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Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that his colleagues never talk about each other? Perhaps I can brief him privately after this debate about the occasion on which my wife and I were in Gandhi's listening to two partners of two of his colleagues discuss his future and that of a number of other Liberal Democrat Members. That behaviour is not unique to one party.

Mr. Beith: At least no one is being paid out of public funds to do it.

In dealing with such matters, the lead must come from the top. No one could accuse the Government's chief press officer of failing to lead or to do a diligent, skilled and generally pretty effective job on behalf of the Government and, more particularly, the Prime Minister. He slaps down Ministers for being off message or for failing to clear their media appearances. I see no sign of leadership by example or by precept against negative briefing, yet we are talking about behaviour that is forbidden in the Government's model contract for special advisers, which is mentioned in the Government amendment. Section viii of schedule 1 states:

I am not aware of any disciplinary proceeding against any special adviser for breaking that rule. It is not even a case of "Three strikes and you're out", which may be one way to tackle it.

That leads me directly to the role of Alastair Campbell, the Government's chief press secretary.

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The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham): Much of what the right hon. Gentleman has said has been amusing and entertaining, although he is making a meal of it, but Alastair Campbell is not the Government's chief spokesman. He is the Prime Minister's official spokesman; the head of the Government Information and Communications Service is an entirely different person. The right hon. Gentleman should do his homework more carefully and get those details right.

Mr. Beith: I do not think that anyone anywhere in the system would deny the leadership role exercised by Alastair Campbell. No one who has been in receipt of any of his missives could imagine that he was behaving other than from a position of leadership as regards the entire Government press and information operation.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) rose--

Mr. Beith: I shall develop this point before I give way. The position of the Prime Minister's chief spokesmanhas developed--with considerable controversy--under successive Governments. Under Mrs. Thatcher, Bernard Ingham's role moved a lot of boundaries and was the subject of much criticism at the time. Following the Mountfield report and a special Order in Council, that position has developed distinctive features under this Administration. Mr. Campbell is a special adviser, but, unlike any other, he has management responsibility for the civil service. He is neither a Cabinet Minister nor a member of the Cabinet secretariat, yet he attends Cabinet meetings. I can see the case for that. It is better that a senior press officer understands the full background to the decisions that he has to explain. However, if those privileges are given, they should be accompanied by tighter rules about what is acceptable in someone who does not have all the responsibilities, restrictions and disciplines to which established civil servants are subject.

Mr. Campbell is identified, although not by name, as the Prime Minister's official spokesman. I welcome that change too, because at least when that phrase is used we know who said something and what authority it carries, which we never knew when absurd phrases such as "Downing street says" or "sources close to the Secretary of State say" were used. What sources? How reliable are they? Who authorised them? We are not allowed to know, and so cannot evaluate what is reported. Journalists should be less willing to play this game, even if it costs them a story or two.

Now that the official spokesman's role is acknowledged, we may as well acknowledge the individual as well and end the farce of a senior public official being seen on television trying unsuccessfully to get out of the shot while some present or resigning Minister is interviewed. It is like the Punch and Judy man who forgets to keep his head down and appears in the frame between the puppets that he is supposed to be operating. When a political adviser takes on powers that have always been reserved to impartial civil servants, sits at Cabinet meetings and is identified as an official spokesman, he must also be charged with a duty, under the responsibility of the head of the home civil service,

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to maintain and inculcate principles of objectivity, fairness and loyalty, both to the Government as a whole and to the integrity of the public service as a whole.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows, and will forgive me for taking the liberty of reminding him, that Orders in Council created three special adviser posts, two of which are filled by Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell. They set out clearly the terms, conditions and responsibilities of the posts. One of the many novelties introduced by the Government in the cause of modernisation, transparency and accountability was the model contract for special advisers, which sets out clearly their responsibilities. Does he accept that Alastair Campbell's contract, unlike that of any other special adviser, has been placed in the public domain?

Mr. Beith: I was aware of all those things. I referred to the Order in Council and pointed out that the model contract was in force when all these things happened. If the model contract is working, why did they happen? Why have all the Government's problems arisen? Someone must make more effort to ensure that the contract is abided by.

The Order in Council was essential because, without it, no civil servant would have been required to accept instructions from Alastair Campbell. The process is entirely proper, procedurally correct and in place, but certain responsibilities assume a larger importance in that light. One could react in different ways to this situation, which has undoubtedly caused a fair bit of harm. More people could be sacked, to add to those who have already resigned, or we could try to find a way of ensuring that the system--not all of which we can object to or stem the tide of--observes proper boundaries and that things damaging to the public interest or the Government do not happen under it.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): I have the model special adviser contract. Page 12 states:

Does my right hon. Friend think that that applies to Mr. Alastair Campbell?

Mr. Beith: My hon. Friend has done much work on this and first brought the right hon. Member for Hartlepool to the House to answer questions on his responsibilities. He is merely giving a fuller quotation of the passage in the model contract, which I consider applies to all special advisers, that I quoted earlier. Someone has not been keeping the terms of that contract. We do not necessarily know who in the case of the leaking of the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry's loan details. Somewhere along the line, the rules are being broken. It is not relevant to insist that the Prime Minister's principal press spokesman observes the contract but that he takes the lead in ensuring that they are observed throughout the service in which he plays such a key role.

The implications of the duties need to be spelled out more clearly at various levels in the Government information services and among ministerial advisers

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and Ministers. The Public Administration Committee published a report on those issues last July. The Government's response has not yet been published, although I think that it has been sent to the Committee. There were two reports, one from the Government's side and one from the Opposition. In their rather more timid offering, even the Government's supporters on the Committee call for a clear code of rules. Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members produced minority conclusions that went further by calling for tapes of Lobby briefings to be kept for a year and for political appointees who do significant party political activities to be paid from party funds. They also called for the Modernisation Committee to consider your concerns, Madam Speaker, about the sharp growth in pre-briefing of Government announcements, which should be made first in Parliament. I am not sure that the Modernisation Committee is the right Committee to do that, but the matter certainly needs considering further.

What is the Government's response to the challenges to clean up their press act, especially now that they have seen that they, too, can be the victims of a practice that has got completely out of hand? The Government's amendment to our motion refers to the model contract for special advisers, dating from May 1977, which has been in existence throughout all these abuses, and which has clearly been flouted.

The amendment refers to

Partiality and impropriety are acknowledged to have taken place. I suspect that the Minister for the Cabinet Office knows that something needs to be done, and he would do himself and the Government credit if he admitted it and told us precisely what he intends to do. If he does not intend doing anything, the Government will soon be in trouble again on these matters.

The information that the public actually want is rarely the kind of information that press officers are briefed to provide. It is information that they are denied by the operation of official secrecy and the absence of a freedom of information Act. Gulf war veterans want to know to what health risks they were subject and what tests are or are not being carried out on their exposure to depleted uranium, yet that information is fiercely guarded.

People wanted to know what the Government knew about bovine spongiform encephalopathy. That is coming out at this late stage only because there is an inquiry. They want to know what the Health and Safety Executive knows about the pollution being emitted by a factory. They want to know why the Medicines Control Agency will not license a drug that they think will help them. That is the kind of information that affects their lives or livelihoods, which is so often closely guarded by Government, and which they will not have unless we have a freedom of information Act. The Government promised us one, but where is it?

In a written answer on 21 July 1998, the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), said that the Government's aim was to publish the draft Bill by the end of September. Then he became a casualty, and let us not forget the negative briefing to which he was subjected.

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Almost four months have passed since the Government's target date for publication. The draft Bill will be considered this Session, but a final Bill is unlikely to be introduced until the 1999-2000 Session, pushing the implementation of such legislation into the next millennium. That is hardly appropriate for legislation that the Government described in July 1998 as a priority issue.

When the right hon. Member for South Shields was removed from office, responsibility for the freedom of information Bill was transferred to the Home Office. Since then, progress on the draft Bill has slowed.

Liberal Democrats have always regarded the implementation of a freedom of information Act as a priority to provide a right of access to all but the most sensitive information. The Labour party has been committed to freedom of information for, I think, 25 years, and it was included in its 1977 election manifesto. The pre-election "Cook-Maclennan" talks also agreed that the public have a right to know what Government are doing in their name, and committed both parties to the cause.

Roy Hattersley said, before the 1922 election--I mean, the 1992 election. Roy Hattersley is very senior, but he carries his age better than that. He said before the 1992 election that a freedom of information Bill should begin on Labour's first day in Government before its errors in office reduced its enthusiasm for reform.

It is a sad fact that political parties' interest in freedom of information seems to wane as their ability to do something about it increases. The Government have an opportunity to prove that wrong. The Home Secretary claims that delay is caused by difficulty in drafting the legislation. But the former Chancellor of the Duchy has said that the draft Bill was 90 per cent. complete when he left office. Are the Government now saying that he left the most difficult bits until last?

It is now 13 months since the White Paper was published. That should have been ample time for the Government to translate a far-reaching and detailed White Paper into a draft Bill. After all, they have to prepare only a draft Bill. It is not the last word. It will go for scrutiny to the appropriate Committee of the House over several months, and amendments and corrections can still be made, so it does not matter if there are some mistakes in the Bill at this stage. Let us get the process going.

If the Bill is introduced this month, it could be examined by the Select Committee on Public Administration in the spring, and the final Bill could then be introduced in this Session and carried over to the next Session. I believe that the Government will use that procedure for the financial services and electronic commerce Bills. If they are really committed to freedom of information, they should take urgent action to ensure that the Bill is ready at the earliest opportunity.

The Home Secretary has publicly claimed to support greater openness in government and claims that he is demonstrating that. The biggest test will be in the extent to which his draft Bill meets the far-reaching proposals in the White Paper "Your Right to Know", which we welcomed and want to see enacted. Many advocates of freedom of information are concerned that the Bill may water down the strong proposals in the White Paper.

There are many supporters of greater openness both inside and outside Parliament. In the previous Session, 241 hon. Members, 195 of them Labour, signed an

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early-day motion expressing concern at the prospect of any delay in bringing the measure forward. It was one of the most popular early-day motions in that Session. The Government's Back Benchers are with us in saying, "Get on with it."

Let us have more of the information that the public really want through a freedom of information Act and less of the partisan spin doctoring, which started out as a means of massaging the message and has ended up with blood all over the carpet. Clearer rules about what people can and cannot do should be established and implemented. It is a job in which the enforcer presumably has a role to play. I hope that he will now tell us what he is going to do.

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