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Mr. Straw: I do not accept the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point, because we are dealing with two very different sets of circumstances. He has had experience of advising on the signing of PIIs and I have had considerable experience of having to authorise or, in some cases, not authorise them. The issue is whether information that is relevant to an individual's defence should be disclosed to that individual and to the court.

In this case, we are talking of differing circumstances. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to deal with the test that we have established for law enforcement generally--not in relation to PIIs--my view, and that of the police service, was that we could get into dangerous circumstances if we released information that it was accepted would cause harm to law enforcement but that had to be released because it could not be shown that it would cause substantial harm. We have to make fine judgments about what would be fully in the public interest. Would it be the release of that information, even though we knew it would cause harm to the public, or would it be the withholding of that information, because it would cause harm to the public? My judgment is that it is better, in those circumstances, to withhold the information.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): My right hon. Friend mentioned the Irish freedom of information legislation. He will be aware that, under arrangements made by both Governments, we now have cross-border bodies. Is he in a position to say what information will be available to members of the public in the United Kingdom about those cross-border bodies and their activities, and what further information may be available in the Republic of Ireland?

Mr. Straw: I cannot say exactly, but I will see whether the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwick-Sline (Mr. O'Brien) is able to provide that information when he winds up. I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave earlier--that when one is dealing with two separate governmental institutions, the basic rule that applies is that the originating institution has ownership of that information.

The Public Administration Committee, in its latest report, made a number of proposals for changes to the draft Bill. In the Government's response, published on 19 October, we met some, although not all, of their proposals. The power of the commissioner has been expanded; the public interest test in clause 13 has been widened; the time limit for meeting applications for information has been cut by more than a third, from 40 calendar days to 20 working days; and the so-called cumulative harm test in clause 37 of the draft Bill has been removed, as has clause 44(7), against self-incrimination.

One area where so far it has not been possible to find accommodation for the Select Committee's views is in

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identifying a robust formula that can safely distinguish between policy advice and what the Select Committee called


    "purely factual information . . . and analysis"

used to inform policy decisions. I continue to wish to discuss that issue with right hon. and hon. Members. However, for reasons that I will now explain to the House, the difference between us and the Select Committee will in practice be much less than is imagined.

The assumption behind the recommendation of the Select Committee is that there is much purely factual information and analysis that informs policy decisions which is not published at all, or is published only by grace and favour of Ministers. In my experience, that is not correct. Let me illustrate that by taking two key areas of policy for which I am responsible--criminal justice, and asylum and immigration. The policy submissions I receive on both those areas do indeed contain much factual information, but almost all of it is already published; or if the data are provisional, it is about to be published. There is no separate set of statistics on police activity, criminal prosecutions and convictions or asylum applications to which I have access but Parliament and public do not. What is also frequently overlooked in this debate is that, by a separate White Paper, the Government will take additional steps to strengthen the independence of the Office for National Statistics and the integrity of its data.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): For the avoidance of doubt on an issue that my right hon. Friend mentioned earlier, will he confirm that, when the issue of the disclosure of exempt information on public interest grounds arises, that decision will finally be taken not by an independent Information Commissioner but by a Minister or a public body? What sort of circumstances might arise in which an Information Commissioner might recommend disclosure but a Minister or a public body would still withhold the information?

Mr. Straw: In terms of the Bill, what my hon. Friend says is correct; but, as I have explained, the discretionary power comes into play only after the Minister has been told by the commissioner that he or she has no duty to release information. If the Minister has such a duty and the commissioner orders the release of information, that is the end of the matter: the information must be released.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: No. I want to finish my speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) asked whether I could anticipate circumstances in which, after the commissioner had been advised under clause 13 that the information should be disclosed, the Minister refused to disclose it. I cannot immediately offer my hon. Friend an example, but there might be circumstances in which Ministers genuinely thought that the release of such information could be highly prejudicial to negotiations with another state, to negotiations within the United Kingdom, or to national security.

I feel that there would be few occasions on which a Minister would, or should, refuse to accept the recommendation of the commissioner, just as I believe

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that there have been few occasions on which a Minister has refused to accept the recommendation of the ombudsman. None the less, I think it important to have a fail-safe mechanism. As my hon. Friend knows, many countries operate such a mechanism by way of Executive override, and that is what is proposed in Scotland. We are approaching the issue by what I consider to be a more straightforward route, but I expect the conclusion to be exactly the same.

This is a good Bill, which will transform the culture in which Governments operate. In particular, it will end the culture of secrecy in which the last Administration operated. For the first time, the people will have a right to know. The Bill compares well with legislation overseas. Each country must determine for itself where to set the balance between competing rights, such as the right to know, the right to privacy and the right to confidentiality. The balance of rights will be different everywhere.

The Bill is fully retrospective, unlike legislation in Ireland. It covers a wide range of organisations, including the police--again, not the case in Ireland--and provides access to a tribunal, unlike the proposals in the Scottish consultation paper. The Bill provides free access to the commissioner, whereas in Australia access to the administration tribunal requires payment of a fee. It also imposes strict limits on response times, unlike legislation in Canada, where many people have to wait for months to receive information.

The right to know, while it cannot be an unfettered right, has long been neglected in this country. The Opposition did nothing to promote a statutory right to know in 18 years of government; indeed, until now, they have consistently opposed such a move. Everyone will benefit from the Bill, which will help to deliver a more responsive, better informed and more accountable public service, and I commend it to the House.

5.23 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:


If the Home Secretary is half as serious as he suggested about bringing greater openness to government, theBill represents a missed opportunity. The right hon. Gentleman made tremendous virtue of the fact that he was putting openness on to a statutory footing, but all that he is putting on to a statutory footing is more secrecy than was contained in the code of practice. That is a backward step, rather than a step forward. A careful examination of what the House is really being asked to consider--behind all the smoke and mirrors--will show that the Bill takes us not forward, but back.

It is true that I have said that I would prefer the status quo to this Bill, which I believe will ultimately provide for less than is provided for by the status quo. I have said that, and I stand by it.

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I have also said that Parliament has a vital role in holding the Executive to account. That role is completely ignored by the Bill. Had the Bill lived up to half the rhetoric that we have heard from the Government, we might have moved into a new era of openness. The Government claim commitments to open government and to freedom of information. At the general election, the Labour manifesto claimed:



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