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9.23 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): This has been a good debate. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself deriving some pleasure from the speech of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley). The main feature was a lot better than the trailer that we had during the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis). Perhaps it is best to draw a veil over that.

I agree strongly with what my right hon. Friend said about the policy side of the Bill and the ill-fated clause 33. I also agree strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). He spoke compellingly and has some political and moral capital that he can expend on this cause, as has the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), to whom the whole House listened with great interest and who spoke, as he saw it, for the interests of the man in the street.

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There is a mood in the House--among all parties--in favour of greater openness in government. There is also a general feeling that the Bill as it stands falls short of being what the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) characterised as an all-singing, all-dancing Bill. I hope very much that the Government will listen carefully to the excellent points made not only by Conservative Front Benchers but by Government Members too.

I want to identify the Bill's biggest deficiencies. I agree with the comments made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) about the extent of the exemptions, and those exemptions that rely on the prejudice test. I am also dubious about that test. It will leave England in a different position from Scotland, and I am not as relaxed about that as the Home Secretary.

The Bill's biggest deficiency lies in the way in which it treats the workings of central Government. I agree with the House of Lords Select Committee, which said:

If the Government cannot set a good example on freedom of information, what can we expect from others?

As it stands, the Bill is defective, because clause 33 would impose a wide exemption on matters relating to Government policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills made some good points about class exemptions, and clause 33 contains a class exemption par excellence. It does not require a test of prejudice: information can be withheld purely because it falls within the class described in clause 33. That is a wide exemption from the requirement for disclosure.

I am grateful to the Campaign for Freedom of Information for an overview, which I share:

Those would all be outside the freedom of information requirement because they fall within clause 33. Anything that would not be caught by clause 33--although it is hard to envisage what that could be--would be caught by clause 34, which contains a harm test.

A "qualified person" has to decide whether one of the various forms of prejudice described in clause 34 arises. Who is the qualified person? It is none other than a Minister of the Crown. As the hon. Member for Cannock Chase rightly said, the tortuous process has two stages. The Minister's decision can be examined to see whether he got it right. Who examines that decision? Under clause 13, it is the Minister himself, again. I am not sure how a Minister should go about that process. Perhaps he should take his decision under clause 33, go to bed, and see whether he is in a better mood the next day to examine it under clause 13.

The Minister has to decide whether the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest in maintaining the exemption in question. However, the key point in clause 13, which covers the whole area of Government advice and many other issues, is that it is a purely

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discretionary disclosure. Indeed, that is the title ofthe clause. Ministers decide. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) wrote a very good book called "Ministers Decide", but when the Home Secretary leaves office he will have to call his book "Ministers Decide Everything". Ministers will be judge and jury in their own cause.

Clause 33 contains a wide exemption. I asked the Home Secretary about that, and why information that was wholly innocent and did not cause any prejudice to anybody would be excluded by that clause. I was not convinced by his answer and, without wishing to be too partisan, I must say that I caught the odd whiff of smoke and glimpse of a reflection when I heard the Home Secretary's reply. The clause must be reconsidered and the feeling on both sides of the House is that we need more objectivity and impartiality.

As it stands, the clause would require Ministers to show impartiality and wisdom of almost saintly proportions. Set against the presentational needs that face all Governments and Ministers, it would expect a lot of them. It would be much more realistic if we were to have a true override--not a discretionary one--with Ministers' decisions being examined by someone else. My right hon. and hon. Friends have made some good suggestions about the role that Parliament could play in that.

As it stands, the Bill does a great deal to protect officials--rightly, in some instances--but it is, I fear, a Bill with which Sir Humphrey would feel far too comfortable, and of which he might even be a little proud. At present, the Home Secretary is in danger of seeing his photograph take pride of place in Sir Humphrey's office.

9.30 pm

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): Greater openness in Government is one of those issues that can always be expected to stimulate a lively argument in the House, and today's debate has certainly lived up to that expectation. We have been treated to many fine speeches, but I shall single out those of the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd).

More to the point, the debate has confirmed the Government's difficulty in persuading many of their own side, as well as Conservative Members, of the merits of the Bill as it stands. That should come as no surprise to the Home Secretary--who, I am sorry to say, has not yet arrived--because, for all his bluster, mingled with his customary charm, he cannot seriously have expected seasoned campaigners for greater openness to swallow his argument that a statutory framework would in itself guarantee a culture of openness.

In its current form, the Bill is not a guarantee that more information would be released than is released now. What matters is that the provisions cover as much information as possible, and are enforced by a strong independent body with the ability to compel public authorities to release information. The Bill conspicuously fails to meet that test, as anyone who has listened to the debate will conclude.

We are being asked to approve a Bill that manages to make more information secret than is the case now. Several Members have referred to its failure to provide a

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proper mechanism for the release of information, data, facts and analysis providing advice for the purpose of ministerial decisions. Too much discretion is left in the hands of Ministers and officials. One after another, my right hon. Friends the Members for Sutton Coldfield and for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), the right hon. Member for South Shields and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), the hon. Members for Hillsborough, for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) expressed dissatisfaction with the Bill in that important regard.

The right hon. Member for South Shields supported the contention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden that Lord Butler had it right when he said that an arrangement could be made to segregate information from advice, but the Home Secretary, as ever, seems unconvinced. We know that 195 Members, in the last Session, signed an early-day motion tabled as recently as 19 October, referring to the Government's failure in this respect. They also expressed concern about the fact that the Information Commissioner would have inadequate powers to release information on the grounds of public interest. That, too, characterised the debate: speaker after speaker made the point that there must be a degree of compulsion that is sadly lacking in the Bill.

This, we believe, is the litmus test of a commitment to greater openness. The debate has demonstrated that the Government have failed miserably in that regard. Conveniently, it will still be Ministers and officials--the Sir Humphreys to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) referred--who decide whether information should be released. That is not progress.

The Home Secretary's detailed explanation of the Information Commissioner's powers to require release managed to confuse even the right hon. Member for South Shields, who probably knows more about this subjectthan anyone else. The Home Secretary was uncharacteristically disingenuous--

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