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Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: I must ask my hon. Friend to resume his seat until I have finished this point.

There were worries, to say the least, about the last Government's record on statistics. Some series of statistics were satisfactory, but others were not. We famously remember that, as the unemployment figures rose, the statistical series was reworked, reworked and reworked again. I cannot remember whether there were 22 tax rises or 22 changes in statistics, or both. Perhaps there were 30. In any event, a huge number was involved. It undermined faith in the democratic process, and Conservative Members now recognise the great error that was made.

We introduced the White Paper in order better to underpin the independence of the national statistics service, to establish a clear framework for national statistics, to appoint an independent statistics commission to oversee the operation of the service, and to appoint a high-grade new director. In many Departments, including mine, individual Ministers have already achieved the standard being set, or even surpassed it.

We are not talking just about the law, important though that is; we are talking about practice. When I became Home Secretary, I did not have to wait for three years to put into practice certain principles that I considered to be key to accountability and openness; I ensured that the operation of the research and statistics department was at arm's length, and that the Royal Statistical Society--of which I have the honour to be an honorary Fellow--could advise us about the operation of statistics of integrity.

Let me now reply to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). A huge amount of research is done in the Home Office. We have established protocols both for the publication of research contracted into the Home Office, and for the publication of research carried out by in-house researchers. The fact that the research is being conducted is published in advance--Ministers cannot interfere with that--and when it is ready for publication, after peer review rather than ministerial say-so, it is published. I believe that similar protocols are followed elsewhere.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: Everyone, at least on this side of the House, accepts that the last Government were reluctant to allow the public access to statistical information. But why has it taken more than two years--

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as we heard yesterday--to reveal the costs of the MI6 and MI5 buildings? That concealment of information took place under the current regime, although not to the extent to which it took place under the last.

6.45 pm

Mr. Straw: Let me say, with respect--I make the same point to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield--that, although there was not a particularly good argument for not revealing the cost of the Security Service and Secret Intelligence Service buildings, in the end the cost was revealed. I think that it should have been revealed much earlier. I do not happen to believe for a second that anything was disclosed other than what is, I am afraid, a universal truth when it comes to public buildings: the work always takes longer and costs a great deal more than anyone originally anticipated. There is no secret about that.

As for the way in which the Security Service and the SIS--MI6--operate, I think it is a universal truth--I now use the phrase in a different context--about freedom- of-information regimes that there must be a ring of secrecy around them. At the same time, however, they must be made accountable in other ways, not least--I say this to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who usually sits below the Gangway--through the Intelligence and Security Committee established by the House.

Mr. White rose--

Mr. David Heath rose--

Mr. Straw: I will take two more interventions, but after that I must make progress.

Mr. David Heath: The Home Secretary is explaining his current practice, and I do not hesitate to say that he, within his Department, is exercising very good practice in many ways in regard to the release of information. However, we are not discussing what happens at his behest or in his Department, or in any other Department, or what might happen in a future Government. We are talking about the right of the citizen to receive factual information. Nothing that the right hon. Gentleman has said so far changes the fact that he is proposing a process of attrition for the purposes of a member of the public who wants access to information that a bureaucracy is loth to share.The Executive override is the end of that process, not the beginning. What we want is a right from the beginning.

Mr. Straw: I accept--indeed, the hon. Gentleman anticipated my next remarks--that good faith on the part of government, and evidence of that good faith in the form of practice over the last three years, do not constitute change sufficient to meet the concerns of the House, but they are a necessary part of that change.

I mentioned the practice that I have followed, the practice that many of my predecessors have followed and the practice of the Government as a whole in the context of the changes introduced in what is a very important White Paper, although it has been inevitably much ignored by newspapers, because it aroused no controversy. I wanted to make it clear that we approached the issue--a very difficult issue, when it comes to the detail--in good faith.

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It is not that, over the past three years, I have sought to withhold information from the House or from members of the public. In one area after another, I have sought to ensure that the House is properly informed, and that when Members ask questions we always go the extra mile and provide additional information if we can. That contrasts with the practice of the last Government, who adopted a liberal approach to questions and were as unhelpful as possible.

For instance, we have published huge volumes of directives and instruction manuals for the immigration and nationality directorate, and have put them on the internet. I have put the prisons inspectorate on a properly independent basis, with a protocol to ensure that the scandal that occurred under the last Administration will never occur again. When the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was in charge, independent reports by the inspectorate stacked up month after month. A dozen of them a year old were on my desk when I came to the Home Office.

Such improvements have been made in many areas of Government, both because we happen to think it right and because it is sensible, from a Minister's point of view, for there to be an identity of interest between the need for accountability and the reputation of Government. Both require the greatest possible degree of openness.

Mr. Radice: No one doubts my right hon. Friend's record, or the improvement on the previous Government. However, on Second Reading, I asked him:


My right hon. Friend said that he had not yet found a formula that safely did as I asked, but that he was happy to continue the search for one. My question is simply whether he has found such a formula yet?

Mr. Straw: I shall answer my right hon. Friend directly, as that point is at the heart of the debate. We have found part of an answer--a safe one in which there is a proper balance in the conflict between the need of the Government to make their decisions in confidence and the understandable need of the public and the House to ensure availability of the maximum amount of factual information. That is the point of clause 13.

As I shall explain to the House in a moment, the Government face a genuine difficulty in putting together a form of words that separates what I think people are talking about--basic statistical data, which are already published; although there are not much such data, there are some--from the analysis of that data and policy advice, which people accept, for reasons that everyone understands, should not be published immediately. The position that we have reached so far is the provisions of clause 13, which we propose to amend with amendment No. 48 and the other amendments that the House accepted yesterday.

I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and hon. Members who have supported him on amendment No. 10 that there are really quite serious difficulties about the amendment's wording. He described the amendment as the simplest and the crispest of the amendments--some of which are alternative amendments--in this group. The problem with

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amendment No. 10 is that it seeks to ensure that the factual information behind policy advice is made available. It provides no class exemption, and it does not even provide a harm test, which is typically provided in other systems. Nor does it provide a balancing arrangement between the public interest in disclosure of that factual background information and the public interest against its disclosure.

The difficulty with the amendment is essentially a linguistic one, about what is meant by factual information. The word fact encompasses a huge sphere of human activity. "Words and Phrases Legally Defined" states:


Occasionally, there are arguments--perhaps I should say happy and comradely discussions--in Cabinet Committees and between Ministers. Although those arguments themselves will be an expression of opinion, it will be a fact that those arguments occurred.


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