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6.15 pm

I have had experience not in government, but in local government. I would not wish to stifle candid discussions between Ministers or politicians with responsibilities and their officials. Such discussions are vital, but the politicians do not always know what questions to ask. It is to our advantage that the information should be in the public domain. It probably will help to raise questions that Ministers or politicians would not otherwise think of asking.

We know that the public have a low opinion of politicians and Governments, and a genuine Freedom of Information Act would be a means of starting to build up greater public confidence in the way we govern this country.

I have also had experience of consultation papers. My hon. Friend--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is making a Second Reading speech. We have passed that stage. We are dealing with the amendments.

Dr. Jones: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am drawing my remarks to a conclusion. I support amendment No. 91, which goes further than the factual information being made available. It is also appropriate that the public should have access to the options, unless that is ruled out by the harm test which Ministers have before them when they reach their decision. That too is in the interest of Ministers.

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The Government have shown that they wish to be open--for example, by publishing summaries of the results of consultation documents. I hope that the Home Secretary will take note of the debate and respond positively to the concerns that have been expressed. Even if he cannot accept the amendments, I hope that he will present proposals of his own that show that the Government want a Freedom of Information Act of which this country can be proud.

Mr. Hawkins: This has been a debate of exceptionally high quality. I shall be brief, as so many of the arguments have already been covered, but one or two points need to be mentioned.

Those are not my words, but the words of a political editor of a national newspaper in his memorandum, which I mentioned earlier, to the Select Committee on Public Administration. He was dealing particularly with the issues that have been raised in the debate.

In days of yore, the Government may have wanted to dismiss the views of the political editor of The Express, but since that newspaper has been owned and run by one of Tony's cronies, the position is different. When Mr. Anthony Bevins, the extremely experienced political editor, dealing specifically with the Croham directive and its history, writes a formal memorandum to the Public Administration Committee, his words need to be taken seriously:

He continued:

    New Labour's promise is not borne out by the--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Again, these are matters that could be raised on Second Reading, which of course has passed. The hon. Gentleman must speak to the amendments.

Mr. Hawkins: I understand that fully, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the memorandum to the Select Committee on Public Administration deals specifically with clause 13. It covers the Croham directive, which many other hon. Members have mentioned in debate--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should not read the memorandum verbatim. He can refer to it or paraphrase it, but we do not need the whole kit and caboodle.

Mr. Hawkins: I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have no intention of reading the whole kit and caboodle. I shall paraphrase a couple of points which the political editor of The Express made on the issue that we are considering this evening.

On the Croham directive, he said:

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    The then Prime Minister, now Lord Callaghan, announced that

    it would be the Government's intention . . . to publish as much as possible of the factual and analytical material used as the background to major policy studies.

That led Douglas Allen, later Lord Croham, to issue his directive.

Having summed up how the directive failed to work, the political editor of The Express commented on the proposals in the clause and the Government amendments:

I echo those words.

As various hon. Members, especially those who tabled the amendment, pointed out, in his preface to "Your Right to Know", to which many hon. Members have referred, the Prime Minister said that the Government were delivering on their promises. In the words of Mr. Anthony Bevins, the Blair betrayal has come with the hangover.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has referred to a right hon. Member, who happens to be the Prime Minister, but that makes no difference, once by his Christian name and now by his surname. That should not be done. Has the hon. Gentleman finished?

Mr. Hawkins: No, I have not. I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Bill provides for a class exemption on policy formulation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who took the Bill through Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who made an especially powerful and emotional speech, have drawn attention to what is wrong with the Government's actions in this respect.

We believe that the criticisms of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and his cross-party colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, were right. The right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) said that he knew that his colleagues on the Front Bench were honourable men, but he wondered what had happened to them and how they had been got at. I can answer that question: No. 10 got at them. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, Sir Humphrey has got at them.

Dr. David Clark: I want to make it clear that I never said that my right hon. or hon. Friends had been got at.

Mr. Hawkins: The right hon. Gentleman was worried, and expressed surprise that his colleagues on the Front Bench--where he used to be--had changed their stance. I apologise if I paraphrased him incorrectly.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills made the point well that there is no doubt about the Government's comprehensive change of view. They have rowed back from the previous

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Government's code of practice. The Campaign for Freedom of Information made it clear that the Government have changed the proposals, which are now weaker than the previous Government's code of practice.

We support the hon. Members who tabled the amendments. They are members of different parties, and they are right to criticise the Government. The Government's proposal to row back from our code of practice and method of operation and from the White Paper is wrong. We shall support the cross-party amendments.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): I want to make a brief contribution--I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased about that. The jarring contribution of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) reveals that he has again misjudged the mood of the House.

I had the privilege of serving on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill and I listened carefully to the proceedings. I want to place it on the record that that was nothing like the privilege of sitting here today and listening to the high-quality contributions from all parties. I have been a Member of Parliament for almost three years, and today's debate is the best that I have heard; it showed the House at its best. All parties contributed to an important discussion.

Perhaps the debate was so good because it was informed. Those who spoke, especially the senior Members, had access to information which they considered and used to prepare and present their arguments.

Mr. Giles Radice (North Durham): I agree with my hon. Friend about the quality of the debate, and last night's discussions, which were highly dramatic. However, it is interesting that, despite the quality of the debate, the Press Gallery is almost empty.

Mr. Straw: As are the Tory Benches.

Mr. Hall: Indeed. The process of opening up our democracy through access to information takes time. Perhaps the media will benefit from it. I sincerely believe that democracy is being served especially well today in this place.

I support the amendments. We are considering wide access to the background information that informs Government policy. I hope that such wide access will be provided, because it will assist strong, informed democratic participation in the life of this country, not only by Members of Parliament in the Chamber today, but by citizens of our country for all time. Information is the oxygen of democracy. As many people as possible should be involved. Sharing power and trusting the people are vital. The amendments would achieve both.

When people are informed, they will have something to say, and democracy is the stronger for it. We will all benefit from that cross-fertilisation, as we have seen on a small scale this afternoon. I should like to live to witness that on a daily basis throughout the country, not only during general election campaigns.

I was privileged last night to hear my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary show that he was prepared to listen to debate. The Bill is an historic example of proposed

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legislation; this is an historic moment in the life of this Parliament. Great matters are at stake--I hope that we will all rise to occasion.

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