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Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: I give way for the last time.

Helen Jackson: My logic may be flawed but it seems to me that, not longer than five minutes ago, the right hon. Lady said that she admitted to the House that she preferred the status quo. The intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) has just drawn from her a totally different interpretation--that she was perhaps trying to change the status quo.

Miss Widdecombe: I do not know whether it is the hon. Lady's logic that is flawed as much as her understanding.

Helen Jackson rose--

Miss Widdecombe: I will not give way. I shall say this once more, and only once more. Our code of practice, which I have quoted so often that I cannot read out all the words again, clearly stated that not just the opinions and the submissions, but the facts and analysis of the facts that the Government consider relevant and important are to be published.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) rose--

Miss Widdecombe: I very clearly said that that was the last intervention for some time.

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In his evidence, the former Cabinet Secretary made it clear that it was possible to distinguish between advice and information, but the Home Secretary's class exemption does not distinguish between the two. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) seems unable to follow that elementary reasoning.

Mr. Williams rose--

Miss Widdecombe: I shall now make progress.

We shall also oppose any class exemption on information relating to the investigation of accidents. Obviously, we would not countenance the release of documents that would prejudice criminal proceedings, but we do believe that the public should have access to some documents relating to incidents, such as--it is only an example--the recent tragedy at Paddington. In relation to certain types of information, there is an absolute need for a class exemption.

For example, we accept--there is no argument between us about this--that the Home Secretary is right to say that information received in confidence from a foreign Government should not be subject to the provisions of the Bill. However, the increased number of exemptions in the Bill will undeniably make more information secret than was the case under the code of practice. Therefore, we shall examine every class exemption that the Government propose to introduce and we shall evaluate whether the exemption rows back from the code of practice or, indeed, from the Home Secretary's own White Paper.

Another fundamental flaw in the Bill is the inherent weakness of the Information Commissioner, who will be set up by the Government supposedly to enforce freedom of information. Under their proposals, the Information Commissioner will not be able to compel disclosure of information where he deems release to be in the public interest. That is the difference between what we advance, which is that the Information Commissioner should be limited by what is in the public interest, and what the Home Secretary advances, which relates simply to what is not covered by an exemption. They are two completely different cases.

If a member of the public appeals to the commissioner after being denied information, the commissioner cannot order disclosure and nor can the tribunal, which is the appellate body, and nor can the courts, which can address only points of law and not the substance of whether the public interest is being served. Therefore, it is clear that Ministers will continue to decide whether information should be released or not.

Mr. Bercow: Is it not a source of disturbance to Conservative Members that the Bill offers no prospect in future of better ministerial performance at Question Time than we have witnessed in the past when, as my right hon. Friend will agree, obfuscation has been the norm and disclosure has been the exception? Will she cast her mind back 27 hours and tell me whether she thinks that, under the Bill, I am likely to get a better answer to the question that I posed to the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), about the effect on job opportunities of the manufacture by prisoners of 260,000 pairs of slippers between March 1997 and March 2000?

Miss Widdecombe: You might, Mr. Deputy Speaker, rebuke me if I endeavoured to rehearse yesterday's

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Question Time, and I see nods from the people at whom I am not supposed to look. Therefore, I will not be tempted down that route. However, it would be high optimism to the point of folly to assume that any Freedom of Information Bill would improve ministerial answers at Question Time. Perhaps, now--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I say again that I do not want to hear exchanges across the Floor when the House should be paying attention to an hon. Member.

Miss Widdecombe: I was saying that the final fundamental flaw in the Government's proposals is the side-lining of Parliament. The Bill contains no provision for ensuring that Parliament plays a role in ensuring openness. In decisions relating to the public interest, we believe that it is right for elected Members of Parliament to hold Ministers to account.

There are many other more detailed problems with the Bill. For example, under its provisions, it is up to the Home Secretary to decide which public authorities are subject to the legislation, and it can be noted from the Bill that he will do so by order. That is in contrast to the Human Rights Act 1998, in which it is for the courts to decide whether a body should be subject to legislation.

We shall also need to examine carefully the Government's proposals to merge the post of Information Commissioner with that of the existing Data Protection Registrar. I do not doubt in any way the excellent work done by Elizabeth France, the current Data Protection Registrar, to whom the House is very grateful. However, we shall need to consider carefully giving responsibility for ensuring openness to a post which at the moment ensures secrecy and privacy. We believe that they are two separate and distinct roles and that any attempt to confuse them could result in a less effective enforcement process.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): If the right hon. Lady is suggesting, as she has done in press interviews, that going to the ombudsman is the better route, will she explain how the effectiveness of the ombudsman will interact with that of the Data Protection Registrar? The two posts are inextricably linked, as the evidence to the Select Committee showed.

Miss Widdecombe: I shall come to our proposals for the ombudsman if the hon. Gentleman will exercise patience.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): Before my right hon. Friend comes to that important point, may I suggest caution? She has suggested two classes in which she absolutely accepts the exemptions. The first is information given in confidence between Governments. This country is part of the European Union and therefore ruled by the agreement of Governments. Information that is commonplace within our own self-rule area will not be available under the provisions. That is an important point.

The other exemptions that my right hon. Friend mentioned are those that relate to policy advice. She will recall that the former Chancellor of the Exchequer made available to the world advice on changes in interest rates--a practice continued by the present Government

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and put in statute. That did not bring about the fall of British Governments, and many of us would argue that it improved the quality of judgment and reassured markets about the performance of the British economy. I suggest that my right hon. Friend takes account of that caution because the proposals in the Bill are draconian.

Miss Widdecombe: I agree with my hon. Friend's final point that many of the proposals in the Bill can be called draconian. I undertake to consider his first point carefully. However, on his second point, there may be occasions when Ministers, with the agreement of permanent secretaries, want to release policy advice. I am not saying that they should never under any circumstances release such information, but that there should not be a running requirement for them to do so.

Among our proposals would be the removal of many class exemptions. We would set up a powerful new information ombudsman with the power to compel public authorities to release information on a test of public interest. Members of the public could appeal directly to him if they have been denied information by any public authority. We would set up a parliamentary information Committee to oversee the work of the information ombudsman.

In summary, the Government's rhetoric and what they have presented to the House are not compatible. They say that they are in favour of greater openness, but their flawed proposals will make more information secret. The consultation period has been characterised by ignoring most of the major recommendations that they received. We are in favour of greater openness and our introduction of the code of practice and our strengthening of it three years after its introduction demonstrate our commitment. However, I have admitted that that code was not perfect, and I would have been perfectly happy for it to have been built on a great deal further.

The proposals that I have outlined today are simply common sense. If we are to have a Freedom of Information Bill, it must result in more information being released and it must give Parliament a role in ensuring openness. We shall continue along that path in our approach to the Bill. We shall endeavour to ensure through whatever mechanisms that are available to us that, by the end of its processes--if such processes the Bill is granted--it will improve the position and not cause it to deteriorate in the way that the Bill would at present.


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