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Mr. Maclennan: As a matter of historical record, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman clear this up? Which Ministers are responsible for the parliamentary draftsmen? When I had a lowly position in government, it was certainly a matter over which no departmental Minister had control.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: It is a good question. In my experience, the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General had a close relationship with parliamentary draftsmen. We regarded ourselves as the Ministers who should speak up when they felt beleaguered, as they sometimes did. The usual reason why they feel beleaguered is that they receive instructions for Bills far too late and are then expected to have done it by yesterday. I do not thinkthat there is a Minister with responsibility for the parliamentary draftsmen. If there is, I ask the Minister in this Government to put his hand up. I think that the Minister in charge of each Bill is responsible in some way for the parliamentary draftsmen of that Bill. The problem is one of overall ethos, and it needs to be corrected.

I welcome the Bill, but it has serious faults, which have been rightly identified by hon. Members on both sides of the House. When the Conservatives come back into Government--everyone knows that we have to contemplate that imminent possibility--we do not need to be scared about strengthening the Bill. That is what we should do.

8.11 pm

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): I am delighted to participate in the debate because freedom of information and the right to know is something to which I have been committed all my life, especially since I have been involved in politics. The first sign of maturity in small children is when they ask the question why. We carry on from there to the days when I was a member of the Committee that considered the Right to Know Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) in the previous Parliament. I welcome the opportunity to be the Labour Member to speak after him.

We have had an interesting debate so far. I hope that I shall not tread over the ground that other people have trodden very adequately, but I want to make a few specific points. The first is about the Bill's scope. We have become slightly bogged down with it as a Bill relating to Government and Ministers. I was impressed by schedule 1, which lists almost 500 bodies to which the Bill relates. They range from the adjudicator for the Inland Revenue, through the BBC, the Countryside Agency, the Environment Agency and, going down the list in alphabetical order, to the Tate gallery and the Zoos Forum. We sometimes mistakenly think that we are talking simply about Ministers' commitment to a presumption of openness. I want a Bill that lays down that presumption of openness for the whole scope of the establishment that runs our lives.

Still on the matter of scope, I was interested that the 500 organisations did not include the Child Support Agency, the Benefits Agency or what I might call the

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Of-family--Ofwat, Oftel, Oflot and so on, the regulatory agencies. Why are they not on the list? My constituents seek information about the reasons for decisions that affect their lives taken by the CSA, the Benefits Agency and the regulators as often as they do about decisions taken by Ministers. It is important to get it right.

I appreciate that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary believes in openness. He has done a magnificent job in putting openness into legislation, being open to suggestions, improving his Bill and introducing it in this first Parliament--something that Labour members have argued for. However, the Bill has to affect the other bodies to which I have referred, which may not have a presumption of openness and will take their lead from Ministers. So we come back to why it is so important to get it right and put an assumption of openness in every clause.

It is something of a lost opportunity that so much emphasis is placed on exemptions. I suspect that the public bodies affected by the Bill and which dominate our lives are not making representations about the Bill to Ministers because they think, "Oh, we need not worry about it. There are all these exemptions. If something crops up, we can always say that we do not need to make something public because to do so might affect the efficiency of our organisation or prejudice the effective conduct of our affairs." They may quote clauses 33 and 34, which relate to Government Departments. Other bodies may take those clauses to apply to them when they want to be less than open about a mistake that they have made.

In 1984, the Conservative Government introduced the access to information code. At that time, I chaired a local government committee in Sheffield city council. I was even then committed to openness so I welcomed the code. I remember standing up and saying that it was probably the only thing that that Government had thought up with which I had any sympathy.

As chair of the committee, I used to examine the care with which officers had placed their reports in part 1 or part 2 of the committee agenda. I could not help noticing that when the timetable had slipped, spending was over budget or a department had not performed as well as a council department ought to, there was more inclination to place a report in part 2, which was not open to public scrutiny, than in part 1. That brings me back to the general point of the legislation. We are talking about a Bill which will have to deal with public authorities with their backs to the wall, fighting not to disclose something that inadvertently, for either a small or a big reason, has gone wrong.

Other hon. Members have contrasted the code, which attempted to separate facts and information from policy guidance, with the Bill. From my experience in local government, I do not believe that it is impossible for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to find a perfectly adequate way of arranging the submission of policy advice so that a distinction is made between the information on which officials present their advice and the informal interpretation of that information, which they may want to talk through with a Minister in the light of a party's policy. It is clearly not appropriate for those discussions to be held in public, but the information and the facts on which they are based should be public. With a presumption of openness in Departments and public

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authorities, that would not be impossible--indeed, it is desirable. Without it, the ground will be cut from under the worthy aspirations of the Bill.

One example of a public authority with its back to the wall occurred in relation to the tragedy at Hillsborough. I mention that because the tragedy took place in my constituency and was important to the people whom I represent. I have told my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary of my genuine concern about the exemption clauses on potential criminal prosecution. The two senior police officers at Hillsborough on that day are facing private criminal prosecutions, although they are no longer members of the South Yorkshire police force. There was a huge desire, not just in Sheffield but in Liverpool, that the full facts and the detailed information held by the police on every aspect of their management of that terrible tragedy--whether video cameras were running and so on--should be open to the public and made available. The Bill must be cognisant of such circumstances and cover them.

That leads me to the powers and role of the commissioner. In especially sensitive circumstances, there will be disagreement--although not frequently--in respect of the discretionary provisions of the Bill and the balance as to who should have the final say. It would be better to view the establishment and the public authorities as Goliath and ordinary citizens as David, with the Members of Parliament who represent them trying to err on the side of David. As other hon. Members have pointed out, we should trust an independent person to make the final decision, even though, as Members of Parliament, we might find the decision embarrassing.

Several hon. Members said that we live in a secret society where matters are closed to us. That is not true. In this country, we live in an incredibly free society. We vote often; we have a free press; we do not have a big illiteracy problem; and we can demonstrate, like the farmers at the Labour party conference--even Tommy Archer was acquitted of destroying a field of genetically modified crops.

Despite all that, however, individuals often find themselves at the mercy of the establishment. I would like some assurances from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and Home Office Ministers that they will take the Bill slowly, that they will not get entrenched in their own arguments but will be prepared to listen to the arguments of hon. Members, and of those outside this place, and that they will be prepared further to strengthen the Bill.

I have made those points for two reasons. The first is political, almost romantic: this country needs to defend its freedoms. This Parliament needs to defend those freedoms on behalf of the country; and the Labour party, which has taken so many steps forward on minority rights and human rights, and now on freedom of information, needs to defend its proud tradition.

The second reason is purely pragmatic: we do not want to pass a Bill that will be out of date almost before it reaches the statute book. We need to acknowledge the power of the internet and of communications, and the rapidity with which information goes international. Information is on the internet; it is open to Europe and to the world. Commercial confidentiality may become a thing of the past, when so much commerce is carried out on the internet. Injunctions to stop publications have

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already become almost worthless, because before we know where we are, we can read all about it on the internet.

Let us get this important measure on to the statute book in a state that takes us into the next century.

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