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5.59 pm

Dr. David Clark (South Shields): It is rather strange to participate in the debate and to consider the Opposition amendment. I am not sure whether I find it galling that the Opposition take the view that we should reject the Bill on Second Reading, and thereby, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) pointed out, obviate any possibility of improving the Bill, or whether I should put their view down to hypocrisy.

I have to say, when I consider the history of openness and Government action in this country, that I accept that the previous Government took steps in the right direction when they introduced the code of practice. However, I do not accept the point made by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that the Bill is weaker than the code. It is a psychological as well as a statutory point that, if the Bill becomes law, it will give the people of Britain a right of access to information that they have never had before. That is a mammoth step forward.

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If I am a little indiscreet, it will be in the name of freedom of information, but I recall sitting down, on the first Saturday in May, with my permanent secretary and discussing what was in the manifesto. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary stated, it contained a clear commitment to introduce a freedom of information Bill. My permanent secretary indicated that there had been almost no work to prepare for such a Bill, for the simple reason that the previous Administration had explicitly--I emphasise the word "explicitly"--decided that there would be no such legislation, so there was no need for any preparation.

I was faced with the opportunity to introduce a Bill or to put the code into statute. I studied the code very carefully and I saw that it had virtues, but also weaknesses, and I did not think that it was appropriate to proceed with the code. My Cabinet colleagues and I therefore set about drawing up a White Paper. It was two years ago, almost to the day, that I stood at the Dispatch Box apologising to the House because--surprise, surprise--somebody had leaked the freedom of information White Paper. That document was a major step forward that took many hours of work and involved almost every other Cabinet Minister. That work enabled us to proceed with preparing the legislation.

Like everyone who has wrestled with this problem, I have found that it is not easy to solve. It involves many issues, such as privacy, to which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald referred when she was talking about the Data Protection Registrar. There are two sides to the coin, and it is difficult to get things right. Almost every Member of the House accepts that there are parts of public administration about which information cannot safely be released to the general public, and our citizens clearly understand that.

Having said that, I strongly believe that, as we move into the new millennium, we must start building a new concordat with our citizens. If we are to be modern and progressive, we must be bold. My view is that there is obsessive secrecy in Britain. Secrecy is almost endemic in senior levels of the civil service, and that must be changed. That is why I was so keen to put forward a radical White Paper, and I was delighted that all my Cabinet colleagues, including the Prime Minister, endorsed it.

I read the draft Bill published by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I am delighted that he took that to a pre-legislative stage. I read very carefully the work of the two Select Committees--the Public Administration Committee in this House and a Select Committee in the House of Lords. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend saw fit to accept a number of recommendations by those Committees, and this Bill is certainly an improvement on the draft Bill that was before us six months ago.

I was encouraged to hear my right hon. Friend say--or at least I thought that I heard him say--that his ears are not completely closed to further improvements to the Bill, if we can determine what improvements should be made. That is why the official Opposition, in seeking to defeat the Bill, have deeply flawed logic. I hope that we can use the good will that exists on both sides of the House to improve the Bill in Committee. I shall make one or two suggestions that I believe will strengthen the Bill.

First, I shall make a general point. One problem, which is not the fault of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, is that the Bill has become incredibly complex.

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As I listened to the speeches of my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, I began to wonder whether I had understood the Bill, because it is clear that there is confusion about the power of the Information Commissioner compared with that of a Minister. I am not sure whether Ministers' interpretation of that power is the same as mine, but I shall return to that important point.

When I considered overseas examples, I was determined that a freedom of information Bill should be written for the benefit not of Ministers, civil servants, business men or journalists, but of the ordinary citizens of this country, who I believe have a right to know much more of what goes on behind the closed doors of bureaucracy.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: To pick up the right hon. Gentleman's point, does he agree that we need to address the sheer complexity of the way in which this Bill--and far too many other Bills in recent years--has been drafted, and that we could learn a thing or two from European legislative methods, even if, for many of us, that might stick in the throat?

Dr. Clark: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a serious point. I know that a number of people feel that, in devolving certain powers to other Assemblies, we have missed an opportunity to take a bold initiative and use a different form of language. I accept his point because I, too, wanted a system that was easy to understand and easy to use. One should be able to enter a system that begins with the White Paper and goes right through to the appeals process. The system that I wanted was clear. There were no class exemptions and, although there were some exclusions, access to other information was based on the issue of substantial harm; that would have been a better way to proceed.

Dr. Gibson: Is my right hon. Friend aware of how many amendments have been made since the 1966 Act was passed in the United States and how that Act has changed?

Dr. Clark: My hon. Friend makes a salient point. I have always argued that the Bill will change; it will change for the better and make the system more open as society changes. We must recognise that and, to accommodate it, we need to include a form of words that gives the Home Secretary various powers to make orders under the affirmative procedure. I note that such provisions are made in the Bill. I was keen that opportunities for litigation, which is so prevalent in the United States, should not be too easily available under our system, and I hope that we can pursue that point.

I am pleased that the Bill is broad and covers a wide range of public administration. That is correct. I wanted the Bill also to be deep--it may be lacking in certain substantive rights, but perhaps we can put right some of those points. I was encouraged by the rhetoric used today by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I pay tribute to his openness, because he is one of the Ministers in this Administration who has been very open.

I remember sending a missive to my Cabinet colleagues asking which were the oldest documents held by their Departments. I will not regale the House with

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the responses; perhaps my right hon. Friend will do so on another occasion. However, he referred to a document which went back to 1874. He was able to release it with the names of the individuals crossed out. It was important that that was done, otherwise there could have been criminal activity. That was an example of a Minister who tried to be more open.

A key point made by all hon. Members is that there are opportunities for openness for members of the Government and members of other public bodies, but they do not avail themselves of them. If we are to change the culture, it is important that we change the approach within public administration. I wonder whether--this pointwas picked up by the Select Committee, and the Government half addressed it by moving clause 8 to a different place in the Bill--it would be sensible to have a purpose clause at the beginning of the Bill. Such a clause would get across to the ordinary man and woman in the street that he or she had the right to access. At the same time, it would inculcate into the administration--into our senior civil servants and public bureaucrats--that there is a responsibility to be open.

That responsibility exists in the code, which states:

That point was made fairly by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, and perhaps it is something that we should consider writing into the Bill in Committee.

Perhaps we should again be considering whether it is possible to play around with "prejudice", "harm", "simple prejudice" and "substantial prejudice". I would be happy to see different categories. In the White Paper, we accepted that advice to Ministers would be subject to a simple harm test. We argued that, for the general release of information, there should be a substantial harm test. There may be gradations and perhaps we could include "serious" in front of "prejudice". It is something that the Select Committee considered.

The power of the Information Commissioner concerns many hon. Members on both sides of the House. Having considered overseas examples, especially that of New Zealand, I recognise that it is an important issue. If we are serious, as an Administration in the new millennium, about forming a new concordat with our citizens and trying to rebuild trust with them in an increasingly individualistic world, it is important that, on occasion, we trust other people--I am talking of people who will have been chosen carefully and who are experts--to take decisions. As I understand it, when it comes to public interest, it is Ministers, not the Information Commissioner, who will have the final word.

I know that my right hon. Friend believes that the issue is being exaggerated; he feels that the power will not be used. I point out to him that such a clause was originally in the New Zealand freedom of information legislation, and, in the first six months, there were seven occasions on which individual Ministers overruled the Information Commissioner. The legislation was then changed and the power was given through an Order in Council to, in effect, the entire Cabinet. The power has never been used since. I consider this to be a strong point. I ask my right

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hon. Friend to reconsider the matter before Committee to see whether there is a way forward. It would be a great step forward in rebuilding confidence among our citizens on this issue.

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