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Mr. Fisher indicated dissent.

Mr. Straw: I do not say that to make a casuistical point. I shall give my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and the House a more specific example.

As is well known, discussions are being held between departmental spending Ministers and the Treasury on bids for the next spending round, which will be announced in July. A huge amount of the information that has been submitted, on paper, to PSX--which is the Cabinet Committee concerned--is factual information on the costs of the various bids submitted by Ministers or on the analysis of that information. The conclusion of those Cabinet discussions will be made public very soon, in July 2000, in the statement of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and in the public spending White Paper that will be published with that statement.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has been a Minister, he will know that there is no way in which a Minister can say that the type of information in the bid letters that I have submitted, or in the briefing that is in my folder for meetings with colleagues, is opinion. It is not opinion: it is raw fact and raw data, and, at best, analysis of them. If we were to accept amendment No. 10, virtually everything that is in my brief for PSX and in those of my colleagues--although it goes to the heart of collective decision making--would be available. There is no question but that we would have to release it. I suggest that that would very seriously affect the collective nature of the Government and our ability--on behalf of our constituents, and to follow our manifesto--to make decisions.

In this debate, every hon. Member has accepted that collective decision making needs to be protected and has to take place in confidence. Everyone has also accepted--as do I--that as much factual and background information as possible should be made available. I have spelt out to the House what we have already done, what we have included in clause 13, how we are strengthening clause 13, and how I hope that we can continue the discussions that I mentioned in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice).

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It would be idle for me or for any other hon. Member to pretend that it is easy to secure a balance. I say with respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase that amendment No. 10 does not achieve such a balance at all.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I accept the Secretary of State's points, but he has forgotten about clause 34--which contains a harm test that specifically deals with those points. If factual information is not covered by clause 33, it would not be covered if amendment No. 10 were passed. However, that factual information would also be considered under the provisions of clause 34, which would exempt information that is likely to prejudice maintenance of the convention on Ministers' collective responsibility. Therefore, because of the provisions of clause 34, I think that his fears are unfounded.

Mr. Straw: I have listened with interest to my hon. Friend's comments, but, with respect to her, I do not think that it would be exempt. That was also not the sense of the amendment that I got from my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase when he moved it. A note that I have just been handed also says that amendment No. 10 would exclude clause 34--which was the point that I was going to make, from recollection, regardless.

Dr. Tony Wright: The Home Secretary's invitation to the House to consider the nature of a fact was an interesting moment. However, is he really suggesting that they know what a fact is in Ireland and in New Zealand, and that they have discovered what a fact is in Scotland, but that we in the United Kingdom have not quite managed to work out what a fact is at all?

Mr. Straw: I cannot speak for New Zealand, for Ireland or, indeed, for Scotland. Nevertheless, in Scotland--as I recall; I am open to correction--the Scottish Executive has published a White Paper. It is easy to say that such matters are easily defined, but much more difficult to define them. That is the difficulty, and that is at the heart of the issue. We are arguing about what is a fact. If my hon. Friend applies himself not only to the Oxford English Dictionary, but to "Words and Phrases Legally Defined", he will discover that there is no complete separation between a fact and an opinion. It is--in fact--a bit like Venn diagrams, in which there is certainly separation at the extremes, but a large area in the middle where things can be both fact and opinion. Additionally, a fact can be made out of the existence of an opinion.

Mr. David Davis: My point follows that of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). The Home Secretary has almost gone into a theological argument in describing the processes of government, but the processes that he has described are common to Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland. They are almost identical structures of government. Why, when those countries can solve the problem without damage, cannot the Home Secretary do so?

7 pm

Mr. Straw: I am interested to hear a member of the previous Government professing expertise on freedom of

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information, when the campaign guide on which he fought the election said:

    The only group in Britain who are seriously interested in a Freedom of Information Act are inquisitive left-wing busy bodies.

I shall listen to advice from Labour Members, but, with the exception of the hon. Member for Aldridge- Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), I take with a pinch of salt the Conservatives' late conversion on the issue.

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's point is that it is for each Parliament to make its own decisions. We have to debate the matter ourselves. I cannot answer for the debates in Canada or New Zealand, but I am sure that there was a proper debate. The dividing line between fact and opinion is not a theological issue; it is linguistic, because law is based on language, which is of critical importance. Such debates took place in those other countries, but it is for us to decide for ourselves on the basis of our culture and practices and, in particular, the way in which our courts have interpreted words such as "facts" and "opinions".

Bringing the debate to a close, I regret, for the reasons that I have explained, that we cannot accept amendment No. 10 and the others that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase spoke to, not because we disagree with the principle that he put forward, but because we disagree with the practical effect of the amendments. I sought to explain yesterday and today that we want the greatest possible openness in the operation of government. The proof of that is not in the crystal, it is in the book--in the way in which we have operated and will continue to operate. To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), I accept that that method of operation should be enshrined in law as far as possible.

During our debates we have strengthened the arrangements for ensuring that as much factual information as possible is brought out. I explained that yesterday in relation to the changes to clause 13. The House will be aware that Government amendment No. 48 affects clause 13 and will ensure that the Minister and commissioner will have to have particular regard to the public interest in making factual information available. I have also told my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham that the search for a better form of words will be difficult, but it will continue and we shall not close the door on it.

Mr. Radice: Clause 13(6) refers to

Surely my right hon. Friend might look at that.

Mr. Straw: Indeed we shall continue to look at that.

This has been a lengthy but good debate. In the light of my explanations, I hope that the House will accept the Government amendments and that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase may feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Dr. Tony Wright: I have listened carefully to the Home Secretary. A couple of centuries ago, that shrewd observer of public affairs, Mr. de Tocqueville, said that an unreformed regime was most at risk when it started to reform. I understand that that is written in bright lights in every Whips office.

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The Home Secretary is right to point to the seamless nature of the Bill. Each item is intricately connected with all the others. The issue relates to new clause 6, which we will consider later. We listened with care to what the Home Secretary said on the issue last night, but we were not yet persuaded that it was desirable to allow the exercise of a veto. If we allow a veto, it must come with certain conditions: first, it must be a proper Cabinet veto; secondly, it should not be an across-the-board veto, but must concentrate on certain key areas; and, thirdly, it should not apply to local authorities. Based on what my colleagues were saying last night, I think that that is the position.

I speak with some sadness, because I am a supporter of the Government. I am proud of what they are doing. Indeed, I confess to being a serial loyalist. The problem is that there comes a moment when we have to decide whether we can accept the formula that the Government are offering on issues that affect the workings of our democracy and the rights of our citizens. There are not too many such moments during a Parliament, but this is one on any test.

The question is simple. Individual Members of Parliament have to make a decision--never mind the party line. I celebrate the fact that much of the Bill has cross-party agreement. We have to decide individually.

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