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9.2 pm

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): It is a privilege to participate in a debate that has consistently been of a high standard. I have also agreed with much of what has been said by hon. Members on both sides the House. Nevertheless, the shadow Home Secretary would have done better to read the Bill before coming to the House to castigate it.

I welcome the Bill--whatever its deficiencies, it is a major step forward. Although much has been said about the code of practice, the code is limited in scope and, ultimately, is voluntary. The Bill will confer new and statutory rights on citizens. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) said very clearly, the Bill will give citizens new rights of access to information about the way in which their daily lives are administered--the bread and butter issues that really affect how millions of British people live.

People will be able to obtain information on the way in which local government makes its decisions and health authorities and hospitals develop their priorities; on the conduct of police and the Prison Service; and on how local schools are run, admissions policies are operated, and further education is managed. Even more than central Government--and certainly more than the internal workings of Whitehall and ministerial offices--those are the institutions, agencies and organisations that dominate the daily life of the people whom we represent, and it would be a big mistake to overlook that fact.

When the Bill is passed, it will enfranchise and empower millions of people across the United Kingdom. I am more interested in the men and women whom I represent in my constituency than in the journalists onThe Guardian and other distinguished newspapers who would like to know every last bit of tittle-tattle that passes between advisers in a Minister's office, important and titillating as that might occasionally be.

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The Bill must be considered in the context of a broad and radical programme of constitutional reform. Power has been devolved to Scotland, Wales, and--historically--in the past week to Northern Ireland. A strategic authority for London is about to be established. At last, we have incorporated the European convention on human rights in our legislation. We have made an important start on reforming the House of Lords, and the Government have introduced the Representation of the People Bill. All those measures give up power from the centre and yield the Government's power to the people. Giving up information is another way of yielding power. It is no coincidence that Governments who exercise the greatest control over information tend be the most repressive Administrations--those who most eagerly and efficiently deny power to the people.

The process is not without difficulty and the translation from White Paper to draft Bill and then to Bill has not been easy. However, the Government should be commended for tackling challenges from which previous Governments of all parties have shied away, and for admitting, as the Home Secretary did this afternoon, that further amendments could improve the Bill and strengthen the rights that it confers on citizens. That process demonstrates the exercise of democracy. It is the dialectic of a proposition that is argued, criticised and improved. The process involves the exchange of ideas, to find common ground and consensus and to identify and isolate important issues of principle about which we cannot agree. In great matters of constitutional reform, all parties should strive together to find a solution.

I commend the process that has already been undertaken. As other hon. Members have said, the new and welcome practice of introducing draft legislation, especially to Select Committees, has been vindicated. There was widespread consultation on the White Paper. The Select Committee on Public Administration let the Government know its views. The draft Bill that followed was, in some ways, a retreat from the principles of the White Paper, but in others, it strengthened the Bill, not least by providing for tribunals. The Select Committee commented constructively on the draft Bill. Dialogue between the Select Committee and those who framed the legislation proceeded. The Bill that we are considering is better than the draft Bill in many respects, but it is capable of further improvement.

For all the dialectic, exchange of views and continual modification, the Bill remains flawed. The Home Secretary sets great store by the need for the culture of secrecy to be changed, and by his expectation that that will happen. He is right to say that that there is a culture of secrecy and control in Whitehall and Westminster and that it should be changed. We need to shift the presumption in the way that we are governed from secrecy to openness. That will create a radical change in the relationship between the citizen and the state. It will shift the balance between the rights of the citizen to demand that the Government be accountable at all times and the state's ability to control information and the administration of daily life.

It is essential that that cultural change puts the citizen at the centre of the process of government and make Ministers and civil servants truly accountable. If we are to restore the citizen's trust in government, the Government must trust their citizens more than at present. The Bill does not place the Government's trust sufficiently in the people whom we represent.

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When the Home Secretary appeared before the Public Administration Committee, he bridled somewhat whenI suggested that information was the oxygen of democracy--without information it is impossible for democracy to flourish--but that he seemed sometimes to regard it as the carbon monoxide of democracy. I did not mean to insult him or denigrate his commitment to the legislation. I was suggesting that he was over-protective of the citizen, as if the inhalation of the oxygen of information might harm them.

That is a slightly paternalistic approach. It is well intentioned, but wrong. It shows a laudable commitment to open government, but it is not the same as conferring the right to know on the citizen. It is not the same as giving up the Government's monopoly on information and accepting that citizens may come upon information that others would be eager to keep from them.

If freedom of information is to be truly effective, Governments have to be prepared to make mistakes in disclosure. The change of culture to which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary refers is a leap of faith. All leaps of faith involve risks and hazards, but in a truly mature democracy, we should accept those risks freely. That is what happens in a free society based on a mature relationship between the governed and their Government.

Three principal shortcomings in the Bill go to its heart. The first is the absence of a purpose clause, about which others have spoken. The second is the existence of blanket exemptions. The third is the limit on the Information Commissioner's powers. The purpose clause, more than any other, should signal the cultural change that we all seek. It should leave civil servants in no doubt that power has shifted from the panjandrums to the people. The Bill allows civil servants to manage change without being subject to it. That is a weakness in the proposals. The absence of a purpose clause leaves Whitehall in charge, leaves citizens' rights abridged and weakens the rest of a Bill that its presence should inform and illuminate.

A great deal has been said about the exemptions. I concede that some areas of public administration are sensitive and it would not be sensible to divulge information about them. Every speaker has accepted that the right to know is no more absolute than the right to freedom of speech. James Madison, the American president who gave us Madison Square garden, also said:

The class exemptions that remain in the Bill disarm the citizen. They close off vast territories of information and knowledge, irrespective of whether disclosure would cause harm. That is the key point. I take little comfort from a commitment that today's Ministers will always err on the side of disclosure. They may well do that, or set out intending to do that.

I apologise to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), as I did not mean to tweak his tail in my intervention. However, I elicited from him the kind of response that I might have expected--although not because it was he who gave it. He reeled off at least three or four reasons why the information that I was

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seeking from him should remain concealed. There may be good reasons for that--there may not. I am not in a position to judge.

Mr. David Davis: I am.

Mr. Bradley: Frankly, that is not good enough. I do not make this point ad hominem, because other Ministers in previous Administrations, in the current Administration and in Administrations to come have made, and will make, the same special pleading when faced with disclosures that they would rather not make.

I take little comfort from a commitment that today's Ministers make and that tomorrow's Ministers may not. Legislation that does not foresee the possibility of a change of Government, and does not provide rights that can withstand such change, is flawed legislation. I would argue that the provisions of the Bill should be founded not on good intentions, but on statute.

According to the Consumers Association, 69 per cent. of people polled do not trust Ministers to disclose information when it is sought. This Bill is as much about trust in Government and restoring people's faith and confidence in the way in which they are governed as it is about the freedom of information. That is precisely why Ministers should not be given the last word. It is also why Ministers should not seek to have the last word.

For all information, in my view, the only test should be whether its release would cause harm and whether its disclosure would prejudice the public interest. That judgment itself should be open to contest by the Information Commissioner, whose own decision, after all, is subject to appeal. In that way, both the citizen's right to know and the public authorities' need, on occasion, to withhold information are preserved.

Thus, authorities will not be seen to have an automatic right to conceal their mistakes or wrongdoings. Nor will commercial interests have the opportunity to conceal, for example, the dangerous goods that they are seeking to market for commercial profit.

The central issue is the limitation that the Bill places on the powers of the Information Commissioner. The commissioner is not, and should not be, merely a cipher. She will be the advocate of openness. Sometimes, she will support and acknowledge the need to withhold information, but she must be--and must be seen to be--the citizen's champion. She will be able to exercise that onerous responsibility only if she has powers that are enforceable on the citizen's behalf, and if she has the power to enforce those decisions without fear or favour.

The ombudsman's experience of the code--this is the weakness of the voluntary code--has been that recalcitrant Departments and public bodies have too often exploited the ombudsman's lack of enforcement powers by challenging not just the ombudsman's judgment, but his interpretation of the code. Successive ombudsmen have commented on this matter. I am indebted to the Campaign for Freedom of Information for providing those sources. We should all pay tribute to the campaign for its extraordinary work over a long period. The fact that the Bill has been introduced is much to its credit, its major problems with some of its central planks notwithstanding.

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In 1995, former Ombudsman William Reid said of the code:

Two years later, when the code had been in operation for three years, Mr. Reid's successor Michael Buckley said that departments

    "fear that they are setting a precedent . . . they do not want to say yes, that the department accepts this interpretation of the Code. It turns into a process almost of negotiation".

Somewhat more colourfully, he said:

    "if the Government wants me to act as referee we cannot have a situation in which every time I award a free kick everyone troops off the field for an elaborate investigation of the rule book and to telephone the FA."

Those well-chosen words illustrate amply why a voluntary code, well intentioned though it may be, is ultimately ineffective.

If the Bill is to bring about the culture change in Whitehall that we seek; if it is to lead to a better understanding of, sympathy for, and commitment to, the way in which we are governed; if Ministers are truly to be held to account; if there is to be transparency in public administration; and if we are to restore public confidence in Government, the citizen must know that the Information Commissioner can, and will, enforce his or her rights.

I commend my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for the concessions that have been made by, for example, reducing the response time from 40 to 20 days, removing rights to restrict the way in which information gained by citizens can be used, removing the jigsaw clause and the protection from self-incrimination, and limiting Ministers' rights to create new class exemptions.

A very few more significant amendments will make a good Bill immeasurably better. It will, if he wants it, provide my right hon. Friend with a lasting testament to a truly radical, reforming Government, prepared to reinvigorate our democracy and to redefine and extend citizens' rights, not only in principle but in practice.

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