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6.23 pm

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate. When I first heard that the Opposition were intending to debate Government information, I was delighted. I thought that it would be an important and opportune moment to discuss practical issues, and some of the key elements of the Government's commitment to constitutional reform and the modernisation and greater openness of government.

Throughout this debate, however, I have been terribly disappointed to hear more from the Opposition about tittle-tattle on media issues and unsubstantiated allegations regarding breaches of the code for special advisers than about what I consider to be the substance of the debate: the importance of Government information and the way in which we use it to empower our citizens. It is very sad that we have spent so much time debating Mr. Alastair Campbell who, unfortunately, is unable to defend himself in the Chamber.

Mr. Kemp: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Ms Moran: Due to lack of time, I shall not, if my hon. Friend will excuse me.

We have spent more time debating Alastair Campbell than we have the important steps that the Government are committed to taking to increase access to information. Reference has, of course, been made to the forthcoming freedom of information Act. We should be welcoming the Government's commitment to wide and extensive consultation on the terms of the Act and the introduction, for the first time, of the opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny of a major piece of legislation, which will fundamentally and radically affect the lives of every citizen. Instead, the Opposition have querulously attempted to impugn the Government's lack of progress. Should anybody need to be reminded, full consultation and slower legislative progress are better than passing an Act in haste and repenting at leisure. The ghost of the Child Support Agency should be hovering on all our shoulders in that respect.

We should address the fact that the Government are to introduce for the first time--sooner rather than later, we are assured--a radical step forward in our citizens' right to information. We must consider what that means for our constituents. Such access to information is important to human rights and otherwise. If we are truly to empower our citizens, we must also think about how such information can be accessed and used by them. I have

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believed in that passionately since my days as a council leader, when I and my colleagues saw that access to, and use of, public information was part of a solution to improving the processes of government and of democracy. Everyone in the House should be concerned about that, given the low turnout in most elections, especially local ones.

To achieve the ambition of truly empowering citizens by giving them information, several issues must be addressed. I am sorry that the Opposition have not mentioned some of them. A right to access to information is important because it allows the provision of better information on services, and improves democratic dialogue and citizen participation. The feeling of having greater information and, therefore, more success in connecting with the decision-making process could demonstrate that there is more to democracy than a periodic vote. If people are given full information, they can properly judge whether Governments are delivering on their promises. That is why this Government consider that access to information is so important.

We must address two important substantive issues on access to information. First, there is a practical problem. It is not good enough for the Government simply to provide information, radical though that step will be. In order truly to empower people, we must ensure that citizens receive the full breadth of information. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take on board concern about whether mechanisms are in place to ensure not just that the Government are able to provide such information, but that agencies at arm's length can provide full and timely proactive information. We must identify and co-ordinate the necessary data across agencies so that the Government can be proactive in their delivery and citizens properly informed. We need one simple computerised access point, using live operational data, accessible to local and central Government, so that action can be taken at the appropriate level. I am simply asking whether we have that yet.

Secondly, Government information should be accessible to all. We must ensure that our citizens do not merely have the information, but can develop the necessary skills to use it, to recognise and evaluate it and to articulate what is needed. It is incumbent on the Government not just to provide information, but to ensure that we have a responsibility to our citizens to enable them to have the skills that are required for the useful and appropriate employment of the information. Not enough attention has been paid to that so far, and I hope that Ministers will consider it now.

I am grateful to Opposition Members for giving us an opportunity to raise the issues that we have discussed; but I am sorry that what they gave us was a rather sad political punch-up on the basis of spurious tittle-tattle, rather than a serious debate on Government information.

6.31 pm

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon): I am grateful for the chance to say a little in summing up a debate which, in my view, far from being sad, has been interesting and lively. We have been given an interesting insight into the way in which the Government believe that they are handling important issues.

If, as the hon. Member for Luton, South (Ms Moran) suggested, all that we have seen over the past few weeks has been tittle-tattle and trivia, I wonder why two

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Ministers have felt it necessary to resign, and why one of the Government's chief communications experts has stepped down. I cannot but reflect on what was saidby the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire(Sir G. Young) when he was criticised by the Minister for the Cabinet Office for having dared to quote various remarks about rivalry--remarks that the Minister suggested were unsubstantiated. Surely, that is precisely because such remarks are given to the newspapers and other media on an unattributable basis. If more people put their remarks on the record--as Romola Christopherson did in a very intelligent article to which a number of hon. Members have referred--we could engage in far more open and informed debate on Government information, freedom of information and many other matters that have been touched on today.

Mr. Charlie Whelan is to resign. I wonder whether I am alone in mourning his passing, if only because, if one had the good fortune to time a visit to the Red Lion for a swift pint to coincide with one of his many visits, one was often able to hear a rather more candid and open explanation of Government policy than can sometimes be heard from Ministers at the Dispatch Box. Mr. Whelan is, however, the author of his own undoing in many respects. In his farewell remarks--if such they were--he said that he felt he had to go because he had become the story; but, as I think will be recognised, Mr. Whelan's style of going about his business rather suggested that he was courting recognition and attention.

Another casualty of this affair was one of the authors of what some have called the black arts. Perhaps it would have removed some of the mystique of what those people do if they had been willing to put much more of what they did on the record. It would be a welcome change if Mr. Alastair Campbell conducted his briefings on camera, as is done in the United States and many other parts of the world. That would get rid of some of the so-called tittle-tattle, and would smoke out and substantiate items that we read in the newspapers, which some have sought this afternoon to dismiss as mere rivalries.

Both the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office have made points about the new arrangements. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) stressed that change was needed, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) pointed out that some of the changes that have been made have been to the good--that some new practices are an improvement on the old ones. Both Ministers, however, tried to give the impression that, because there is now a code, because there have been Orders in Council and because a contract has been published, everything is all right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) said, if all is now hunky-dory because the information has been published and is out in the open, what was the cause of the Christmas carnage? The arrangements may look marvellous in theory, but they are plainly not working in practice.

As the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) pointed out, there is no mechanism for policing all the new arrangements. The permanent secretaries cannot remove those whom they consider to be in breach of the contracts, because they did not appoint them in the first place. That contradiction lies at the heart of the new arrangements. It is not that they are all bad; it is not that there is no role

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for people who do some of the things that are done. The drawing up of these documents, however, has not produced the clarity and transparency that we expect.

Some of the rivalries are not as trivial as one or two speakers have suggested. We shall be given a chance to read the biography of the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry shortly, but we have already learnt from the pen of the same author that some of the rivalries between No. 10 and No. 11 date back to the occasion when they vied for the leadership. One surmises that all sorts of undertakings must have been given to the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, which caused Mr. Charlie Whelan to observe on one occasion that, in his view, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was the chief executive of the Government and the Prime Minister merely the chairman. I think that some of Mr. Whelan's antics thereafter can be judged in that light.

In truth, the fact that so many members of the Government have had their own private spin doctors waiting to score points over other members of the Government means that there was an accident waiting to happen--and it happened to blow up over Christmas. It should be realised that, underlying the failings of the information system, are deeper political problems that cannot be papered over.

The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said that nothing could be done about the news management systems, and that what we needed was more accessibility and accountability. The solution, he said, was better parliamentary debate and a return to Cabinet government. I hope that he is right about Cabinet government; perhaps Cabinet meetings, in the new spirit of comradeship, will last longer than the present 20 minutes or so. He is wrong, however, to suggest that nothing can be done about the communications methods that are being used.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed pointed out, one of the techniques used by spin doctors is the withholding of factual information until the media have written the story. It is an old technique. They make sure that they have the headlines that they want, and only in the days that follow do the journalists get their eyes on the facts and realise that they have written a bogus tale. Not many are big enough to acknowledge in their columns that they have been sold a pup, and to revise what they have written in the light of the facts that have subsequently emerged.

We must pay heed to what Madam Speaker has said on several occasions. Hers was one of the quotations from newspapers that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston criticised my right hon. Friend for referring to; I am sure that no one would regard her remarks as trivial. We need to have facts here, on the Floor of the House, so that proper interrogation is possible at the time. We do not want the facts to be buried in thick tomes and looked at afterwards.

The right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) was right to say that the real matter of substance for the future was the introduction of freedom of information legislation. I was somewhat mystified by the comment of the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who suggested that we were not paying tribute to the Government for instituting an inquiry on BSE. Nothing could be further from the truth: we readily pay tribute to the Government

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for having had the good sense to launch that inquiry. The point that we were trying to make was that, if a proper freedom of information culture already existed, it would not have been necessary to hold such a public inquiry.

I will go further. If, in the course of the whole long, sorry BSE saga, there had been more information in the public domain, it can reasonably be said that some of the more dreadful elements of the disaster would never have happened. The Minister for the Cabinet Office stated that he entirely agreed that the public's best interests would be served by maximising access to information, and that there was a need for greater openness, accountability and involvement with the public. I hope that, when he brings the draft Bill forward shortly, as he says, that will be a yardstick against which the Government's proposals can be favourably measured.

We will have to look closely at some important details. The hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) rightly focused on one of them: the test of harm to the public interest from disclosing information and whether that will have to amount to substantial harm, or simply be an all-encompassing, rather woolly definition of "harm", which could reach just about every nook and cranny that anyone wanted it to. Therefore, the concept of substantial harm is valuable, as indeed would be the laying down of some specific grounds on which any branch of Government could claim that harm was accruing. Specific grounds will be welcome, but we must not at all costs lose the substantial part of the test.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said that, during his professional career, he had seen much inconsequential information withheld simply because of a knee-jerk instinct for secrecy. It is true to say that that has bedevilled the way in which public administration has operated for too long. We must be ambitious in what we do in response to that.

The hon. Member for Luton, South fairly tried to give the Government some credit for the fact that we shall shortly have the innovation of pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill. No one from the Opposition Benches, or probably from anywhere else, would criticise that, but we have had to wait a long time for pre-legislative scrutiny even to begin.

One optimistic Labour Member said that the draft Bill would appear within the next couple of weeks. Let us hope that that is true, and that the claim will be substantiated and the aspiration met, because we have waited too long for the freedom of information legislation to come out. Nagging at the back of many minds, the nasty fear remains that we could end up with the option that was available on 2 May 1997--to put on to a legislative footing the codified arrangements that the previous Government had tried and, indeed, failed to make any sense of.

If, after two years, we have nothing or little more than that, there is no doubt that there will be loud condemnation from the left, right and centre. If it amounts to little more than that, it will absolutely fail the test that was put by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, who offered the prospect that history might come to judge the legislation as one of the defining actions in the whole of the Parliament. If that is what we are waiting for--legislation of such an epic nature that it will be the defining achievement of the Government during the

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Parliament--let us hope that it will prove to have been worth the wait. If it is a damp squib along the lines that have been referred to, there will be much frustration, annoyance and condemnation.

It has been a traumatic few weeks for the Government. They have brought much of the damage on themselves simply through their obsession with presentation. The way in which they have chosen to go about conducting the presentation of their policies and business has, in effect, brewed up trouble for them; they were the authors of their downfall. I hope that they will now be able to see that, for all their efforts to put the new arrangements on to a visible and open footing, they have simply failed.

Chiding remarks have been made about a former head of the Department of Health press office, but when someone such as that comes out and makes those observations, she or he should be taken notice of. She is an expert witness who has seen the whole operation from the inside. She has served Governments of both colours with some distinction and has been noted as an expert in the sector.

Under the current news management regime, there is a danger that the reputation that our civil service and the Government information service--the point was made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield--have gained over the years for impartiality is at risk of being undermined by what is going on.

The right hon. Member for South Shields remarked that we have the opportunity, through introducing legislation, to make ourselves one of the most open societies in the western world, instead of one of the most secretive. I hope that that is the ambition of the Government. That is the measure by which we must judge the legislation, when they finally get to bring it out into the open and let us have a look at it.

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