken and will continue to take. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has rightly predicted my response.

The Bill is large. I have been unable to find out whether it is the biggest private Member's Bill, but it must be among the largest. It is a Christmas tree of a Bill because it is equivalent to four or five Bills put together. It calls for a new Act to replace the Official Secrets Act 1989. I cannot recommend that to the House, given the lengthy debates that we had on that subject. The present Act should be left on the statute book to work.

Even the much-quoted Australians and Canadians progressed incrementally with the necessary legislation, which first dealt with the Federal Government and agencies. Legislation was then introduced for the provinces, one by one. Under the provincial system, those provinces are responsible for rather more functions than those for which our local government is responsible. The Australian access rights are not, in general, fully retrospective, as those in the Bill would be after no more than a year.

Many of the exemptions contained in the Bill are more heavily qualified than the equivalents in overseas legislation and the practical consequences of that have not been thought through.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : A few years ago there was an accident in my constituency in which a lorry carrying ammunition caught fire. I put down questions asking what ammunition was being carried and stored in my constituency and nearby. I was told that it was not the practice of the Government to provide such information.


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Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North) : Hear, hear.

Mr. Paul Flynn : Well, let me continue.

I persuaded a Congressman to put down a similar question in Congress and the answer was provided within a fortnight, because the base in question is American. Surely that is nonsense. It illustrates the difference between the freedom of information provided in America and that given here. Does not that diminish the role of the House and its Members?

Mr. Waldegrave : That issue needs much more careful thought. It would somewhat diminish the role of the House if, whenever someone published any kind of freedom of information legislation anywhere in the world, we automatically followed it. Let us say that America experiences far less of a problem with terrorism than we face from the IRA. Would it not be right for the House, after considering the matter, perhaps to have a different regime governing such matters? It does not seem to be absolutely obvious that it would be out of the question for the House to take a different view from a different legislature in a different situation.

Many of the exemptions contained in the Bill are more heavily qualified than equivalents in overseas legislation. I am not sure what the consequences would be for the security of our penal institutions or the effectiveness of our regulatory authorities. I am not sure whether we have considered properly what proportion of time we want the police or health service employees to spend providing access to internal papers. Other similar legislation makes specific provisions to protect such vital services from fruitless diversion of effort. Despite what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has said, I am not sure that the Bill does that. It goes far further than overseas legislation.

I do not want to go into too much detail now, because such matters are best dealt with in Committee, if the House gives the Bill its Second Reading. Again and again, however, the Bill seems to make the ordinary process of administration very difficult.

The exemptions in clause 19 seem to relate only to requirements of enforcing the criminal law and it leaves untouched the important area of the enforcement of regulations under civil law. The clause seems to open up the danger that, where a decision has been taken not to proceed with a prosecution after an investigation, the individual concerned could, in effect, suffer trial by other means on the basis of material released under the terms of the Bill. That, too, may be a Committee point, but I wonder. I suspect that it is more fundamental than that.

It is right that I should say a little more about commercial confidentiality. Clause 26 states that information given to a public authority in confidence is not exempt from disclosure if it is given for the purposes of applying for a grant. That represents a huge shift in practice. When a company puts in such an application it will often need to include detailed financial and non-financial information, which would be of direct benefit to a competitor. If we adopted that policy we would steadily widen the exemptions. We would then return to the same problem, which could be addressed more effectively by measures focused on individual subjects.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood) : I thank the Minister for giving way ; he has raised a key issue. He seeks to suggest that the differences are technical--the


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destination is agreed, but the routes different. However, surely there is a fundamental difference of principle. Either the Government will continue to decide what to release on their terms or there will be a presumption of openness, with the Government having to justify non-disclosure. Surely, that is the point of principle to be decided today.

Mr. Waldegrave : I do not believe that it is even as simple as that. The Government have accepted statutory regimes in some spheres. We have not ruled out statutory regimes in relation to personal records on electronic data. I am not saying that statute law cannot be involved in all sectors.

One issue of high principle is the relationship between Parliament and the commissioner and the tribunal. It is a familiar, but real, argument. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central gave a clear account of how that would work. The commissioner and, on appeal, the tribunal, would balance different public interests. The commissioner would have the power to override the judgment of the House, which could do nothing about it.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said something that one does not usually hear from a socialist, although one does hear it from high Tories. He said that some matters were so important that they should not be entrusted to the House or democracy--

Mr. Fisher : Information.

Mr. Waldegrave : Yes, information. That is an old-fashioned high Tory doctrine--that democracy is just one part of the weft and warp of life. It is a surprising argument to hear from a socialist, and we should consider it carefully.

I shall not propose the cost argument as one of high principle. I think that the Campaign for Freedom of Information has made some clever manoeuvres in its briefing. If we consider the Australian and Canadian freedom of information Acts, we must also consider the provincial and local authorities, as that is where freedom of information bites. Local government receives far more applications than central Government, because most of the services that we are discussing today are not run at a federal or central level in those countries. Therefore, the cost is considerably more. However, cost--which I estimate to be about £50 million--is not the final argument.

Therefore, for some reasons of principle and some reasons which, initially, seem to be small, but, on examination, are shown to be much greater, I cannot recommend the Bill's structure or approach to the House. However, we shall publish the conclusions of our study on greater openness in a White Paper--

Mr. Bennett : When?

Mr. Waldegrave : Before the summer break, I can promise-- [Hon. Members :-- "That is rash."] It may be rash, but I hope that I can promise that. [Hon. Members :-- "Which summer recess?"] Opposition Members are asking me which summer recess, and saying that I am being rash- -perhaps they are correct. I intend to publish the White Paper before this summer break.

The Bill has given us an opportunity to focus national debate and I genuinely welcome it for that reason. We shall return to the subject, whatever the Bill's fate. I do not believe that it will be the end of the story--there is more to do, but the Bill is not the best way of doing it.


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Mr. Cryer : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is usual for statements to be made at 11 am. However, would it be possible for one to be made later by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in view of the story on the front page of The Guardian that £17,000 of taxpayers' money has been spent secretly, against the wishes of the Government, on the Minister's private property? It would be appropriate for the Minister to make a statement on a day aimed at exposing the secret activities of the Government.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : I have not been informed that the Government intend to make such a statement. 11.5 am

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : I give a 100 per cent. endorsement of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). I also agreed with much of the Minister's speech, except when he began to build false arguments only to seek to knock them down, which was disingenuous. He was probably tussling with the two sides of his mind--first, as an individual democrat who is committed to a degree of openness and, secondly, as a man who has to collect the Queen's shilling at the end of the day. That was his dilemma.

I intend to concentrate on one aspect of the Bill, but I shall first raise a couple of general issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central was right to call his Bill the Right to Know Bill. When he told me about the title, my instinctive reaction was that, under the procedures, it would not be allowed. We cannot pick and choose the titles of Bills, but have to follow a set of rules. The title chosen by my hon. Friend is much more friendly to the public than the title, "Freedom of Information". Over the years, people who have campaigned for freedom of information have been asked by Ministers what they want to know. That is an old argument. Turning the title round the other way and stating that people have a right to know- -which is implied in the phrase, "freedom of information"--is a clever means of highlighting the crux of the issue. The title sends out a good signal, will gain support among the public and, one hopes, bring greater change. When I have been asked to describe freedom of information I have found it difficult. I have described the subject as having two limbs--to further the free interchange of opinions and to enhance public enlightenment.

There are plenty of opinions on the subject, many based on prejudice, which would be fine in a closed, totalitarian state. However, in a democracy-- especially one that prides itself on being mature--where we discuss, decide and check to confirm that what we have decided is working, without closing the debate, we should have an interchange of opinions. If that interchange is to be meaningful, the opinions must be informed. We need information to clear away the prejudice. That information must be accessible to both sides of the argument or there will not be a meaningful exchange of opinions. We shall not have a free interchange of opinion in the House next Monday unless the legal opinion available to the Government is made available to all those who wish to participate in the argument. The second limb of my description involved public enlightenment. In a democracy, opinions can be exchanged between those in the know until the sun sets


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each day, but unless those whom we seek to serve can share in the discussions, democracy becomes a sham. However good we or outside experts think our ideas are, those ideas will fizzle out if we seek to impose them on a public who, by and large, are kept in ignorance, they will not be accepted. It is crucial that the public should be enlightened about why and how decisions are made.

The public must be able to test and challenge so-called informed opinion. That is why I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central that the House should not be the controller of information. We must be subject to the same checks and balances by the public as the experts outside the House, whether in local government, medicine or any other field of endeavour. We must be challenged in the same way.

I have broken a self-imposed rule during the debate. Over the years, there have been many debates on freedom of information and many Bills on the subject. For today's debate, I looked not only through my early files, but through some of my own speeches. That is a dangerous practice. I refer to the 1970s, not the 1980s, which shows that the matter has not just popped up.

I should like to share with hon. Members extracts from a long speech that I gave to a Conservative audience--the Birmingham Bow Group, in 1978. The hon. Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) was at that meeting and at that time he represented Birmingham, Stechford. If my memory serves me right, I was there at his invitation. I chose as my theme :

"Labour priorities in the field of individual rights".

It appears that fashion is catching up with me. In part of my address, I linked changes in technology, a highly centralised state with patronage and secrecy and the archaic machinery of government and said that a package of measures was crucial to protect and advance the rights of citizens as individuals. My speech went down well because I was able to quote the manifesto on which I had arrived in the House with a Labour Government holding that commitment that we know so well.

I intend to concentrate on part VIII of the Bill, which seems to be just a couple of clauses but is actually a Bill in itself as it mirrors what I sought to introduce just over a year ago. I have re-read my speech to the Bow Group 15 years ago and can find no better way to explain the position. I said :

"In a complex technologically based society there has to be a right to know' for our citizens. In Labour's last manifesto we promised to replace the Official Secrets Act by a measure to put the burden on the public authorities to justify withholding the information.

This is a very important change and one which worries the ruling establishment both elected and non-elected alike."

I was speaking three months before the commitment was abandoned in July 1978 and as a Back Bencher of only four years. I have not changed my mind much. I told the Bow Group that the machinery of government in the operation of secrecy was on a par with that of the 19th century high-class whorehouse in terms of the protection of its clients. I said that without freedom of information, there could not be a right to know and that without that right, the citizen is left at the mercy of a society dominated by industry and advances in technology, which puts the liberty and safety of individual citizens at stake. I uttered some harsh words about those in the ruling establishment opposing open government.

In 1991, when I was successful in the ballot for the first time, it was not difficult for me to choose a subject. In


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December 1991 I introduced the Corporate Safety and Environmental Information Bill, which is effectively part VIII of the current Bill. In essence, it tries to bring some measure of openness to the private sector that the rest of the Bill seeks to bring to the public sector. It is essentially an amendment to the Companies Act.

We consulted widely about my Bill. I was 12th in the ballot, but finally secured seventh place. However, as only six days were allowed I did not secure a debate. Our consultations showed a good deal of support. The Health and Safety Commission was extremely supportive in a letter from Mr. Rimington. Companies such as Courtaulds wholly supported the Bill and many other companies did not put up a great barrier. There was also a good deal of support by a range of professional bodies, especially the Royal Institute of Chemistry. I thought that there was also support from within the Department of the Environment because the White Paper entitled "This Common Heritage" contained advice from the Government to companies to publish information about environmental and safety matters in their annual reports. However, I discovered a block from the Department of Trade and Industry.

The part of the present Bill dealing with that matter does not require a great deal of expenditure. It does not require companies to do anything more than they do now and does not require an environmental or safety audit. It would require companies to take environmental and safety issues seriously at top management and board level so that information is given to the shareholders and, through them and the annual report, to the wider public. We want details of the occasions on which a company has been served with enforcement notices by regulatory authorities. It is crucial to have such details at a central source rather than in tiny company subsidiaries where it is difficult to get at the information. We want details of convictions for environmental and safety offences. We should not have to trawl the press for such information. Such information should be produced up-front in annual reports, and companies should take that seriously. We should like information about accidents on premises and, crucially, details of compensation payments paid by companies as a result of injury or environmental damage.

One of the facts that we want to get over is that, at the moment, anyone who makes a claim and receives an out-of-court settlement from a company because of physical injury or as a result of a product may be required to sign a disclaimer to the effect that he cannot disclose what he has received. That prevents others in a similar situation from being able to mount a decent case. The Bill contains a caveat so that people will not be identified, but the other information that I have mentioned should be available.

I suspect that if the House does not move on this issue we shall be forced to act by the European Parliament. It is much better to have legislation that suit British requirements than to have to accept legislation from the Commission. At the end of the day, it is better to have legislation of some sort than to have none at all, but it would be better for the House to decide after mature consideration on legislation that suits our demands, our


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