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12.41 am

Dr. Tony Wright: I was not going to say a word on Third Reading, but I have been provoked by the speech I just heard. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) got the tone wrong last night and he has got it wrong tonight. All that was required from the Opposition during consideration of the Bill on Report was a little humility, to reflect that the fact that the Conservatives consistently opposed any such legislation throughout all its years in office.

My first experience of serious business in the House of Commons was as a member of the Standing Committee on the private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), the Right to Know Bill. We won all the arguments in the Committee, but then the Government of the day ruthlessly moved to kill my hon. Friend's Bill in the Chamber. I always carry with me that example of the Conservatives' lamentable record on freedom of information. The Conservatives have not shown the required degree of humility, with the honourable exceptions of some hon. Members I see sitting over there--one of the virtues of the process we have just been through has been what someone described as the progressive coalition.

The Labour party has been committed to legislation on freedom of information since 1974. In the past, Oppositions have said that they would legislate, but they have failed to do so once in government. What is unique about the current Government is that they are doing in government what they said they would do when in opposition. Those who say that the Bill is so lamentable that it would be better not to have it at all are wrong. The Bill has defects and flaws; we have corrected some of those through our consideration of the draft Bill and in Committee; we have corrected yet more in the past 24 hours, and Third Reading is not the end of the story.

Even at this unearthly hour, let us celebrate this historic piece of legislation. Let us congratulate the Government on introducing it. Let us then increase our resolve to make it as good as it can be.

12.43 am

Mr. Maclennan: That we are debating the Bill is in large part owed to the effort of many heroes of Opposition, among whom I count the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), Roy Hattersley, my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and the hon. Member for Aldridge- Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). That the Bill is a Government Bill is due to the deliberations that took place prior to the election between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, in the effort to gain wide support throughout the country for a change that had defeated parties in government in the past. That dialogue was maintained after the election, and for that we are grateful. I believe that it has had some merit and produced some benefits. There have been useful exchanges of view.

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I must admit candidly that I sometimes felt that the entire process was going backwards. Most of us could have signed up with enthusiasm to the White Paper introduced by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). We would simply have tinkered at the margins of his Bill, whereas in the present Bill, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) honestly admitted, there were real flaws, and they still deface the Bill.

There are departures from the Government's expressed intentions, particularly the intention expressed in the White Paper that decisions on disclosure would be based on a presumption of openness. That is the principle from which the Government have been stepping back throughout. The right to know has been so hedged round by conditions--by categories of exemption--that were explicitly and almost outspokenly rejected by the Government in their White Paper.

Those backward moves have been a depressing feature of the process. At the same time, it is honestly fair to the Home Secretary to say that although he started from a very different point from his right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, he has courteously and openly allowed us to make our case and our arguments. The door has not been closed.

We have seen definite and substantial improvements, but many are still required if the Bill is to fulfil the hopes that were well expressed by the Prime Minister in the preface to the Government's White Paper, in which he wrote about changing the relationship between the citizen and the Government. If that is to be more than a pious expression of hope, a rebalancing of the Bill is required. I hope that we shall have an opportunity to return to that before too long.

12.48 am

Mr. Shepherd: I had hoped that the Third Reading of the Freedom of Information Bill would be one of the greatest occasions of my life. [Interruption.] The man is a foolish man who shouts out, "It is", when I have an argument to set out and a case to make. It is absurd for a Whip to tell me what I should think or say. [Interruption.] I apologise if I misdirected my remark, but let us have none of that.

This was a great occasion. From 1974 onwards, the Labour party was committed to freedom of information, for it had seen that in such a measure lies our emancipation as a people. It was a changing of the guard from those who had been cursed by war, who knew the need for secrecy and became obsessive about it. That secrecy filtered through every layer of our society.

I had hoped, and I believed, that when the Labour Government proclaimed that they were committed to a Freedom of Information Bill, we would have one. There was no reason to dissent from that judgment. The White Paper gave us every expectation and every reason to believe that it would be delivered.

I cannot dissent from the generality of the observation that in some measure the Bill does advance freedom of information, but it is not what we understood in those brave and bonny days, when a White Paper was published. It is not. I would not want the Bill to go from the House in its present form, and I would not want the other place to think that it was finished business.

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Having marched through the Lobby on these issues over many years, I believe that deep, deep within the feeling of the House, and certainly within the new generation that marches, marking the changing of the guard for each and every Parliament, there is a desire for true freedom of information that will give us equality with an Executive. It was within our grasp; it may still be within our grasp. However, as it leaves this House--in a defective state, as the Home Secretary admits--to be amended in another place, I ask why it could not have been created in our House, the democratic, elected and accountable Chamber in our Parliament.

12.50 am

Mr. Quentin Davies: I shall be extremely brief. I simply want to make three rapid points. First, we owe a great debt to the cross-party group of colleagues who played such a major part in keeping the campaign going for many months and in the debates of the past 48 hours. In particular, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), and for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan).

Secondly, the Home Secretary, who was again in a conciliatory mood, said that we had had a great discussion in the past two days. I agree, but it has not achieved the results for which I hoped. Perhaps the most momentous and salient aspect of the discussion was that, apart from Ministers' contributions, not a single contribution was made in favour of the Government's position. It is extraordinary to hold a debate for two whole days on a matter of such enormous interest to the House--the Chamber is still full at 1 am--when no one was inspired, not even members of the Labour party with its massive majority, to support the Bill in its current form. I trust that the moral of that will not be lost on those who need to note it.

Thirdly, the Bill is not worse than nothing; it is better than nothing. I said that about the previous Government's non-statutory code. However, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase said, this cannot be the end of the story. Although the Bill is better than nothing--I am sure that many colleagues agree about that--it is far from being an adequate Freedom of Information Bill.

We live in a democracy, and the Government depend on the people and are accountable to them. A proper Bill would therefore begin with a purpose clause, which stated that information should be available to the public unless the Government explained precisely why, in the national interest, it should not be revealed. The onus should be on the Government to explain.

The Bill should provide for a proper method of dispassionate arbitration when the Government refuse to divulge information, to ascertain whether that refusal is genuinely in the national interest. The Information Commissioner should have that power. Without fulfilling those conditions, the measure is not a Freedom of Information Bill worthy of the name. We do not have such a Bill, but I hope that, in another place, we may be able to build on the small foundations that we have been able to lay in the past two days and create a satisfactory measure.

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Against the background, it would be churlish and foolish of us to kill the Bill and not allow their lordships to do the task that, despite all our efforts, is sadly uncompleted.

"Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

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