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Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: I have given way on three occasions and I would like to make some progress. Then, as I always do, I shall give way again.

The process of developing the Bill has been open. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who I see in his place and to whom I pay tribute, produced a White Paper in December 1997. There was an inquiry into that White Paper by the Select Committee on Public Administration, and a public consultation exercise. The Government responded to the Select Committee's report and to the consultation, and produced a draft Bill in May this year.

We then had further public consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny on the draft Bill, again by the Public Administration Committee and by a Committee in another place. The Government responded to the reports of those Committees and amended the draft Bill in significant ways, as I shall set out later. A series of background papers to the Cabinet Committee's discussions has also been published.

As my hon. Friends know, I am always happy to engage in argument as to whether the Bill goes far enough, and I look forward to doing so this afternoon.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle): On that point--

Mr. Straw: I shall give way when I have made some more progress.

The last people to make that criticism are the Opposition--hon. Members such as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, who, for 18 years, set their face against any legally enforceable right to know.

When she was Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher said:

Lest anyone believes that that policy was jettisoned with her premiership, the Conservative party stated in 1997, at the time of the general election, in its campaign guide:

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

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Incredibly, the Opposition are now posing as the defenders of open government. [Interruption.] Their amendment today is nothing short of Kafkaesque. If this goes on, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald will soon be coming to the House to criticise the Government for failing to nationalise the banks and Britain's top 100 monopolies, and claiming that that was Tory policy all the time.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) rose--

Mr. Straw: I shall give way in a moment.

I tell Opposition Members that it is one thing sensibly to modify policies in the light of an election defeat. [Interruption.] It is quite another thing to do a complete volte-face, without explanation or apology. The public tend to notice and are not impressed--[Interruption.].

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman. I do not want calling out from a sedentary position from either side of the House during the Home Secretary's speech.

Mr. Straw: I am not surprised that the Opposition do not like what I say. Their position on freedom of information is laughable and incredible. Their claim that the Bill


    "Code of Practice"

is demonstrably untrue. That code was legally unenforceable. In contrast, the Bill is replete with legal powers of enforcement. The harm test under the code, which prevented disclosure, was much easier to pass than ours in the Bill will be. The Opposition's test was merely a test of the possibility of harm; ours is a test of the probability of harm.

I may be conceding too much to the Opposition in claiming that they have changed their policy. They had changed their policy when they drafted their reasoned amendment yesterday, but today I received two documents. One is from the Widdyweb, the internet website run by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, which states today:

The other document was from the Conservative research department's daily bulletin for today. Under the heading

    "Lines to take--Freedom of Information Bill",

we read:


the Conservative party--

    "believe it is for Parliament and for Ministers, not for judges or political appointees, to determine what information would be inappropriate in the public domain."

There we have it--not a new policy, but the old policy,a defence of the circumstances under which the Conservatives operated before, which led to them covering up document after document. I hope that, when the right hon. Lady makes her speech, she will explain

7 Dec 1999 : Column 718

which of the policies that she has enunciated in the past two days applies. Is she saying that we do not go far enough or that we go too far?

Mr. Bercow: Speaking as a right-wing inquisitive busybody, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to tell the House, in the light of his veritable self-congratulation, why the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Mr. Maurice Frankel, says that, in key areas, the Bill is weaker than the openness code introduced by the Conservatives?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman will have to ask Mr. Frankel that. I have discussed the matter with him, but he is demonstrably wrong about that. As I have already explained, the harm test operated in the code is a test only of the possibility of harm; the harm test to be operated under the Bill is the much higher test of the probability of harm.

Mr. Wardle: The Home Secretary knows that I have twice voiced concern in the House about freedom of information and the Security Service. When was he first told that Oleg Gordievsky confirmed Security Service suspicions that a prominent trade unionist had betrayed this country and NATO to the KGB for years, and why has he not made a statement to the House?

Mr. Straw: I am afraid that I cannot answer that without notice. If the hon. Gentleman gives me notice, I will give him an answer.

Mr. Hancock: I am sure that the Home Secretary agrees that there is widespread concern in the country about the way in which animal experimentation is cloaked in secrecy. What has he done in his Department to free up information about licences and experimentation, and what will the Bill achieve in bringing about greater openness in that area?

Mr. Straw: We are considering changes. The question of animal experimentation is central to the kind of freedom of information regime that should be constructed, where we have to balance the various interests of the right to know with the right of people lawfully to pursue their business, a right which all of us have to respect, and the need to ensure that, where it is necessary--only where it is necessary--for potential pharmaceutical products to be tested on animals in order to determine their safety, those experiments take place safely and securely. In addition, those who lawfully go about the business of testing pharmaceutical products, or those who are academics in that area, also have a right to their own personal safety, which right has often been put at grave risk.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I have been listening carefully to my right hon. Friend and I think that he needs to brace himself, both today and in Committee, for a litany of examples from hon. Members who have sought to probe the Government, but without success. Would I be helped under the Bill, as distinct from the ministerial code of practice, in my question to the Prime Minister about the frequency of Cabinet meetings since the general election and the duration of each, which he declined or was unable to answer? Would I be given that

7 Dec 1999 : Column 719

information under the Bill or would it still be deemed to cause substantial harm--or would there be some other excuse?

Mr. Straw: It will not be deemed to cause substantial harm. This is a matter of speculation and these decisions lie primarily in the hands of the Information Commissioner. The first issue would be whether such information came within clause 33, which relates to the formulation of Government policy and so on. If it was found by the commissioner to be exempt, the issue would be whether, under clause 13, the commissioner would recommend to Ministers that they disclose that information, and, if they did, whether the commissioner would particularly apply himself or herself to clause 13(5), which states:

this clause regard should be had

    "to the desirability of communicating to the applicant factual information which has been used, or is intended to be used, to provide an informed background to decision-taking."

Therefore, my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) is--

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch): No.

Mr. Straw: No--it is not "no" at all. The answer is that my hon. Friend has a much better chance with the Bill than with the current code, and a much better chance than he would have had with the previous Government.

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