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Mr. Straw: As my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) said, this has been an interesting and stimulating debate. I am grateful to all my hon. Friends, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) in particular, for the compliments that they paid me while at the same time expressing some disagreement with the position that they anticipate that I might take, which is fair enough. I had forgotten about exchanging plumbers' telephone numbers with her, but I think that he proved satisfactory. Nothing else was exchanged, as I recall.

6.30 pm

Referring back to last night's debate, I am struck by the sense, which many of my hon. Friends may share, that the changes in respect of clause 13 which were made, and those that I announced we would make in the other place, were somehow wholly detached from this evening's discussion. It has proceeded on the assumption that the only provisions relating to factual background information that informs policy discussion are those in clauses 33 and 34. There is a class exemption in clause 33, which applies to central Government, and a pretty substantial exemption through the certificate of a qualified person around the remainder of policy advice and the workings of government in respect of clause 34. However, clause 13, which is to be further strengthened in the other place, will ensure that there is a significant route for the release of factual and background information, including that which has informed policy discussions.

I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends that in every single case in which the Minister is told by the commissioner that he is within his rights to refuse to release information--that which comes under clauses 33 and 34, for example--that Minister has a duty to consider whether the balance of public interest in releasing the information outweighs the balance of public interest in withholding it. In those circumstances and as a result of Government amendment No. 48, which is before the House in this group, the Minister will have to pay particular regard to the public interest in the release of factual and background information. That is specified in clause 13. As we heard yesterday, when the Minister decides that, in his judgment, the balance is in favour of non-disclosure, the commissioner can order disclosure. There could be an Executive override, but the threshold for that has been raised and, as we agreed yesterday, the circumstances in which such an Executive override would take place will be very limited.

As I said yesterday, any Executive override would have to proceed on the basis that the information that the Minister was seeking to withhold would at some stage become public or could be scrutinised in private. Therefore, if what the Minister was seeking to withhold concerned probity--perhaps some kind of scandalous conduct by him--he would extremely unwise--

Mr. Tony Benn rose--

Mr. Jon Owen Jones rose--

Mr. Straw: I shall give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and other of my

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hon. Friends later. It would be an extremely unwise Minister who ever withheld such information. Only in circumstances in which that information would become public quite quickly or with the passage of a little time, would that Minister and the Government behind him--the decision would be collective--have any confidence in favour of withholding it.

I am of course aware of the 30-year rule, but under the Bill a huge amount of information currently covered by it will have to be released well in advance of that period. I also bring to the attention of the House the fact that, even under the existing regime, there are plenty of occasions on which information that is due routinely to remain--

Mr. Benn rose--

Mr. Jones rose--

Mr. Straw: I shall give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield after I have made my point.

Such information has to be brought out at a much earlier stage because of a public inquiry or for some other reason--a Public Accounts Committee inquiry, for example. I am not for a moment resiling from the suggestion that is made in the House and elsewhere that accountable government requires the maximum degree of openness and I shall respond to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak about the style in which I have sought to operate as Home Secretary in a moment. I accept entirely that in not only the long run, but the short run, Ministers ought to be as open as possible. Although that can sometimes lead to a slightly uncomfortable ride on the day, it always leads to a better understanding of decisions that they have taken. If Ministers are confident about their decisions, there is a good argument for putting as much information as possible on the public record rather than not.

Mr. Benn: Those theoretical arguments are interesting, but will the Home Secretary deal with a practical example from the past? In the post-war Government, Mr. Attlee, the Prime Minister, started building the atom bomb. He did not tell the Cabinet, he did not tell Parliament and he did not tell the public. He also gave to a foreign power--the United States--permanent nuclear bases in Britain. He told Parliament that they were for training missions by American aircraft. Can my right hon. Friend address his mind to the question whether decisions as important as that would have been able to become public as a result of the Bill, which he advocates, recognising that the Prime Minister of the day, having kept it secret, would certainly want to use an Executive override to prevent that information from coming out?

Mr. Straw: I believe that neither under the Bill, nor under any other example that has been shown to me by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, nor under any system operating abroad would information relating to nuclear secrets have been made public. I know of no freedom of information regime that would have done that. All those with which I am familiar ensure that there is a ring around security matters of that kind.

I also say to my right hon. Friend that it was well known that we had a nuclear capability when the Visiting Forces Act 1952 was debated and it would have been open

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to Labour as well as Conservative Members to ask questions. The whole point of the Act was to lay down the conditions under which visiting forces and their equipment could be in this country, and the only ones that we have ever had stationed on our territory have been United States forces.

My right hon. Friend was present for those debates; I was not. I make no point about that, but that is the truth of it. Notwithstanding the fact that the original decisions were made in secret, the House had an opportunity to lay down conditions for the use of such nuclear weapons here by the United States and the circumstances in which the visiting forces could be in this country.

Mr. Greenway rose--

Mr. Straw: I shall give way, but then I must get on.

Mr. Greenway: I am most grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way. The examples of factual information that we have discussed all appear to relate to areas covered by a specific exemption. There is an exemption for defence and an exemption for national security; I suspect that that would have answered the point made by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). The Home Secretary, in defence of his argument, has referred only to information relating to public inquiries. That is also exempt. Can he give a clear example of information that a Minister of the Crown would want to keep secret that is not caught by one of the exemptions?

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether I can think of a circumstance in which the exemption could be used, I can think of a series of hypothetical circumstances in which one might be used, some of which I spelled out yesterday. With respect to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would rather stick to the core area that we are discussing today. I do not happen to believe that a Minister would seek to use an exemption certificate to prevent the release of factual and background information when that was ordered by the commissioner.

Mr. David Heath rose--

Mr. Straw: If I may, I shall make progress. Time is getting on and there are many other debates to come. I will take a few interventions later.

That is my view. The point is that the override certificate would be used in very limited circumstances and we have raised the threshold of decision making so that that would also apply.

What we debated last night--and I think that we eventually secured considerable agreement on the Labour Benches--has a direct bearing on the question of whether statistical and background information should be made available to members of the public, and to the House.

I want to place on record what the Government have done to secure greater openness in government than we ever saw under the last Administration. One of the White Papers of which I am proudest, not because I was the sponsoring Minister in government but because I took the lead in opposition, is Cm 4412, entitled "Building Trust

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in Statistics". In our manifesto, we committed ourselves to placing the national statistics service on a more independent basis. The Liberal Democrats shared that commitment, and I am grateful for the support that they gave both before the election--in the joint statement that we issued--and subsequently.

The possession of comprehensive, accurate, reliable data that is beyond reproach, and which generates no suspicion that Ministers or anyone else have interfered, is fundamental to the operation of the politics of integrity. Without that, if there is any argument about whether the data are accurate, there can be no proper democratic debate, and Ministers certainly cannot be held properly accountable. The argument is about the measure of accountability, rather than what has actually been done.

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