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Sir George Young: In the interests of balance, will the hon. Gentleman read out what Romola Christopherson said about Charlie Whelan so that we can see how that chimes in with his argument about the new system being better than the old?

Mr. Wright: In the interest of a different sort of balance--the Romola Christopherson article is very long, but we can swap quotations if that is what the right hon. Gentleman wants--I can provide another from a different source. It is from an article that appeared in the New Statesman in June last year. It is written by Ivor Gaber who is a former BBC journalist, a former producer for BBC radio and who has worked at Channel 4 and is now professor of broadcast journalism at Goldsmiths' college in the university of London. The article is based on his experience as a broadcaster working at Westminster and it goes on to be critical about news management under the present Government. A prelude to that part of the article states:

So, on the evidence from entirely reputable sources, there is no doubt that there was a problem with the way in which the Government information service worked. There is nothing improper in seeking to modernise it as part of the general attempt to modernise the Government and to bring about more co-ordination. Indeed, as was said during the debate after the Mountfield report, that view was supported within the civil service and was not just a view that came in with politicians from outside.

If that is true, it is also true that the process carries dangers with it. The professionalisation of news management has been the trend since that Attlee quote of 50 years ago. It is happening for all the reasons that have

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been mentioned, some technological, some political and many others. The more we have that professionalisation, the more we will have to balance that all the time against those mechanisms which ensure that information is accessible and that accountability is effective.

One cannot do anything about politicians wanting to control the news. All that we can do is make sure that we put in place other mechanisms to ensure that it is balanced so that the integrity of the democratic process is maintained. Without developing any of the arguments, I will simply say that that is why it is important to maintain a robust Parliament. Parliament is an important ingredient in enforcing accountability. It is crucial that relationships of dependency do not develop between Departments, spinners and journalists. If we allow that to happen, we break the free flow of information and begin to destroy what should be a free press and media.

It is important to protect civil servants so that they are never asked to do things that they believe are politically improper. It is crucial that we have robust media who do not become the slaves of spin but who assert their integrity in all the ways that they should. There are worrying signs on that front. The media want to do easier things. It is much easier to follow stories about alleged personal rivalries between Cabinet Ministers than to explore policy on pensions, transport or the euro. Journalists on the whole do not understand those things, but they do understand personal rivalries.

We are in a political environment in which, in a sense, there is nothing much happening. The Government have a huge majority. The Opposition are non-existent. We have a Government who are closer, as we have just heard, to the opinions of people than a Government have ever been in living memory. There is not much moving politically so all that journalists can do is seek out the trivia and tittle-tattle. That is what they are doing.

When the media start to do things such as stopping "News at Ten" or stopping broadcasting proceedings in Parliament, the democratic process is eroded and the information flows between politicians and the citizenry is undermined. So the media have a responsibility, too. Many balancing or rebalancing forces have to be put in place. One that has not been mentioned but is pivotal to all this is the Cabinet. The Cabinet is supposed to be the key co-ordinating mechanism in our system.

Cabinets go through particular life cycles. No sooner does someone announce the death of Cabinet government than it is revived. I suspect that we are on the eve of one of its periodic revivals. That is a good thing. Unless we have effective Cabinet government, we shall not have effective co-ordination at the centre and we shall not in turn be able to enforce the collective accountability that the House and people outside want to see.

Democracy requires debate and argument. It does not require spin. Spin has been elevated because we are frightened of debate and argument. I do not say that in any narrow sense. The political environment is moving towards one in which the media are interested, not in the exchange of views on issues, but in identifying alleged splits between colleagues. That in turn makes the news. Parties in turn know that they will be punished if those splits are perceived to exist. So parties want as far as they can to close down open argument and debate and a substitution necessarily takes place. The spin people

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emerge as the substitutes. I am afraid that that devalues the process and eventually the spin people tie themselves up in their own intricate spinneries.

Parliament and the media have to reclaim the ability to engage in proper, grown-up political debate across parties and within parties on issues that matter. That is the most effective thing that we can do to banish the spin merchants to the very edges of politics where they belong.

I am the chair on the Labour side of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Many hon. Members who have taken part in the debate today have talked about that campaign and have been involved in the argument for a long time. I will not discuss it at length except to say that, when the dust settles, when we have had our arguments about whether the draft Bill is different from the White Paper, when the Select Committee has had a chance to examine it and when there has been outside debate on it--we shall have arguments along the way no doubt--the end of the story will be that this Parliament has introduced a freedom of information Act. That is something that has eluded all previous Parliaments since the war. I suspect that, when people come to write the record of what happened to information in this Parliament, the fact that this Parliament introduced such a Bill will count as the truly significant act.

5.56 pm

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): I hope very much that we shall have a freedom of information Act in this Parliament and, more to the point, one with teeth. I fear that, if the Home Secretary has his way--if we are to believe leaks in the newspapers--we will have a watered-down Act. I agree with the points made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan). I shall deal with the forthcoming Bill in a few moments.

There is an element of deja vu about this speech. I remember coming here on Friday 24 April last year, when there was a packed Press Gallery and an empty House, to make a number of points about the Prime Minister's press office. I could save hon. Members a lot of time by simply asking them to read the speech that I made then. The points that I made then were an attempt to be helpful and they are as valid today as they were on that occasion.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) that the spin department of the Labour party was effective before the last election. It was exceedingly effective in getting its message across and it has been effective for most of the Government's time in office so far. That presents its own problem. A Government must recognise that it is not appropriate to put their foot flat on the floor of their Jaguar, or any other car that they might happen to have, and drive at maximum speed. They have to let up. They cannot pull all the levers of government as far as they will go and simply say, "Those levers are there for us to pull and we can do what we want." The Government must exercise some self-restraint but they have not done so in their time in office so far.

I hope that I am not being too unparliamentary if I say that we had a supercilious speech from the Minister for the Cabinet Office. He was dismissive of the serious points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and, indeed, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). The Government have to ask themselves what was the

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cause of the carnage that occurred over the Christmas period. There is no point in blaming another party, the media or external forces, whether it be the Americans or someone else. They have to ask themselves what was their part in that. They put in train a chain of events that led inexorably to that crisis. I do not suppose that they will admit that today in the Chamber. They will not say, "We got it wrong," but I hope that, behind the scenes, they are doing some work to change the reasons for that chain of events. It is not in the country's interest, let alone the Government's interest, for those events to be repeated.

The Labour party's spin department overreached itself and it began to believe that it was omnipotent, that it had close contact with Rupert Murdoch, and that, if its staff ate in the right restaurants, met the right people, talked down the right telephones and did this or that deal, it would all be all right. One should never trust the press. That was a foolish mistake for master spinners to make. My conclusion about spinners is that they are good at getting rid of the opposition, but that, when it comes to batting oneself, they are perhaps best kept well down the batting order because they cannot be relied upon to deliver the goods. Will the spin machine be controlled? I very much hope so.

One problem highlighted by hon. Members from all parties is the blurring of the edge between the party machine and the Government machine. I do not pretend that that is anything new; as the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) said, that has been the practice of all Governments throughout the ages--almost since time began in this House. This Government are rather better at it, but the practice is becoming more prominent.

There is a difference between Government and party interests. Bernard Ingham stepped over the line, and no one could reasonably defend his actions as independent, just as no one could defend those of Alastair Campbell. On a number of occasions, I have become very worried about that line being walked over. At Question Time on April fools' day, the Prime Minister defended Mr. Campbell, saying:

I am all in favour of attacking the Conservative party, but it is not the job of a civil servant--whether a special adviser or otherwise--to do that. There was no satisfactory explanation of why that statement was made, whether the Prime Minister thinks it was a mistake or whether the Government still endorse it. Will the Parliamentary Secretary tell us directly whether the Government believe that it is the job of Alastair Campbell or Jonathan Powell to attack the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats or anyone else in a partisan way? Or are they neutral civil servants? What is the position in terms of their responsibility for attacking other parties?

As I pointed out when I intervened on my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, the model contract--I of course give the Government credit for placing it in the Library--says that special advisers--that includes Mr. Campbell--must not take part in public controversy. I think that he has failed that test. They "must . . . observe discretion"--he has certainly failed that test--and "express comment with moderation". If one talks to the Lobby journalists, who have Mr. Campbell breathing over their shoulders to tell them what should or should not be in their articles, they would say that he has failed that test.

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Special advisers must also "avoid personal attacks". The former Secretary of State for Social Security could demonstrate that that particular test has been failed. According to that contract

for their Minister or their Department.

In answer to the Parliamentary Secretary, I do not have a problem with the contents of the model contract, which is absolutely fine. I have a problem with the way in which it is being applied in particular cases--that is what needs to be examined, not the content of the contract. The contract is merely words on paper, which mean nothing unless they are enforced.

There are other examples of the blurring of the line between Government and party. As the Parliamentary Secretary comes from Liverpool, it is appropriate to draw his attention to an invitation issued by the Liverpool Labour party. It states:

Rather ironically, it continues:

    "Fresh Start for Liverpool".

That does not seem to be a fresh start for Liverpool in terms of Labour party organisation.

Having written to the Prime Minister this morning, I was phoned by the Liverpool Echo and told that the event had been mysteriously postponed, or possibly cancelled. I am not sure which, but I was pleased to hear that. I should be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary would dissociate himself from that invitation from Liverpool Labour party; confirm that 10 Downing street is a public building and will not be used for fund-raising events; and ensure that there will be no repetition of such an invitation. He must give that assurance, because this is a serious matter, and I hope that he will respond seriously.

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