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Open Government

7. Mr. Mullin: What action he plans to take to increase openness in government; and if he will make a statement. [15097]

Dr. David Clark: The White Papers on freedom of information and better government which I am preparing will both increase openness in government.

I believe that in a modern society, open government is good government. Our proposals will change radically the culture of government in Britain and the way in which public information is handled.

Mr. Mullin: I am grateful for that reply, but who will decide what is to remain secret and what will not remain secret? Will it be the same civil servants who, as we saw during the Scott inquiry, are rather unenthusiastic about the concept of open government, or will there be an independent element in the appeals process?

Dr. Clark: It is important that any legislation on freedom of information includes a strong, fair and easy-to-use appeals system, and does not leave the individual helpless in his or her attempt to get information. There are various ways in which that can be achieved, but the Government are studying the model of an independent information commissioner.

Mr. Gill: The Government make much play about open government. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he considers that holding a referendum before publishing the Bill to which the referendum refers is no more than a crude opinion poll, not a referendum?

Dr. Clark: We had referendums in Scotland and Wales before powers were devolved, and we have made it clear that we will use the same instrument before we introduce regional government into England.

Non-departmental Public Bodies

8. Mr. Gerrard: How he intends to ensure the accountability of non-departmental public bodies. [15099]

Dr. David Clark: The Government are determined to make quangos more open and more accountable.

In our "Opening up Quangos" Green Paper we set out ways to improve the accountability of quangos. I am inviting Select Committees to have greater oversight of quangos, by looking at annual reports and by being

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involved in the new five-yearly reviews. I also plan to introduce codes of practice and registers of interest to quango boards wherever possible.

I believe that these and many other proposals that we put forward will ensure that quangos become much more accountable to the people they serve.

Mr. Gerrard: I know that my right hon. Friend appreciates that the quango state that was created by the previous Government removed huge areas of public expenditure from democratic scrutiny, with boards meeting in private with members who were unknown to the general public. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, as part of his proposals for openness, the name of every member of every quango will be made publicly available, as will their register of interests, in a form that will be easily accessible to the average member of the public?

Dr. Clark: My answer is yes. At the same time that we published the Green Paper last week, we ensured that it was available on the internet. I intend to ensure that the internet includes the names of all quangos, their aims and objectives, and overall financial information. In addition, it is my intention to ensure that the names of all individuals on quangos appear on the internet, with the odd exception where one or two specialist committees deal with security or with the security of the individual, which might be at risk from publication.

Mr. Baker: Is the Minister able to give an assurance that it is his policy that henceforth all quangos will be subject to scrutiny by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee? Will he concur that the best way to deal with quangos is to abolish many of them and return their powers to democratically elected local councils? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, when he is replacing clapped-out Tory placemen, he will not simply introduce Labour placemen?

Dr. Clark: The hon. Gentleman raises some serious points. First, we are trying to examine the raison d'etre of every quango to ensure that there is a reason for that body continuing to exist. Secondly, I have already said that we see a future, when considering regional and local quangos, for discussion to ascertain whether these bodies could be incorporated into the local government structure. That is the sort of issue that will be raised when we introduce our central-local government initiative. We have already discussed that.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we recognise that we live in a pluralistic society. It is right and proper that people from all sections and strands of the community are represented on quangos.

Freedom of Information

9. Mr. Barnes: If he will make a statement on progress towards legislation on freedom of information. [15100]

Dr. David Clark: I intend to publish a White Paper on freedom of information shortly, and after a period of consultation this will be followed by a draft Bill.

Mr. Barnes: Will it be seen that no excessive charges are made for accessing freedom of information, so that

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the information will begin to be readily available? As the process will take a while, with the publication of a White Paper and ensuing legislation, can things be done in the meantime to open up the secrecy of the state?

Dr. Clark: It is essential that costs should not be a deterrent when use is sought of the eventual Act. As my hon. Friend says, some time will pass before that Act is on the statute book. It is important that we continue our efforts as a Government to be more open. We shall be encouraging the flexible use of the code. I am encouraging my colleagues to be more proactive about the release of information. Right hon. and hon. Members may have noticed that yesterday we took an opportunity to show our commitment to openness by releasing MI5 documents from the Public Record Office.

Mr. Soames: Does the Minister accept that freedom of information itself is necessarily no panacea for better government? What arrangements does he intend to make for the advice that is given by officials to Ministers? Will that advice be subject to the same rules, or is he intending to alter them and thus make it likely that officials will restrain themselves in giving full and frank advice?

Dr. Clark: It is quite clear to us that open government is part of modern government and good government. I have already made the point that, at some time, one has to make a balanced judgment between openness, which informs our citizens, and confidentiality, which is essential to the workings of government. We feel that our responsibility is to provide good government, and we certainly intend to ensure that we get that balance right.

Special Advisers

10. Mr. Nicholas Winterton: What are the principal provisions of the contracts of special advisers; and what steps he is taking to ensure that they do not undermine the integrity and impartiality of the civil service. [15101]

Dr. David Clark: The model contract for special advisers sets out the terms and conditions under which they are employed. For the first time under this Government a copy was placed in the Library of the House in June. It distinguishes clearly the role and responsibilities of special advisers and reinforces the integrity and impartiality of the permanent civil service.

Mr. Winterton: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. What action is he taking to ensure that, where statements by special advisers are dishonest, misleading and inaccurate, disciplinary action is taken? I refer in particular to matters relating to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Is it not important that the traditional professionalism of the civil service is in no way undermined by the activities of special advisers?

Dr. Clark: It is absolutely essential that the political neutrality and integrity of the civil service is maintained. The draft contracts make that quite clear. They also lay out quite specifically the terms and conditions under which the special advisers operate, and make it quite clear that they can be more free in speaking to the press on political matters.

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PRIME MINISTER

Engagements

The Prime Minister was asked--

Q1. Miss Widdecombe: If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 19 November. [15120]

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Miss Widdecombe: Will the Prime Minister spare the time to enlighten the House about the statement that he made last week, with what he described as enthusiasm and relish, on payments to the Labour party, when his enthusiasm and relish miraculously dried up so that he did not reveal the issue of the second payment? When he answers that question, could he do so with uncharacteristic frankness and humility, and without giving his usual impression of a Cheshire cat?

The Prime Minister: There was no further payment--

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that I take points of order after statements.

The Prime Minister: There was no further payment, as I have said. I would just point out to the hon. Lady that we returned the donation. We refused more donations. We consulted Sir Patrick Neill. We followed his advice. We published that advice. I do not believe that the Conservative party would ever have done the same in our position.

Q2. [15121] Mr. Winnick: In view of the £10 million to £14 million that Ecclestone gave to the Tories previously, as well as the £1 million given to us before the election, is there not a case for changing the law to limit the amount of money that any private individual can give to political parties? Does my right hon. Friend agree that all political parties represented in the House should be forced to declare to the last penny where their money comes from and to return all stolen money? Does he recognise that, if we are to reform party financing, we should do so soon and do so thoroughly? That is what the public want, and it is what Labour Members of Parliament want.

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That is precisely why the terms of reference for Sir Patrick Neill should be as broad as possible. I also believe, to take up the point that my hon. Friend made, that it is important--and I have proposed this--that Sir Patrick Neill is able to look at all the donations that have been made, the names of the donors and the amounts, going back to 1992--[Interruption.] I am perfectly prepared, for myself, to have it go back 10 years.

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I am delighted to say that, since I wrote to the leaders of the two other main parties, the leader of the Liberal Democrats has agreed to that proposition. I hope that the leader of the Conservative party will now agree to that proposition as well.

Mr. Hague: When was the £1 million given back to Mr. Ecclestone?

The Prime Minister: We have said that we will give the money back. [Interruption.] We have already made arrangements to do so. [Hon. Members: "When?"] We have already made arrangements to do so, and it will be done in the next few days.

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister just told my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that the money had been returned. Are we to understand, five minutes into Question Time, that his first answer was not correct?

The Prime Minister: As we have made clear, we sought the advice of Sir Patrick Neill. We have followed that advice: we have followed it to the letter. I now think that the right hon. Gentleman should say whether he is prepared to accede to what both the leader of the Liberal Democrats and I have already agreed to.

Mr. Hague: I would have thought that, in this week of all weeks, even this Prime Minister would not be on his high horse--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Just a moment, Mr. Hague. I will have silence in this House when Members are asking questions. They must be heard.

Mr. Hague: I would have thought that, in this week of all weeks, even this Prime Minister would not be on his high horse in the Chamber. I will make my recommendations and proposals to the Neill committee; I will not prejudge its conclusions as the Prime Minister seems to.

Now we know that, when the Prime Minister told the House last week that he had already followed Sir Patrick Neill's advice to the letter, he had not actually done so, and he has still not actually done so. But, given that the Prime Minister has said that he ruled out further donations from Mr. Ecclestone on 5 November, why has the Minister without Portfolio said that he knew about such donations and ruled them out in October? Who is telling the truth, the Prime Minister or his sidekick?

The Prime Minister: I have made it clear, as I did in my television interview, that the decision was taken on 5 November--before, I may say, any press inquiry was made at all.

Mr. Hague: Well, we can take it from that that the Minister without Portfolio was not telling the truth in his statement.

Let us explore this a little further. [Hon. Members: "Come on!"] I can understand why Labour Members do not want it to be explored a little further. Given that the

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Prime Minister has said that he ruled out further donations on 5 November, why did he ask Sir Patrick Neill two days later whether further donations could be accepted?

The Prime Minister: Because we had already made it clear in the letter to Sir Patrick Neill--which the right hon. Gentleman keeps quoting one part of, but not the other--that we had thus far refused the further donation. We therefore asked his advice about whether it was right to do so. We were advised that it was right to do so. We followed that advice.

Mr. Hague: Well, I have a letter here. It does say, as the Prime Minister says,


Then it says:


    "but we wish to be advised whether this is a position which we need to maintain."

It also says:


    "we should consult you on whether it may properly be accepted."

Are we to understand that, the next time the Prime Minister tells us that he has ruled something out--of course--he will take advice two days later on whether to do it after all? Does this explain why the Minister without Portfolio said on Saturday that the Government had behaved with complete propriety, but has gone on today to say that they have been behaving out of character?

The Prime Minister: What the right hon. Gentleman has just read out to me is precisely the answer that I gave him a moment ago. While we are on this topic, in June he promised that he would publish a full list of donors to the Conservative party. As far as I am aware, he has not published a single name. In August, the Conservative party said that it would publish its accounts, but it has not so far done so. It said that it would give back the money that it received from Asil Nadir, but it has so far not given it back.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats has agreed with me--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: The leader of the Liberal Democrats has agreed with me that we should disclose the names of donors and the amounts going back to 1992. [Interruption.] It is not a question of waiting for Sir Patrick Neill's conclusions; it is about the terms of reference. Does the Leader of the Opposition agree to those terms of reference or not?

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister has already had to admit that he has not handled this matter well. He should not make it worse by failing to answer questions that are put to him in the House. Is it not extraordinary that the Government denied that the Labour party received money from Mr. Ecclestone and then admitted it; denied that the donation was £1 million and then admitted it; denied that the crucial meeting had been minuted and then published the minutes; denied the House a full account of the matter, which instead had to be dragged out piece by piece; and denied that the Labour party would accept further donations and then took advice on accepting them?

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Has not the Prime Minister's conduct been a shabby tale of evasion, which voters, when asked to trust him in future, will not lightly forget?

The Prime Minister: People who are watching this exchange will not forget that the right hon. Gentleman has failed to say why--he will have to answer the question at some point--he refuses to agree terms of reference that would allow Sir Patrick Neill to go back over the period from the 1992 general election onwards. The only reason why the newspapers or the Conservative party can go through Labour's donors is that we publish their names. The right hon. Gentleman has not published anything: no one knows where a penny of Tory money comes from. Before he criticises the Labour party, he should tell us where that money comes from and who gave it to the Conservative party. He should go back five years, as we are prepared to do. Until he does that, no one will pay the slightest attention to his criticisms.

Q3. [15122] Mr. Barry Jones: Will my right hon. Friend inform the House of the status and progress of his social exclusion unit? [Interruption.] Are not the objectives of his Administration the modernisation of Britain and the attainment of social justice? In Wales, many of our fellow citizens have no meaningful work, and have no hope for the future. How does he intend to tackle the problems that he has inherited from the Conservatives?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right. I am surprised that Conservative Members jeer about the problems that many people face. It is precisely because we believe in a proper approach to tackling not just unemployment but levels of truancy, exclusions from school, poor housing and poor educational opportunity that we have established the social exclusion unit, which will examine these problems in a proper and co-ordinated way. It is important that people realise that at long last they have a Government who take seriously the unity and cohesion of this nation.

Mr. Ashdown: Will the Prime Minister tell us which, in his view, should come first, an early pledge or a long-term objective?

The Prime Minister: It is important, of course, that we fulfil all the pledges that we gave to the electorate at the last general election, and we will fulfil them all. At the next general election we will be held to account for the performance that we have given.

Mr. Ashdown: I take it from that that an early pledge comes first, in which case will the Prime Minister explain why today the Chancellor is going around telling us that the Government's revenues are so buoyant that he can fulfil his long-term objective of a 10p tax rate next year whereas the Secretary of State for Health is saying that he cannot--in five years--guarantee that the Government will deliver on their early pledge of lower waiting lists than we had under the Tories? Does the Prime Minister realise that people simply will not understand a Labour Government who say that they have enough money to spend on lower tax rates but not enough to deliver their own early pledges on lower waiting lists?

The Prime Minister: I certainly hope that my right hon. Friend did not say that, because of course we will

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fulfil the pledge that we have made to cut waiting lists by 100,000 or more from what we inherited from the previous Conservative Government.

I say to the leader of the Liberal Democrats, since I anticipated that he might raise this, that I went back and looked at the Liberal Democrat pledges before the last election. Before the election the Liberal Democrats asked that over the first two years of the Labour Government we put an extra £1.1 billion into the national health service. We are actually going to put £1.5 billion into the national health service, but now they say that that is not enough. Secondly, they asked for some £500 million to go into a school repairs programme. We are actually providing £1.3 billion and now they say that that is not enough. With the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I think he should learn the difference between opposition and opportunism.

Q4. [15123] Mr. Illsley: Does my right hon. Friend agree that despite 19 years of fiddled figures--[Hon. Members: "Nineteen years?"]--a legacy of the last Conservative Government is a level of unemployment that is still unacceptably high, especially in my constituency where unemployment above the national average. I echo my right hon. Friend's welcome for the employment chapter in the treaty of European Union, and I urge him to use our presidency of the EU next year to take advantage of whatever initiatives there are to alleviate unemployment throughout the European Union, including in Great Britain and in my constituency.

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend. I think that it was 18 years of Conservative Government, but it seemed like 19 at the time. What is happening at the jobs summit this week in Luxembourg is tremendously important for the future of methods to tackle in particular long-term unemployment in the European Union. The Government have proposed a range of measures which focus particularly on education, on skills and on tackling youth and long-term unemployment.

I very much hope that the summit indicates a new approach by the whole of Europe in which we focus particularly on how we encourage the employability and adaptability of the work force. If we can achieve that at this summit, it will show the advantage of having a sensible, constructive approach to Europe that allows us to achieve the objectives that we all want.

Q5. [15124] Mr. Hammond: Will the Prime Minister explain what he sought to achieve in asking Sir Patrick Neill's advice on 7 November about the propriety of accepting a further donation from Mr. Ecclestone when he has already told the House that he decided on 5 November not to accept such a donation?

The Prime Minister: For the very reason that I have just given, which is that, having taken the decision to refuse further donations, it was important that we got his advice as to whether we had taken the right decision. We got his advice and we followed that advice. [Interruption.] That is precisely what we have said and, as I say, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman believes that, in the 20 years of Conservative Government, there was never any potential conflict of interest. But for the first time a Government actually took

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the watchdog's advice. We followed that advice, whereas the party of which the hon. Gentleman is a member would never have done the same thing.

Mr. Dalyell: What conclusions are we to draw from Madeleine Albright's discovery that not a single Arab country would support military action against Iraq?

The Prime Minister: All countries are concerned to ensure that Saddam Hussein obeys the United Nations security resolutions that were passed at the conclusion of the Gulf war. The reason why it is important that he does abide by those resolutions is that they concern the making of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. If he is allowed to carry on developing those weapons, the dangers, not just for the middle east, but for the whole world, are obvious and clear. He has deceived people, used chemical weapons on his own people, and invaded other countries without any possible justification. It is absolutely essential that he backs down on this--that he be made to back down. We will, of course, seek a diplomatic solution, but he has to back down because, if he does not, we will simply face this problem, perhaps in a different and far worse form, in a few years' time.

Q6. [15125] Mr. Bercow: If the Prime Minister had decided on 5 November--[Hon. Members: "Oh, come on!"] I understand that Labour Members do not want to hear the question, but they will have to suffer in silence. If the Prime Minister had decided on 5 November that he definitely did not want to take further donations, why ask Sir Patrick Neill's permission to do so? Is not the truth of the matter that the Prime Minister was begging Sir Patrick to give him the green light to take more money?

The Prime Minister: I am intrigued that the hon. Gentleman should ask such a question as I understand that his last employment was as special adviser to Jonathan Aitken.

Mr. Bercow rose--

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman seems able to shake his head. Perhaps he will indicate whether he will support me in saying that donations over £5,000 for the past five years should be disclosed to Sir Patrick Neill. Does he agree with that or not? Conservative Members cannot answer it because they do not dare.

Q7. [15126] Mr. Caton: Does my right hon. Friend agree that evidence of already deprived and disadvantaged children being accommodated in children's homes and then physically and sexually abused shames our whole society? Will he assure the House and the country that the Government will respond to the Utting report with urgent and tough action?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend will know that there is to be a statement on this shortly by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. The Utting report does detail an exceptionally bad record of neglect, mismanagement and abuse. Obviously, we will study the conclusions carefully, but it is essential, after long years of neglect, that we clean the situation up, and we will do it.

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