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Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman is ever the optimist. I shall seek to demonstrate that, in most of its essentials, the Bill has not been improved. I do not believe that it will be. [Hon. Members: "The right hon. Lady has not done her homework."] The unfortunate thing for Government Members is that I have done my homework. That is why I am trying to give the Bill a close analysis.

Helen Jones rose--

Miss Widdecombe: I will give way because I told the hon. Lady that I would, but this is the last intervention that I shall take until I have covered the next point.

Helen Jones: The right hon. Lady argues that the Bill has not been improved. I put it to her that, in the Select Committee report, which details the process of pre-legislative scrutiny, she will find a number of recommendations that were accepted by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and are now included in the Bill. Is the right hon. Lady seriously arguing that we should not continue that process and continue to improve the Bill?

Miss Widdecombe: I intend to argue that many ofthe most salient recommendations have not been incorporated. I shall now make progress in arguing that.

I have never claimed that the code of practice that we introduced was perfect, that it could not be expanded, that it could not be built on and that it did not have some flaws of its own. I do claim that what is now being written into statute represents a deterioration from the position that was set out in the code. For example, many bodies are exempt from the provisions of the code simply because they do not come under the remit of the parliamentary ombudsman. It is not possible for the ombudsman, who enforces the code, to compel the release of information, but the code remains a clear statement in favour of

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freedom of information, unlike the Bill, whichI hope now to demonstrate represents backwards movement.

The Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) have made much of the consultation process that the Home Secretary undertook in formulating his Bill, but he has spent much of his time since the publication of his White Paper "Your Right to Know" backtracking from the original proposals. For example, he has included many more class exemptions such as the exemption of all information relating to policy formulation. That is a backwards step from his White Paper and from our code of practice. It will have the effect of making secret more information.

The Home Secretary has changed the test on whether information should be released from substantial prejudice, which would have been tough to meet, to simple prejudice, which is easy to meet. That will mean that it is harder for information to qualify for release. He has backtracked from the pledge in the Government's White Paper to give the Information Commissioner the power to force public authorities to release information. His constant retreat from proposals that would encourage real openness is indicative of the weakness of the Government's commitment to the cause that they theoretically espouse.

We know the reason for the Government's sudden and dramatic change of heart. The enthusiasm for openness and proper freedom of information waned at about the same time that responsibility for the Bill was transferred from the Cabinet Office, where it was under the auspices of the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), to the Home Office.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Does she feel that the provisions of the Bill will hinder or assist the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who did a good job in preparing the Bill in the first place, in finding out who at No. 10 Downing street systematically rubbished him in the press in order to create vacancies for Liberal Democrats in a coalition with the Prime Minister?

Miss Widdecombe: I do not want to intrude on private grief.

It is clear that the Home Secretary does not share the enthusiastic feelings of many members of his party on this issue. It is surprising that he does not even agree with the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who was previously responsible for the Bill. That became clear during the debate on the Address, when the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that he was not happy with the stance of the Home Secretary. He said:

The initial stages of the consultation process were characterised by the Government moving in the opposite direction from the views that they were receiving from interested parties. Indeed, they completely ignored many of the salient recommendations in the Select Committee on Public Administration's report on the draft Bill.

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The Home Secretary made some minor proposals in respect of the Committee's findings but, in response, the Select Committee noted

    "with some disappointment" that

    "most of the points we found unsatisfactory in our report of a few weeks ago remain part of the Bill."

The Committee expressed concern that there was no clear presumption in favour of disclosure; that the Information Commissioner could not order release of information on the grounds of public interest; and that there were still too many class exemptions in the Bill. We share many of those concerns and will raise them in Committee.

It was significant that the main feature of the Home Secretary's consultation process was his unwillingness to include the views of others. The Law Society said:

Charter 88 said:

    "the legislation remains seriously flawed despite the concessions offered in October".

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. I think she said that the commissioner does not have the power to issue disclosure. However, does she accept that, in respect of part II, the commissioner has clear powers to order disclosure and to enforce such an order?

Miss Widdecombe: Only if the matter is not covered by an exemption. The commissioner has no power on the public interest, which will be one of the principal tests.

I was telling the House what other people have said. The National Union of Journalists said that it

There are several key points on which we shall try to improve the Government's flawed proposals. The Bill introduces many more class exemptions than are found in the code of practice. That is an undisputable fact. We shall seek to remove from the Bill two significant class exemptions that are not found in the code of practice.

Possibly the most contentious of the new class exemptions contained in the Bill is the one that I have mentioned, which relates to the formulation of Government policy. As I have said already, and would always say, we agree that internal civil service policy documents, which are advice from civil servants to Ministers, should not be released. I accept that utterly; but it must be right that the background data that have informed policy making should be released in some, if not in most, cases. We began that process when in government--we did not complete it, but we began it--and we shall work to ensure that the Government do not try to row back from that now.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): On that very point, which the right hon. Lady has now covered twice, she will be aware of the evidence given by Lord Butler of Brockwell, the former Cabinet Secretary, to the House of Lords Select Committee appointed to consider the draft Bill, in which he said, at page 58 of that Committee's report:

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    "when we were coming up to the 1997 election, knowing what the government policy was in this matter, my senior colleagues and I gave some thought to how we could regularly structure submissions to Ministers in a way that would enable us easily to separate the background which was publishable from, as it were, the subjective advice which was confidential. It would take a bit of training and"--

these are important words--

    "changing practice to do that, but I think that people could very readily adapt to that."

Can the right hon. Lady explain what was happening in her Government, that that change had to take place in anticipation of our Government?

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman makes my case for me, because he has made a clear case that it is possible to separate the advice from the information on which it is based, and that is what we accepted in part 1, section 3(i) of our 1997 "Code of Practice on Access to Government Information" when we said that we should


    "relevant and important in framing major policy proposals and decisions".

[Interruption.] I am going to make this analysis because it is a crucial one. It is possible--the former Cabinet Secretary says that it is possible--to distinguish between advice and information, so why does the Home Secretary have one omnium-gatherum class exemption to cover all of it?

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