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Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): My hon. Friend makes a telling point. Given that Liberal Democrat Members generally want more codified activity in politics, more written constitutions and so on, does he agree that the Vice-President of the United States has been the subject of legal inquiry for apparent fund-raising, using the White House as his base--a much lesser allegation than the one made by my hon. Friend?

Mr. Baker: The Prime Minister and his colleagues are very close to the American President and perhaps they can learn a lesson from that case.

Part of the answer to such problems is a proper freedom of information Bill--it would eradicate some of the problems that have arisen from the Government during their first 19 months in power. My views--and those expressed by others--are not unique to Members of this House; they are also the views, in some respects, of Madam Speaker. In a television interview last year, from which I quote directly and very carefully, to make sure that it is absolutely correct, she said:

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    That is exactly the point that I made to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase: the Government cannot expect to pull all their levers as far they will go on every occasion. It would be wrong to do so.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): The hon. Gentleman referred to codified behaviour in response to an earlier intervention. He will be aware of the scurrilous journal The Grassroots Campaigner, which, I understand, is a piece of Liberal Democrat propaganda. A recent issue included an article by the former Liberal Democrat leader in my constituency. He attacked public servants employed by my local council--he and other Liberal Democrats had helped to appoint them--for allegedly giving dodgy advice. If the hon. Gentleman wants codified behaviour, should not he demand an apology to be made to those public servants for that disgraceful attack on their neutrality?

Mr. Baker: I cannot possibly respond to that question in detail, as I have not seen the journal. The Grassroots Campaigner is an internal Liberal Democrat document. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to look into the matter, I shall be happy to do so. However, he refers to a document that no one has seen and expects me to agree, or otherwise, with him. That is a ludicrous position to adopt.

I refer to the report of the working group on the Government information service, published under the auspices of the Cabinet Office in November 1997. I refer to paragraph 57 on page 18, headed "Standards Submissions lay-out", which is advice to neutral civil servants about how to go about their work. It advises on

If it is the function of civil servants to damp down bad news about the Government, they might be very busy in the months ahead.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Not for the first time, I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman. Does he know of any organisation, even one as idiosyncratic as the Liberal Democrat party, that would put out bad news as a matter of course?

Mr. Baker: I am happy to say that we do not have to put out bad news--there is no bad news about us--and neither should the Government put out bad news. This is not about putting out bad news, but about responding to the bad news that has occurred. If the Labour party wants to use press officers to respond to bad news, it must do so, but it should not use civil servants, who are paid by the state, to damp down its bad news. That is not their function, but the Parliamentary Secretary appears to miss that crucial difference.

As I pointed out, part of the answer to these problems is to have proper information. The Parliamentary Secretary will know that the Government's official position, set out by the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark)--although that position might have changed since he was sacked for no apparent reason--is:

That is a standard reply to questions.

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I could occupy a great deal of the House's time by listing questions that have been asked, but have gone unanswered by Ministers. I shall not bother hon. Members with a huge range of them, but shall refer to one from yesterday. I asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what matters were discussed at the meetings held between Ministers and Monsanto on 29 June and 15 July 1998. He replied:

That is an illuminating answer: was that Minister really as open as possible with Parliament? Did the answer provide information that Parliament should have? I suggest that it did not. Is "relevant to Monsanto" really a piece of information that I could not have gathered when I tabled my question? No doubt, I thought that they were discussing matters that were not relevant to both parties.

Since when is a meeting between a Government Department and a company involved with agriculture and the environment--in turn, that affects a range of issues--a private meeting? Why cannot we know what went on at that meeting? Hon. Members are here to represent their constituents, so the answer given by the Minister of Agriculture is disgraceful. More to the point, it is completely out of line with the Government's guidance.

I am all in favour of the freedom of information Bill, but it is not yet here. It has been promised, but we have been promised all sorts of things. On 15 July 1997, the Parliamentary Secretary wrote to me explaining why the Government's original commitment to publish a White Paper on freedom of information before the summer recess in 1997 was no longer envisaged. He said that it

and went on to say that the Secretary of State for the Home Department

    "does not therefore now expect to publish the White Paper before the House rises".

It took a considerably longer time before the White Paper arrived.

When the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) was questioned on this issue on 8 May 1997, shortly after the Government were elected, he said:

The problem was that he did not say which Queen's Speech. He simply implied that it would be dealt with early on.

On 8 July 1998, the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said:

we still do not have it--

    "for pre-legislative discussion before the end of September."--[Official Report, 8 July 1998; Vol. 315, c. 1055.]

That did not happen either. Again, it was put off.

On 13 July 1998, I asked the Prime Minister whether the Bill would be in the Queen's Speech. He replied:

He did not say yes or no, which was hardly surprising. We now have an elusive reply from the Home Secretary, dated 26 October, which talks of a programme of work early in the new year.

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I will believe the Bill when it appears because promise after promise has been broken. I think that it will appear; the question is: what will it contain? That was the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West. Will it be a serious Bill, containing a test of substantial harm? Will it apply that test to the security services, or will we repeat the mistake made by the former Prime Minister, James Callaghan, and exclude sections of the community from the Bill's remit? Will the Bill be watered down so that it does nothing, or will it be a serious piece of legislation?

The Government need to be a little humble and modest, and accept that things are not perfect. They must take steps to rectify matters. If the Minister responds by saying that everything is fine in the kitchen, it will not be good enough.

6.13 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): As usual, the Liberal Democrats are presenting trivia to the House and avoiding the substantive issues that affect the nation and interest all our constituents. Half an excuse may be that they are not the official Opposition. The official Opposition are going through a schism with which Labour Members are familiar--we have had our problems in the past--and that is causing them to be such an ineffective Opposition that the media have nothing to get their teeth into except the trivia on to which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has latched. His entire speech relied on a couple of media sources, and he failed to get to grips with the major issues affecting the governance of this country and the modernisation process that must go ahead.

Conservative Members argued against any change in the process of government. They should reflect on that and understand that that is one reason why the country got in such a mess and why they lost control of their troops.

I shall not dwell on special advisers contracts. I was shocked and surprised that one Liberal Democrat found that the contract for special advisers had been placed in the Library, just as we said it would be. That contract contains matters that needed to be codified.

I make no criticism of the individual concerned. I have a great deal of time for the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) because of his talents as a cricketer, but I remember him contesting the West Bromwich, East seat in the 1992 general election, and then spending the period between 1993 and 1997 in the role of special adviser to the former Foreign Secretary, who was previously Secretary of State for Defence. His style was subtle and low key, and the House knew that he was a special adviser, but to say that his was not a party political role is ludicrous. Many Labour Members knew him at that time. I make no criticism of that--the job undertaken by the special advisers appointed by Cabinet and other Ministers was professional.

Soon after the election, Sir Robin Mountfield, permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, produced a report on the future direction of the Government Information and Communications Service. Hon. Members engaged in this debate should look carefully at the important recommendations in his report. Modernisation is about changing how we as public servants conduct our business in the best interests of the citizens whom we seek to represent. Government is an extremely complex process and I have no doubt that the GICS continues to provide a politically impartial service to the Government.

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When Labour were in opposition, the Conservatives regularly argued that we had no business skills and could not run a small or medium company, let alone a major corporation or Great Britain plc. They seem to have missed a substantive point: that every single major successful company in this country has radically shaken up its management and organisational structure in the past 10 to 15 years. That has been the hallmark of the successes that we have seen. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said, a substantive argument can be made for moving away from the stovepipe mentality that exists within the structures surrounding public service. Most major companies have gone through that process and, if we are to succeed in getting the best value for money out of the enormously complicated resources needed for the delivery of service to our citizens, that is what we must do.

We should start by looking through the right end of the telescope--from the point of view of the citizen who wants to receive the service--rather than looking at things in accordance with the structures that happen to be there simply because they have been there from the year dot. In a recent speech, the Parliamentary Secretary pointed out that, when constituents come to see us in our surgeries, they do not care whether we are counsellors, citizens advice bureaux, Members of Parliament or Ministers of the Crown. They come to us because they have a problem, and they want that problem to be solved. We should address the structures of government in the process of change, which we must surely undergo, on that premise.

Modernisation has been the hallmark of this Government's activities. We have created a devolved process, starting with Scotland and continuing with Wales, and incorporated the European convention on human rights. A White Paper on modernising the processes of government is promised, and is forecast to have four major themes: strategic policy making; joined-up delivery; dealing with benefits that accrue from the information age; and achieving best value for public services. Those are important, strategic issues with which we need to get on. Their delivery is already under way through the creation, for example, of the social exclusion unit, which seeks to bring together cross-departmental activities.

There are contradictions in the positions adopted by Liberal Democrat Members on freedom of information. The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) does not understand that there are obviously issues of commercial confidentiality involved. I saw the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) shake his head at his remarks. Another Liberal Democrat Member argued that everything should be in the public domain, despite the fact that, clearly, some matters must remain confidential. They criticise the fact that private financial arrangements have entered the public domain, yet, given their literal definition of freedom of information, they should expect such matters to be in the public domain in the first place. There seems to be a double standard in their approach.

Freedom of information is an important strand of modern democracy. It is a highly complex subject, and the House would be making a very bad mistake if it rushed into creating legislation that clearly did not work.

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The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) argued for improved freedom of information. I recognise that there are different views throughout the House on the issue. The Home Secretary has pledged that a Bill will be published. Giving the Home Office responsibility for freedom of information, alongside issues such as human rights and data protection--and eventually, I believe, privacy--was the correct structural move.

I hope that we shall be able to depoliticise all modernisation issues and engender some general support for the fact that they concern the improvement of the delivery of services to all citizens whom we represent, about whose needs the House and the Government should think first. That is what this Government are all about.

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