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5.34 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): It is a pleasure to participate, I hope briefly, in this afternoon's debate, especially in view of the pertinent points made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I also listened with great interest to what the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) said about freedom of information, and to the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark).

I reserve my position on freedom of information until I see what the Government publish. There is undoubtedly a need for greater access to information in Britain. Having practised at the Bar, and having frequently encountered problems in obtaining the necessary information for Government work, and on the whole question of public interest immunity, I have not the slightest doubt that successive Governments have been getting themselves into a complete twist on the issue and, as a result, have been holding back on completely innocuous information as part of a knee-jerk reaction of secrecy which we would do well to break down during the coming years. I shall therefore look at the legislation with considerable interest as and when it comes forward.

The question which interested me particularly this afternoon was the way in which the Government have been manipulating or handling information on a daily basis since they took office. I would be the first to accept that all Governments throughout history have manipulated information for their own benefit. It isnot something that started in May 1997. Previous Governments, including Conservative Governments, have put the best gloss on factual material in their possession and on their presentation of matters. That is one of the things that politics is all about.

We cannot get away from the fact that there has been a qualitative and quantitative shift since the Government took office in the way in which such information has been handled. That is a feature of the way in which government has been conducted in Britain and it differentiates us from many other democracies, quite apart from those countries which do not enjoy democratic government.

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Over the years, the civil service's reputation for impartiality, and the way in which the Government information service has operated, has tended to mean that people have at least felt that they could rely on the factual material being presented to them, and on the fact that there was a clear separation between party political spin and Government activity.

It may well be that that was simply one of the handicaps of Government, rather like the handicap of a prosecutor in court when he has to abide by rules which are more difficult and severe than those of his opponents in terms of ensuring that he does not mislead, and of the way in which material is handled. It is that which the Government have set out to circumvent.

Having spent part of Christmas reading Mr. Philip Gould's autobiography of his long years advising the Labour Government--a revealing and remarkable work--I dare say that, if a political party starts out on the principle that most of the things in which it believes do not appear to be shared by the electorate, and then sets out on a difficult 10-year process of adapting its beliefs to those of the people whom it is trying to convince, it is hardly surprising that, as a result of that process, it ends up with an extremely slick public presentation machine which, in terms of securing electoral advantage, has proved itself to be superb.

The question is whether one is then entitled to translate that into the way in which one operates in government. It is that issue which the Minister must address carefully. There is overwhelming evidence that the Government have simply taken on all the spin doctoring techniques that they had in opposition, which may well have been legitimate there, and treated them as a perfectly legitimate field of operation once in office.

I happen to believe that that is not right. It is all very well to be told that previous Prime Ministers may have had press officers who acted in the same way, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) pointed out, the sheer number of political advisers, and the way in which we have seen them operate during past months, suggests two principal things--first, that the Government are willing to break down the notion of collective responsibility when it comes to the way in which individual advisers set off their political champions, one against the other, and secondly, that, in the area of manipulation, the idea of objective truth reliant solely upon factual information has been jettisoned. That matters to me as an Opposition Member because I do not much like what I see, but it goes beyond merely the Opposition having a grouse about the way in which the Government have decided to conduct their information service.

For example, shortly before Christmas, the Government set out on a foreign policy initiative involving the use of force against Iraq. It enjoyed cross-party support--I certainly supported it. The Government information service produced a number of documents. When people wrote to me expressing disquiet about, for example, whether the targeting of military bases in Iraq was producing results, I sent to them copies of the product produced by the Government information service. I was quite happy to rely on that as being factually objective and true in so far as the intelligence information that backed it up might be. Therefore, I was intrigued to note the number of people who replied to me expressing disbelief at the material that I received on the grounds that they had

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ceased to believe in the objectivity of the department producing it. That may have been linked, in part, to the fact that the President of the United States was experiencing domestic difficulties, which it is suggested may have led him to distort information and provide reasons for distracting people from his problems. However, I believe that one of the reasons is that Government information, as a source of material on which people can make decisions, has been discredited. The discrediting comes entirely from the way in which the Government's advisers have been operating.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester that it is objectionable for the taxpayer to be paying for people who are simply party political advisers and who are there solely to put a gloss on events to the best advantage of their political masters. Perhaps it will cause problems for political parties, particularly for my own, if we have to continue to dig deep into pockets when the money is not always available.

It is high time we started looking afresh at the way in which the service works. The blurring of the distinction between Government information and political spin is the source of a great many problems and, if it continues unchecked, it will become a real source for evil and for the discrediting of democratic government.

5.43 pm

Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth): We have travelled a long way in the past 50 years. I have in my hand an extract from a little book about Clement Attlee called "The Man From Limehouse". It purports to describe the first Cabinet meeting of the 1945 Labour Government. It says:

We have travelled a good way from that to Charlie Whelan. That tells us a good deal about what has happened to political life over that time.

I will not detain the House with another extract, but Attlee was approached about holding press conferences on the model of the American President. He wrote a sharp note back to the person who suggested that saying that it was a substitute for Parliament and that that was what Ministers should do. I am sure that Madam Speaker would like that sort of response.

All Governments want to manage the news. All Governments want journalists, the newspapers and the broadcast media to write and say nice and applauding things about them. I take that to be a truth of politics across all parties. Some will do it more effectively than others. I suspect that one of the reasons for the bile coming from Conservative Members is that it is now being done rather effectively. The professionalism that the Labour party developed in opposition has been transferred to Government and we are having a more co-ordinated approach to Government information than we have ever seen before in this country. In fact, we are seeing the most concerted approach to putting co-ordination at the centre of government than ever before.

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Given that one of the main criticisms of Governments in Britain over the years has been that they are too fragmented and departmentalised, it is not ignoble to try to make them more coherent and effective. The reorganisation, and presentation, of Government are of a piece. The fact that we are doing that in a new and more effective way is part of the reason why people want to comment on it now.

We can look at the evidence. I have to quote the redoubtable Romola Christopherson, partly because I like saying her name, who was an extraordinarily effective press person at the Department of Health. In the much-cited article, she contrasts the ineffectiveness of things before with the effectiveness of things now. She says:

It is not surprising that, if one takes office in a can-do spirit with the intention of bringing in more co-ordination than before, and if one finds that the information machine is antiquated and in need of reform, one will want to sort it out.

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