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Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): I wish that a wider world could read the propositions that sometimes come before the House. I do not think they would survive a moment of the public's scrutiny. As I said yesterday, perhaps the House is the last great deferential place in the United Kingdom.

Good friends on both sides of the House have in a sense thrown aside party and said how the clause should be amended. It is not a modest little clause. Indeed, it is an

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overreaching and firm assertion of who is in control, and it is not the House. No such clause could have been tabled by a Government who thought that they had to convince and win arguments in this place. It is the product of the power of the Whip.

Clause 33 states:

In truth, little has been left out.

6 pm

In all the years since I came to believe profoundly that one of the keys missing to the operation of our parliamentary system is equality of argument, equality of information and the ability to discuss rationally, cogently and on the basis of the facts, there has been a shadow behind Parliament: the Campaign for Freedom of Information. It has tried to advance those arguments based on the common law that sprang from this island, the understanding of arrangements in other countries--parliamentary democracies such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the Republic of Ireland--and the system of law that runs like a thread through their constitutions. However, for some reason, the Executive of this country have brought forward clause 33.

All the arguments relating to the formulation and development of Government policy have been presented in the House, year after year. I can see present in the Chamber Members of Parliament who supported me in the attempt to reform section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911. I see individuals--I admit, most of them are facing me--who supported that attack on the Official Secrets Act because they believed that there was a public interest in Government being more open and less covert. Ministers would have to be extremely busy formulating policy not to be aware of the arguments.

The people who really know the arguments are the clerisy--the repository of wisdom, the bureaucracy itself, without beginning or end, always there. They have heard, recorded and understood the arguments each time the House has groped towards reform--once, on the initiative of no less a person than a Prime Minister, through a directive issued to Lord Croham. I sat through debates in which the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) engaged with one or two of his colleagues in discussion of the genesis and fullness of information available to members of the Cabinet--ministerial advice--on Chevaline. Those debates were a revelation to me: for the first time, I heard the House debate issues relating to policy.

The Home Secretary, knowing all those facts, knowing about Croham, after William Waldegrave's exercise in formulating a code, and understanding all the processes that go into the making of the law, produced a draft Bill. That was nearly nine months ago. The elements of that draft Bill were considered by two Committees of the House of Commons and one of the House of Lords--in short, both Chambers had a go. The issue of the formulation of Government policy was not secret or unknown; right from the start, it was a question of judgment.

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Each Member of Parliament present has a thread in that process. When we ask what is happening, the clause is our answer: it tells us, "Thou shalt not know." That is the message that emanates from all parts of the Bill. Small advances are made--how generous, how grand, how nice of the Government to nourish us with the suggestion that we might be entitled to information. In the end, however, the message is, blow the dialectic, the argument, counter- argument and synthesis, for the net result is the Bill. There is only one fact: the synthesis lies in the hands of the Government. Despite all the representations on the particulars of the amendments made in Standing Committee, in Select Committee and on the Floor of the House, on 5 April we have before us a clause that washes away any prospect of debate.

The answer lies within ourselves. We know that. There is no argument about it. The Government--the Crown in Downing street, as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield calls it, and rightly so--is like the emperor: it takes a little boy to say, "But he has no clothes." It is for the House to say that the Bill has no clothes; only then will we see clearly.

Yesterday, we were treated to an extraordinary performance by the Home Secretary, but I know the devices that lay behind it--softly, softly here, concede there, do this, say that, talk about drafting difficulties, and so on. The truth is that, even with the amendments, the clause would allow only minimal access. We are still rehearsing the arguments; we are not conceding, but we know that the Government's synthesis is, "I'm listening, I'm engaged." Well, Governments in this country are always listening, but in this case only to themselves and their echo chamber.

We spend all our time running to become the Government, and we forget that government is the mechanism by which the lives of all of us and those whom we represent are ruled. Today, on 5 April 2000, after all these years and all the good fights, we face a Bill that contains the same monstrous claim--the British Government cannot succeed unless they have the security embodied in clause 33. Our amendments, our arguments are rejected. It will not do. [Interruption.] I see that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is eager to speak. I shall finish soon.

The clause shows the heart of what the Government are up to. We ought to shout about it. I am using the device--amendments--used by others who have participated in the debate. The shame lies not in our efforts but in the knowledge that, despite the feelings of their own supporters, the Government have included such a clause in the Bill, without debate or dialogue.

I do not think I am betraying a secret when I tell the House that, after a sitting of the Select Committee on Public Administration, Lord Burns--a man who has been through everything that my party got up to at the Treasury and who knows a thing or two about what the Treasury gets up to--told me, "The only thing that has to be protected from exposure is rows between Ministers--that is the really sensitive area." I know that a great academic to start with, afterward a bureaucrat, might have other lines to run, but, in truth, what are those great secrets? What needs such absolute protection?

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The clause, if unamended, amounts to our saying that we, as a Parliament and as a people in relationship to our Government, are less than the Canadians and the Australians--we are small.

Mr. Dalyell: Following once again the tour de force of--as I must call him in this matter--my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), I am overcome by my curiosity about one point. What will Douglas Allen--or Lord Croham as we must now call him--say, following his guidelines, if he participates in debates in another place?

I have a foreboding that we shall be discussing important matters at some ungodly hour of the morning, when we are all too tired to give them their due. I shall therefore confine myself to a single question, albeit a convoluted one. It relates to scientific evidence. Will the Home Secretary let us into the little secret of what his Home Office advisers have told him in respect of scientific evidence and whether or not it should be made available?

My experience, and it is long, of scientists is that they are absolutely desperate to get their papers published--they adore getting their papers published. I cannot believe that those who are desperate to be published in Nature or some technical magazine will have any inhibitions whatever about their evidence to the Government being published in suitable form, so that their peers can judge it.

I ask the Home Secretary this: what discussions have there been with scientists on the matter of scientific evidence about the publication of items and advice that would be covered by the clause?

Mr. David Davis: The hon. Gentleman is gracious in giving way. Does he agree that that desperation to be published is one area in which personal interest serves the public good? The process of science consists of conjecture and refutation, and much new science is not well developed and gains from the disputation that comes from publication. Such exposure would advance and assist government policy.

Mr. Dalyell: I dissent from that and give as an example the evidence on BSE presented to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food over the years. That generally makes the point.

I said that I would be brief, and I will stick to that. I hope that the Home Secretary will address my question at his convenience.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): It is a great pleasure to participate in the debate, when so much consensus has emerged from all parts of the House. I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) that the amendments would be beneficial to Ministers in carrying out the important role that they perform on behalf of the people of this country.

As for embarrassment, Ministers have been more embarrassed by information that leaks out or by delaying information than by providing it openly and up front. The issue of BSE has been raised. One understands that Ministers at the time were concerned about the effect that giving information might have on the agriculture industry, but it has been shown that by holding back that

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information, far more damage was done to the industry than would have been if appropriate action had been taken much earlier.

Like other hon. Members, I am still optimistic that we will get a positive response from the Home Secretary when he replies to the debate. I know from my own contact with him that it is his natural instinct to be open with regard to information and the way in which decisions are reached. I say that not just because he gave me the name of his plumber, but because--[Hon. Members: "Leaks."] It was because of a malfunction, not a leak. Other contacts that I have had with him prove that that is the way he tends to go about things.

I have been campaigning for changes in the law as it affects transsexual men and women, and I have been delighted by the openness and accessibility of Ministers not just in the Home Office, but in the Department for Education and Employment, when considering changes to Government policy in that area.

I await the report of the interdepartmental working group which the Home Secretary set up to look at the issues. I was pleased that he allowed one of the civil servants involved in that working group to meet the parliamentary forum on transsexualism. I believe that the Home Secretary would agree that civil servants in both the Departments that I mentioned have benefited from the contact that they have had with experts in that area.

I look forward to the publication of the results of the working group's deliberations. We were advised by the civil servant involved that that paper would provide options and give the facts behind the formulation of those options. I hope that it will. I raise that as an example, in support of amendment No. 91.

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