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Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as I wanted to intervene on him in yesterday's debate. He has considered whether the release of information to the public could cause any conceivable harm to government. Let us consider the BSE crisis. For a period, the then Government believed that there would be damage to the industry if the public were made aware of the facts that were before the Department about the levels of BSE in cattle. Releasing such information would have caused harm to the Government or their policy of the day, but it would have demonstrably been of great benefit to the public. That is the purpose of the Bill.

Mr. Davis: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. I do not know enough about the information available on BSE in that period, but he is exactly right. We should separate a judgment about the public interest from a judgment about political or personal interest.

As Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, I deal with cases in which--to put it bluntly--blame is apportioned. The simple fact is that it is human nature to try to avoid blame. Even when we think that we are making impartial decisions, such supposedly impartial decisions are influenced by an instinct--a comfort factor--that relates to our own position. When I was in government, I had to make decisions that I would have preferred to have been made by someone who was entirely independent of the government process. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is much better to have a provision in the Bill to cover such decisions.

I support the amendments for three reasons. They would properly inform public debate, significantly enhance our democracy and materially improve our government.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I wish to speak briefly on this group of amendments on the formulation of Government policy. I do not know whether you will rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I am not sure whether Liberal Democrats are involved in the formulation of Government policy. However, much information that should be freely available is withheld not just from the public but from Members of Parliament, to avoid embarrassment and for reasons of party management.

About 18 months ago on 10 November 1988, a declaration was made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) that we could expect ever closer union between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats. The two parties are in coalition in Scotland and, in the past few days, we have learned that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister--there is no great secret about this; it has all come out--has said that his greatest regret was that he did not bring the right hon. Member for Yeovil into the Cabinet in May 1997. We know from newspaper reports and the right hon. Gentleman's book that that option was discussed. Two Labour members of the Cabinet would leave, and two Liberal Democrats would come in.

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I decided to find out a bit more about this new constitutional innovation, the Joint Consultative Committee with the Liberal Democrat party. Over a year or 18 months, I tabled any number of questions about it and met a brick wall. I wanted to know when the committee met and I was told, "Secret. Ruled out." I wanted to know not who said what but what was on the agenda, and I was told, "Secret. Ruled out." I wanted to know who from the Labour side and the Liberal Democrat side participated in the Committee and I was told, "Secret. Ruled out."

That is ludicrous when I can pick up a newspaper and find out, as I did on 14 December 1999, because Liberal Democrats tell the world what is discussed at the meetings. However, when I go to the Table Office, I see wrinkled brows and people there consult their tomes to see whether I should be allowed to table a simple parliamentary question about what is on the Committee's agenda. In The Independent on 14 December, I read that at a meeting of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan)--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he must keep to the amendment. He is telling us that he was seeking information, but he is going into detail that has nothing to do with the amendment. He can tell these stories outside the Chamber.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Oh no!

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I inform the right hon. Gentleman that I am in the Chair.

Mr. Prentice: Let me move rapidly on to a simple point. Will Ministers tell me whether the Bill, as unamended, would allow me to obtain the information that I seek on what happens in the Joint Consultative Committee should it make proposals for voting reform and reforming the European Parliament, the European Commission and so on? If not, should I rely on the amendments? I want an answer to my questions.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): This has been an extraordinarily good debate, but I wanted to latch on to the speech of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) who suggested that we had misjudged the nature of the occasion and that we were about to see a revelatory conversion from the Home Secretary. All of us who are anxious to see the amendments accepted--they lie at the heart of the Bill--have suffered a little from the right hon. Gentleman's quite deliberate attempt to put us off the scent early in the debates by telling us that the matter is a question of drafting and designing words that would express what he so much wanted to do.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a highly intelligent man and not a disingenuous Home Secretary. However, his argument stretches credulity a little. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central suggested that factual information was neutral, but facts are knowledge and knowledge is power. If power is distributed to the people, the people will have the power. Those who exercise power in the name of the people draw a clear

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distinction in their own minds between the people participating in the decisions and taking the decisions in the name of the people.

We are engaged in a fundamental constitutional argument about the role of the House and the Executive. It is not a little problem of definition or of finding the right words.

Mr. Hawkins: In the right hon. Gentleman's analysis, which I am following carefully, of what the Home Secretary was trying to do last night, does he agree that a particular phrase used in one of the memorandums to the Select Committee on Public Administration is particularly apposite to what the Home Secretary was trying to do and to what the right hon. Gentleman is rightly criticising? The phrase was

Mr. Maclennan: I was focusing not so much on what the Home Secretary did last night as on what he did on Second Reading, when we were considering the matter that is now under discussion.

I am also on the alert. The Home Secretary's intervention on the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) amounted to this: "We will know what the House wants when it has voted on the issue." I suppose that that is a conventional view of the way our parliamentary democracy works. However, I think that it is a gross distortion, and one which we should recognise for what it is.

The issue before us was debated extensively on Second Reading. It was then debated lengthily in Committee. During these debates, not one voice has been raised in the House in support of what is in the clause. Following the vote, whatever the Home Secretary may say about the House having spoken, I advise our colleagues in another place, however they may have got there, that the opinion of the House should be judged by what it has said. In this instance, it has said in unmistakable terms that if factual information is not to be made available as a result of the Bill, the Government are performing a monumental U-turn. They are betraying the White Paper produced by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), going back on their undertaking to the electorate in the Labour party's manifesto and repudiating the agreement entered into with the Liberal Democrats prior to the election, which was one of the reasons that led to the setting up of the Joint Consultative Committee with the Liberal Democrat party, to which the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) alluded.

This is a matter of major importance and not one that allows for nice distinctions to be drawn and for difficulties with parliamentary draftsmen to be alluded to as the only reason why the Government cannot move from their position. I am optimistic that the Home Secretary, if he is to intervene in the debate, will not rely on drafting, for to do so would take us all for suckers.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields): I shall be brief because so much has been said this afternoon on these issues in such an eloquent way, with such clarity and in such a comprehensive manner. The case against the Government's proposals and for the amendments has been made comprehensively.

I find myself mystified by all three Ministers. They are all highly intelligent men. They understand the arguments and I sense that there is a certain empathy with the points

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that we are trying to make. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I, over a number of years, have shared platforms, and at no time more regularly than the 1997 election when it was our desire to modernise the United Kingdom. We wanted to build a new compact with our citizens and to have better government.

I submit that the Bill and the amendments do just that. I have told the House previously that on my first day in office, when faced with the responsibility of trying to chart the course for the Government's freedom of information legislation, I was faced with the choice of putting the code of practice on a legislative basis or doing the job properly, even if that meant waiting 12 months. I opted for the second course and the Cabinet backed me in that choice. I am therefore concerned when some clauses appear to be weaker than the code which I and the rest of the Cabinet had rejected. I tell my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that it is incumbent on us to ensure that the clauses are at least as good--in my opinion they should be better--as what was provided by the code.

I reiterate that we are not talking about advice to Ministers and the confidential relationship that is essential between Ministers and civil servants. We are talking about background, factual information which, if it were available to our citizens, would empower them. I believe that if such information were made available, it would change the manner in which civil servants conducted their work. It would therefore provide better government for our country. That is a point well worth taking.

Like the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), I am mystified by the Government's continuing retreat. They have empathy with us and they understand what we are trying to do, but the difficulty is the form of words. That is a telling point, but it was answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) when he provided us with some words, as do the amendments.

The amendment would increase better government and rebuild confidence between the Government and the general public, our citizens. At the same time, it is essentially practical. We have the form of words and what we are asking to be done can be done because it has been done. I insisted that after we published the White Paper in December 1997 we would publish thereafter all the background papers leading up to the White Paper. All the factual information was available in printed form. I insisted that it was on the internet as well. That which we are asking for can be done and should be done.

Yesterday, I was proud to be in the House and to be a part of it as it was doing its job properly. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was acting in a way that Secretaries of State should act. He was listening to the arguments, appreciating them and making his own points. At the end of the day he weighed up the case and answered the debate by changing position. I hope that he will show that stature, statesmanship and maturity again today.

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