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9.45 pm

Mr. St. Aubyn: I will not accept any amendment until I have received specific reassurances from the Minister in his response to the debate. I do not think that any hon. Member should do so, as so much about the Bill is murky and unclear. I have heard exaggerated claims from the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). I am afraid that he, too, has been infected by the culture of delusion. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats started that culture and infected the Labour party.

On 20 November, the Prime Minister gave me a reply that put me in something of a quandary, and which leaves an important question to be answered by the Under- Secretary. On the basis of a report in The Guardian on 10 November, I alleged that civil servants had been guilty of a cover-up on health issues connected with incinerators. In his reply, the Prime Minister stated:

Those allegations came originally from Labour Back Benchers. [Interruption.] Will the Minister clarify whether we should believe the Prime Minister, who asserted that the allegations were false, or the Labour Members quoted on page 12 of The Guardian on 20 November, who made the allegations in the first place?

A Front Bencher, as well as the Back Benchers, joined in making the allegations. In the report in The Guardian, the Minister for the Environment commented on the

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figures that the Environment Agency sought to hide, before, in circumstances that I shall describe shortly, it was forced to produce them in public. He said:

Was the Minister for the Environment telling the truth in his allegations that the information was withheld, or was the Prime Minister telling the truth in his recent letter to me? I hope that the Under-Secretary will reply in due course.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend has made an important point about the questions asked by Labour Back Benchers, and I am sure that we all respect the sincerity with which they asked them. Did my hon. Friend notice that, as he was developing that point and saying that Labour Members had raised the issues, the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) said from a sedentary position that just because they said it, it did not make it true? Does that not open up a worrying new division? Should we not be concerned about the fact that the hon. Member for Ealing, North has cast aspersions on the integrity of those Labour Back Benchers?

Mr. St. Aubyn rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. It occurred to me while listening to the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) that although I know that he is keen to return to the Lords amendments, he has so far not referred to them. We must return to the Lords amendments.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I shall try to do that, but we must set in context the contradiction that I have described between the Prime Minister and his Ministers.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you not think it appropriate that, after 12 generations in the House, the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) could at least have learned the rules?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Guildford is not responsible for his ancestors, but I am responsible for ensuring that he keeps in order. He will return to the amendments.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for explaining that elementary point to the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham). We are discussing a new principle in this country, which the Opposition are fighting to have implemented. The problem with the Government's proposals is that the public interest disclosure rules do not go far enough--and I must tell the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that I am not satisfied that the amendments will do the trick. In the conflict between the Prime Minister, his Ministers and his Back Benchers, we see that when Ministers are given the opportunity to exercise their veto over the public interest requirement, they may not be properly informed by officials. They will be so cocooned in their own ministerial world that they will not be aware of what is happening.

The public have a right to that information, but on that occasion we learned from evidence given to the Select Committee a few weeks ago that they could not obtain it,

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and that it would not have been obtainable under the Bill. People could ask for the information from the Environment Agency only through the European Union's government code for environmental information. The Bill is less effective than an EU code. What does that say about the significance of the Bill, which is, we claim, neutered, and, frankly, has not been effectively changed by the Liberal Democrat amendments?

Even worse, the amendments offer no protection against the Bill's operational failure. Civil servants simply mislead the public and fail to make them aware of their proper rights. I shall give an example from the Environment Committee, which it would be wise for Ministers to study carefully.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you advise us new Members whether it is entirely appropriate to make unsubstantiated attacks on civil servants without providing any supportive evidence? Is that appropriate behaviour for an hon. Member?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) has not contravened the rules of the House, and he is responsible for his own actions. However, I say to him again that he must return to the Lords amendments before us. He is not discussing them; he is discussing the Bill. He must discuss the amendments.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. However, the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) made a serious allegation against me, saying that I was making unsubstantiated accusations against civil servants. I wish to make--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have dealt with the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, North. The hon. Member for Guildford must discuss the amendments.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am worried about the amendments because they offer no protection against failure by civil servants, in an operational sense, to carry out the Bill's provisions.

A witness to the Environment Committee was told by the Environment Agency that it would cost him £200 to have his request for information investigated. He was then told that the correspondence that he claimed existed between the agency and the Ministry did not exist. However, he was able to prove that it did exist, and finally the agency coughed up the information, which involved serious data about the health risks of incinerators in this country.

I have a further key question for the Minister. How will members of the public, and Members of the House, be protected when civil servants are asked to provide information, but tell us that the information does not exist? In doing so, they may mislead us, not deliberately--although there are strong suspicions that we were deliberately misled in that case. What sanction in the Bill or the amendments will come down on civil servants who do such things?

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Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is struggling again. The debate is not about the Bill but about the amendments, which deal specifically with exemptions. That is the point.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful, Mr. Speaker.

Does amendment No. 21 encompass the Environment Agency? When the agency collects such significant data, is it carrying out a state function on behalf of the Crown? Will the Minister please clarify that? If by holding that information, it is carrying out a state function on behalf of the Crown, will he confirm whether I am right to think that such information would not be subject to the public interest disclosure test, and could be withheld from the public by the exercise of a ministerial veto under amendments that we shall discuss later tonight, if we get that far?

If key health information can be withheld from the public after the enactment of the Bill, as such information has already been withheld, what is the point of amendment No. 21--or of having a Freedom of Information Bill at all? How can the public trust the judgment of important agencies such as the Environment Agency on issues such as the safety of incinerator plants in local communities if they know, after tonight's debate and the Minister's reply, that key information may still be withheld? The Government are treating the public like children, over an issue that affects people and their families.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): I give a cheer for the commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) to freedom of information, which I believe to be part of a greater change that is taking place.

I have no difficulties with Lords amendments Nos. 12 and 13, although I note what the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) had to say. The substance, however, lies in Lords amendment No. 4. The House must feel strongly that what we are doing is trying to rescue a little more from the wreckage of the distinguished White Paper presented by a former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster--the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who I see is present.

Clause 28 deals with authorities covered by the exemption. I shall deal with the Minister's words in a moment, but, as we see from the background to the clause, the authorities concerned include the police, the Serious Fraud Office, the Crown Prosecution Service, Customs and Excise, the Inland Revenue and the Department of Trade and Industry's investigations unit. As the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) pointed out, they also include the Health and Safety Executive. They include the railways, nuclear installations, mining, agriculture and other inspectorates. They include fire authorities, the drinking water inspectorate, the Environment Agency, trading standards officers, environmental health officers, the Director General of Water Services, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and--in relation to functions involving farm animal welfare and BSE--the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

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The Minister deemed an exemption necessary when the Bill was on Report in the Commons. At that time, he opposed the introduction of a prejudice test. He said:

Let us consider the Lords amendment that the Government have accepted. This goes to the heart of what we all find difficult. The White Paper constituted a clear enunciation of principles, and seemed to suggest--there was not, on the face of it, a purpose clause in the Bill--that the Government wanted a liberal, wide-ranging Bill that would give our citizens access to information that was readily accessible in other countries.

The Republic of Ireland, for instance, has just produced a Freedom of Information Bill. This, as we know, is a lesser Bill, and I therefore commend what the Liberal Democrats are trying to do. I stand back, and say that the provision was supposed to be clear. I am talking about the principle of the citizens' right of access to information that they fund, and about enabling us to enter into greater engagement with the formulation of policies. I am talking about enabling citizens to look over the shoulders of those charged with health and safety responsibilities. If we had ready access to the information, we might be cheered by the extent to which public servants tried to ensure public safety. Unfortunately, the run of events seems to indicate that there has been a slackness. Such things can go on, hidden behind clauses in what is a complicated Bill now--it is not an easy Bill. It is very difficult for the citizen to understand whether it is worth embarking on such a course.

My purpose is not to delay the Bill; it is to commend the amendment to the Government. They should realise that, in the end, they have produced more a mouse than the Freedom of Information Bill that many hon. Members on both sides of the House loudly called for.

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