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Mr. Shepherd: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

5 Apr 2000 : Column 1117

I feel that I am the night man here. The new clause was discussed in Committee and the Government are well aware of it. It deals with the duty to publish guidelines. I shall not go through the details, but it involves a right that was established under the code of practice. I know that some hon. Members have denigrated the code of practice, but it had that one great value.

The Government said that, as it was drafted in Committee, the new clause was too burdensome. So it was redrafted to meet that valid point and now it applies only to the status quo. It is an important principle, however, and I hope that the Government will agree to accept it.

Mr. David Heath: I certainly do not intend to detain the House, except to say that the Liberal Democrats support the spirit of the new clause and we hope that the Minister will provide a satisfactory answer so that there is no retrogression from the provision under the codes of conduct in respect of bodies that are currently subject to investigation by the Parliamentary Ombudsman or the health service ombudsman.

Mr. Quentin Davies: I hope that the Government will accept the new clause. If they do not accept the new clause, come up with a practically identical proposal, or at least give a firm undertaking to introduce the provision in another place, it will be quite clear that part of their hidden agenda is to regress from the position established by the previous Government's non-statutory code. That would be a pretty horrifying state of affairs.

12.30 am

As each year goes by, it becomes more and more important that the manuals of practice and precedents and guidelines used by various parts of the bureaucracy in interpreting legislation should be made public, because in this country we have the phenomenon of government not merely by secondary as well as primary legislation--which is worrying enough to all Members of the House--but increasingly, by tertiary administration, whereby parts of the bureaucracy interpret the law and have their own practice manuals according to which they tell their staff which way to interpret matters, how to pursue certain types of activity and not others, and so on.

The Revenue works on the basis of practice manuals the whole time. It is thus enormously important that such manuals be made available. They are, in effect--I regret this state of affairs, but we have to acknowledge it--part of the law of the land. Citizens can find that they have transgressed the law without knowing that they have transgressed something which some manual said somewhere was a matter that should be pursued or prosecuted. If these manuals can then be changed, unknown to the public, the citizen might believe that, because the precedents suggest that a certain pattern of activity is accepted, he can quite legitimately arrange his affairs in such a manner--only to find that the law has been changed surreptitiously and that he is now on the wrong side of the law as a result. That is an intolerable situation for any citizen to find himself or herself in, in a free society based on the rule of law.

The new clause is enormously important. It goes beyond even the importance of freedom of information that all the practice manuals and other documents referred

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to in the new clause should be incorporated in the Bill. I have to warn the Minister that there will be the most extraordinary degree of concern in this country if the Government cannot accept the new clause, and it is not a matter on which we should be content with any kind of shilly-shallying, of which we have already had far too much from the Treasury Bench in our debates in the last two days.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I can understand the hon. Gentleman's trying to claim the high ground on this matter, but it was the Conservative Government who refused to publish the immigration guidelines, and it was the present Government who did publish them, after the Home Secretary took up office, so I will take no strictures from the hon. Gentleman or his colleagues on this.

New clause 10 has been amended as a result of the discussion in Committee, but I think not enough, and I am not convinced that it has any real value. The information that is being sought in the new clause is available on request in any event, and it is not as though such manuals were kept secret, because lists are published of the manuals that are published by the Government. Some of those manuals--such as internal directories with numbers for a telephone system that has no gateway for public access--will be of absolutely no public interest; and the requirement that they all be published at great public expense is an unnecessary burden when anyone who seriously wants them would be able to gain access to them. Moreover, if there were a likelihood that the public wanted access, there would be a requirement, under the publication scheme that any public authority must have, to make them public anyway, and that publication scheme must be approved by the Information Commissioner.

On all those grounds, the new clause would be completely unnecessary. The information is available anyway; if it is likely to be requested by the public, it would be in the publication scheme approved by the Information Commissioner; and if it is unlikely to be requested by the public, they could request it anyway if they happened to want it out of interest. There is no restriction on such manuals because the exemption does not apply to them.

There is also a defect and a technical problem with the new clause. It refers to a number of bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland and responsibility for those bodies rests with the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would not be right for this House to seek to legislate for them without their consent.

For all those reasons, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Shepherd: I am grateful for the Minister's swift response, but I have been slightly pole-axed at this late hour to learn that there is a defect in the drafting of my new clause. Naturally, I do not want the House to support it and send it to the House of Lords, because, unlike the Home Secretary, I cannot assure the House that it will be amended in a form that is satisfactory; I have no such powers.

I am disappointed to hear that the new clause is defective and, for the moment, I accept the Minister's judgment on that. The issue will be pursued in another place, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) pointed out,

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the availability of, and access to, manuals is important for people to understand their rights and where they stand in relation to the law. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

12.36 am

Mr. Straw: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I will not detain the House by more than a couple of minutes. One of the paradoxes of the discussions that we have had--and great discussions they have been--is that, unlike many debates about Bills on which there is a clash of argument about the principle, everyone, I believe, agrees that we need a Freedom of Information Bill. I would therefore find it extraordinary if anybody voted against Third Reading.

In what I hope is a spirit of generosity, I welcome the conversion of many Conservative Members on this issue. They have come a long way even since the general election, when we were told that freedom of information Bills were simply the domain of left-wing eccentrics. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) is welcome to the fold.

This is an important Bill. It fulfils one of the important manifesto commitments that we made at the general election. It has genuinely been improved as a result of discussion and debate in Committee, and on the Floor of the House over the past two days. I commend it to the House.

12.38 am

Mr. Hawkins: At this late hour, I want to respond with only one or two points. When I paid tribute much earlier to the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen), I referred to a document that was prepared by the Campaign for Freedom of Information and that mentions responses to the Government's Bill that are still relevant on Third Reading.

The document quoted not my words but an editorial about the Bill. It said that

They were, and not least by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). It continues:

    If the Bill remains as inadequate as we still think it, a wider range of dissenters will have to stand up for their doubts at report stage.

They have done so, led by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and the hon. Member for Stoke- on-Trent, Central. The editorial in The Guardian continues:

    More freedom, of some information, won't do. We want the full monty they promised us when they were seeking our votes . . . Two years in power has finally suppressed the clearest ideal that Labour formed during its years of impotence. The freedom of information bill marks its definitive transition from a party dedicated to changing the world, into a Government determined its own world shall not be

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    changed . . . The purpose of this reform, as canvassed in opposition, was to alter the balance of power between citizen and state . . . The bill now disgorged is a spectacular betrayal of any such idea.

The Home Secretary has turned himself into, not Houdini, nor a character invented by Lord Archer of Weston- super-Mare, but Jim Hacker.

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