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Mr. Fisher: I do not think the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) fully understands what happened last night or the current state of the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said when speaking to Government amendment No. 64, the final say in all freedom of information legislation is crucial. Although every piece of freedom of information legislation has exemptions, barriers and caveats--those are in the nature of this type of legislation--the final say of the arbiter, who is the commissioner, is crucial. That is why so many Labour Members and Opposition Members felt that new clause 6, with its ministerial veto, was so wrongheaded and offensive.

Let us be clear about the veto. It was to override the final decision of the Information Commissioner. That made it deeply offensive. It was remarkable, proper and admirable that the Home Secretary listened to our criticisms in a good debate last night. While he was on his feet, he redrafted his approach to the issue and accepted the idea of a compromise, suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) and other Labour Members, between those of us who wanted to leave everything to the Information Commission and his belief that some form of ministerial last word was essential. The obvious compromise was the New Zealand model. The Home Secretary went a long way towards that last night. What he is offering the House is not as strong as the New Zealand model, which has greater in-built ritual and more formality. That ritual is one reason why, since the veto became a collective responsibility, it has not been used in New Zealand.

Mr. Shepherd: That point interests me and should interest the House. New Zealand is governed by a coalition, as Scotland will be. The Cabinet override is an important check, because the tensions that are manifested through party make it very difficult to impose an agreed veto across a coalition.

Mr. Fisher: The hon. Gentleman is mistaken, because the change from a decision by a single Minister--the original system in New Zealand that was so abused in the

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first year--to collective responsibility happened in 1987. There have been single-party Governments since then. The important point is the nature of the agreement. It has nothing to do with the balance of power in Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary had already gone a long way and went further tonight by saying that the provision would be in the Bill--or at least that he would try to put it in the Bill. Given the distance that he has moved in the past 24 hours, if he says that he is going to do that, the House owes it to him to have some confidence in him.

However, the praise that is rightfully the Home Secretary's because of the way in which he has moved makes it all the more baffling that he is now asking the House to vote for a clause that he has turned on its head, having promised us something very different. It would be extraordinary for us to vote for a clause that the House objects to and that the Home Secretary recognises is wholly deficient.

The Home Secretary made an interesting comment in his opening remarks. I made a careful note of his words. He said that the Bill should go to the other House properly reflecting the changes that we have made. We have not yet made the changes that the Home Secretary mentioned last night, but he knows that, because of the good will that he engendered last night, the whole House wants those changes to be made. The will of the House is that we should introduce a collective responsibility to minimise the extent of individual ministerial vetoes. If we vote for new clause 6, the Bill will not go to the other House reflecting those changes, but precisely the opposite.

I understand the Home Secretary's political problem, but we are not sending a clear message to the other House. I have complete confidence in my right hon. Friend delivering on his promises of last night and today and, I hope, making them even stronger. They need strengthening in some areas--for example, in respect of local authorities. However, I cannot vote for a clause that the whole House will be glad to see the back of and that, thanks to the Home Secretary, we shall see the back of.

Mr. Hawkins: The official Opposition will support the cross-party group's amendment No. 5, and oppose Government new clause 6, for the reasons set out by my hon. Friends the Members for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd).

History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. The "Yes, Minister" scriptwriters once produced an episode called "The Right to Know". Tonight, the House should say, "No, Minister."

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) said, and I agree with him, but one matter remains untouched. According to the procedures of the House--and if the Government so chose--it would be perfectly possible for this Report stage to be adjourned. The House could reconvene, at short notice and by agreement between the parties, to debate a replacement to new clause 6 that covered the points raised by the Home Secretary in yesterday's debate.

I for one have some sympathy with some of the problems encountered by the Home Secretary and the Government over these matters. However, I have very

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little sympathy with legislating in this fashion. We should not send to the other place a Bill that is totally unsatisfactory and which contradicts what the Government intend on one important matter.

I wish that we could improve the House's procedures so that in future we could legislate properly. The Government have admitted that the Bill is unsatisfactory, and we should not send it on to another place as it stands.

Mr. Straw: I shall respond briefly to the points made in the debate. I can tell the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) that a very small area of Government activity is excluded from the Bill, and that includes matters relating to the royal family and the security and intelligence agencies.

One way or another, the rest of Government activity is covered by the Bill, including many aspects to do with safeguarding national security. The hon. Gentleman suggested that, according to the examples I gave, those aspects would always be covered by the exemptions. That is true, but, over the past two days, I have tried to explain that, when a Minister claims an exemption or exception for a piece of information--in other words, when he claims that it should not be disclosed--and when the commissioner and tribunal agree that it should not be disclosed under the exemptions and exceptions in part II, the Minister is still under a duty to consider, under the mechanism of clause 13, whether that information should or should not be disclosed.

The effect of clause 13 is felt right through the Bill, except in respect of matters mentioned in one of its subsections, and that subsection was the subject of amendment No. 1, which the House discussed yesterday. That is why the mechanism of clause 13 is so important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said that any compromise on what has been called Executive override depended on three key conditions. I enjoyed the rather delicious and apposite description of Executive override by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), with his references to paraphernalia out of the American constitution, chrome and Croham.

The three conditions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase were that there should be a collective Cabinet decision, that the area of veto should be made narrower than at present, and that local authorities should be removed altogether from the provisions.

If the House agrees new clause 6, I have already made it clear that, when the Bill goes to the other place, the new clause's provisions will have been amended to ensure that the decision will be made by a member of the Cabinet. There is already a definition of that in clause 23.

12 midnight

Secondly, I can answer my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) on a collective Cabinet decision. I said yesterday that that would be written into the code to Ministers, which is a public document. I mentioned the possible exception for quasi-judicial functions. I have considered the matter further today and I am happy to answer yes to my right hon. Friend's question. If it is at all possible--I will be happy to discuss this with him outside the House--we

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will write the requirement of collective decision making into the Bill. If it is not possible for constitutional law reasons, and after serious advice from parliamentary counsel, I will explain that to him outside as well as inside the House.

I hope that that deals with the first limb of the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase. His second limb was that the area of veto should be narrower. I think that he will accept that I did not give undertakings on that. They are obviously a matter for debate. I do not give undertakings in that respect, although I am open to argument on it--no more than that.

On the matter being removed from local authorities altogether, I repeat that I understand the arguments and promise that we will actively consider the idea. I hope that it will be well understood that we need to secure a collective Cabinet decision on the matter and that we need to consult the local authorities. However, I understand my hon. Friend's argument. To some extent, it fits in with his second point, which is that the level of decisions and, therefore, of documents and information held by local authorities is not of a sufficiently high pitch to justify an Executive override, to paraphrase his argument.

The other arguments concerned whether it is right to vote on the new clause tonight. The simple truth is that whether we include new clause 6 or not, the Bill as it is transmitted to the other place will not completely reflect the decisions of the House, given the undertakings that I made yesterday.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) seemed--

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