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Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I have hardly said the parliamentary equivalent of "Good afternoon", and I should like to make some progress.

As with so many Labour pledges, the Government's enthusiasm for what they said in Opposition has quickly waned. The manner in which they have treated Parliament and the public stands in stark contrast to the culture of openness that the Conservative Governments attempted to create. [Interruption.] On Sierra Leone--those words make the Labour Benches go quiet--the Foreign Secretary tried to refuse the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs access to relevant papers. On tax harmonisation, we had to wait until The Daily Telegraph published details of secret talks in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been engaged and which could give Brussels control of nearly 200 new taxes. It took another press revelation to tell us that the Prime Minister had intended to foist a coalition on us.

The Home Secretary himself is not whiter than white when it comes to openness in government. It took a leak of a Treasury letter--

Mr. Straw: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I shall finish what I am saying before I give way.

It took a leaked Treasury letter before the Home Secretary would admit the truth about police numbers. As he is so keen to interrupt, I shall now give way. Come on; the right hon. Gentleman has the Floor.

Mr. Straw: As well as giving us her fantasy, will the right hon. Lady tell us about her record? How was it that I was presented with a great pile of reports from the prisons inspectorate that had lain either on her desk or on that of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) for up to 12 months? Was that consistent with openness?

Miss Widdecombe: I was giving the House not a fantasy but a litany of the misdeeds of a Government who claim that they are committed to openness. It will not have escaped the House that, as ever, the Home Secretary spent the first half of his speech not presenting his proposals,

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but going back endlessly over our term in government. Presumably, he is practising for Opposition again. He must be looking forward to it.

Mr. Straw: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I am going to continue.

Mr. Straw: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: No.

Mr. Straw: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It is clear that the right hon. Lady is not giving way.

Miss Widdecombe: The Home Secretary does not seem to realise that he is in government, and that he must answer for what is being done by the Bill.

We published the code of practice on access to Government information in 1994, and strengthened it in 1997. What the Home Secretary has said today and what is provided for by his class exemption on the formulation of Government policy may therefore be contrasted with what we provided for and that was: to publish the facts and the analysis of the facts that the Government considered relevant and important in framing major policy proposals and decisions; and that such information would normally be made available when policies and decisions were announced.

That was a clear attempt to make the distinction that the right hon. Gentleman suggested this afternoon could not readily be made, between an internal judgment or recommendation and the information from which that judgment or recommendation was drawn.

I put it to the right hon. Gentleman--I hope that he will consider this seriously during the passage of the Bill--that if we could do it in our "Code of Practice on Access to Government Information", he too can do it during the passage of the Bill.

Dr. Gibson: In what year was the public information disclosure Bill enacted? It prevented workers from being dismissed and allowed them to be safeguarded against problems arising from their blowing the whistle on companies after two good trade unionists--one in a Leeds general hospital and one in British Biotech--lost their positions because they raised issues of fraud and misconduct and the health hazards to the public caused by the misrepresentation of cancer drug trials in one case and the falsification of information in a hospital in the other. In what year was that Bill enacted?

Miss Widdecombe: I might have been more convinced by that Bill's usefulness had not my time as shadow Secretary of State for Health revealed that the Government were most unwilling to confront information when it was unhelpful to their cause. Indeed, I listed many such instances.

The Home Secretary may not understand this, but I am trying to deal with some of the detail of the Bill because it is seriously flawed. I am trying to draw out the flaws

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and to test whether the right hon. Gentleman is receptive to the Bill being amended. I may be wrong, but I thought that that was what scrutiny by Parliament was all about.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): The right hon. Lady has suggested that the Bill ought to be amended in certain respects, and I agree. However, she is asking the House to accept an amendment that declines to give the Bill a Second Reading and that would prevent the House from reaching those parts and amending them. Is that her serious intention, or is it a device to enable those Tories who think that freedom of information is for left-wing busybodies to vote in the same Lobby as those who think that it is a good idea but that the Bill is defective in some respects?

Miss Widdecombe: We are used to a rather higher standard of intervention than that from the right hon. Gentleman. The position is extremely simple. We believe that the Bill is deeply flawed and that the Home Secretary has shown no willingness, during his analysis of it and in answering our questions, to ensure that it does not take us backwards in ways that I am endeavouring to illustrate. If he were prepared to give that undertaking, there might be some way forward. Until he is prepared to admit that, no, we do not want to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) rose--

Miss Widdecombe: I will give way in a moment. I want to move on to my next argument to show that the Bill is flawed.

The document to which I referred--our code of practice--set a challenging target for the amount of information that should be released by Government and public authorities. It made it clear that the approach of public authorities should be to release information

not "could not" or "might possibly be", as the right hon. Gentleman claimed--

    "in the public interest."

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): The right hon. Lady is saying that the information would be doing some harm. Will she illustrate using her own example what harm would have been done if the reports on the Prison Service that she did not publish had been published so that we all knew about the decisions that she was not taking as well as those that she was?

Miss Widdecombe: Let us hear about Wormwood Scrubs, shall we? The hon. Gentleman should know that I published scores of Prison Service reports, and that we then had in place a procedure that involved trying to get agreement on the facts--as opposed to the interpretation of the facts--between the chief inspector, the Director General of the Prison Service and Ministers. I am the first to acknowledge, and I acknowledged while in office, as the Home Secretary will find if he checks the record, that that sometimes led to cumbersome delays. I do not disapprove of the fact that there is now a different system. However, the idea that Prison Service reports were withheld because of some potential harm is absolute twaddle.

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Perhaps we could now return to the detail of the Bill. For some reason, Labour Members are unwilling to buckle down and look at it. I sometimes wonder why Labour Members try to delay progress by going into extraneous highways and byways, when we are discussing things that apparently so exercised Labour Members that 195 of them signed a motion calling for amendments to the Bill, many of which have not been made.

Dr. Tony Wright: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman probably wants to make a point relating to earlier interventions. If his intervention is on the point that I am making, I will listen; but if it is on some extraneous matter, I will not.

Dr. Wright: Perhaps the right hon. Lady will listen and tell me whether my intervention is appropriate. I am trying to work out what she is inviting the House to do. The Bill has already been substantially improved through myright hon. Friend the Home Secretary's constructive engagement. He says that he wants to improve it further by engaging in further discussion on it, yet the right hon. Lady is inviting the House to reject it on Second Reading so that it cannot be improved. Is that not simply daft?

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