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Miss Widdecombe: Uncharacteristically?

Mr. Greenway: I am being kind to him. He knows full well that many hon. Members are concerned that the commissioner will have no power to have the final word on whether information should be released in the public interest. Nor does the Bill offer real progress on the kind of information that should generally be available. Hon. Member after hon. Member has confirmed that the Bill represents a step back from the code of practice on access to Government information, which we published in 1994 and strengthened in 1997.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said that the code had virtues. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire said that it was a positive step forward. The hon. Member for Hillsborough was good enough to say that she had welcomed it. In the White Paper, Ministers criticised the code for having too many exemptions. There were 15, but the Bill contains more than 20--12 pages of them--and provides no proper test of harm. Too many exemptions will make it more difficult for people to get hold of information. The Bill therefore represents a significant

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shift of attitude from what Ministers said both in opposition and in a White Paper that promised a king's banquet rather than a Bill that delivers a dog's breakfast--and a complex one at that.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): The hon. Gentleman has to do better than that.

Mr. Greenway: The right hon. Gentleman has not been listening to the debate. Speaker after speaker has expressed disquiet about the Bill. The hon. Member for Hillsborough called it a lost opportunity. We have heard time and again that it does not go far enough. We are prepared to give the Bill a Second Reading and to take it on trust--"hope" was the word used by the right hon. Member for South Shields--that we will be able to amend the Bill in Committee. However, what the Home Secretary has said is only marginally encouraging. We heard his usual noises about listening to arguments, but the Bill falls significantly short in many key areas.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross hoped that the Home Secretary would be susceptible to change, but talked about the Government's being in full flight from the proposals of the White Paper. He said that the Bill was timid, and that the power of Ministers to decide the public interest was perverse. He supported the right hon. Member for South Shields and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on the need for a purpose clause, which the code covers.

How bad would the Bill have to be before the Home Secretary and his colleagues would support a reasoned amendment that seeks to censure the Government's approach, asks the Government to reconsider and recognises that the Bill makes more information secret than our code did? Although they agree with our unresolved criticisms of the Bill, many hon. Members have criticised our reasoned amendment.

Mr. White: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Greenway: I do not have time.

What is wrong with asking the House to ask the Government to reconsider the Bill and produce a better one? The Bill is less effective than the code, and we are being asked to take a great deal on trust.

The Home Secretary referred to the two devices used in Australia to delay publication of information. His own device is remarkably transparent: publish a Bill, knowing that he has to give ground on some issues, allow lots of consultation with a Select Committee and pre-legislative scrutiny, then publish a revised Bill, which his hon. Friends can say today is much improved. Throughout the debate, however, one speaker after another has expressed continuing fundamental concerns about the Bill.

That is why the House is entitled to ask the Government why they are in retreat from their White Paper proposals. Why have they changed their mind? Have they lost their nerve, or has the experience of power blunted their enthusiasm for greater transparency? Or is it, as the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) said, because civil servants have managed to introduce change without giving up control? That says it all.

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Perhaps the right hon. Member for South Shields,for whom I have the highest regard as he well knows, will follow the example of some of his right hon. Friends and publish his memoirs at an early date, so that we can be enlightened further as to why the Government have had such a remarkable change of heart.

While we have serious criticisms of the Government's revised approach, which are reflected in our amendment, we want to stress our commitment to strengthening the provisions in the Bill if the House gives it a Second Reading--[Interruption.] The Home Secretary should calm himself and wait and see. Had he listened to the entire debate, as I have, he could not feel comfortable as a senior Minister in a Government when one after another of his Beck Benchers has criticised the key elements of the Bill. Had they more courage, they would be joining us in the Lobby.

Our approach to the Bill will reflect the positive attitude displayed in our code of practice, so that the emphasis is clearly one of a presumption in favour of release of information, rather than in secrecy. The hon. Member for Warrington, North spoke in support of a statutory right to disclosure. That is not what is in the Bill. We will try to remove several of the class exemptions, some of which do not sit easily with a supposed culture of openness. We will also work to ensure that the provisions of the legislation are enforced by a body that can force public authorities--that has been the demand in the debate--and Governments to release information in the public interest.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) explained in her opening remarks, our preference would have been for an information ombudsman and a role for Parliament--for this House--in overseeing the release of information. The hon. Member for Hillsborough said that, in reality, it will be a David and Goliath situation and that we ought to trust the independent arbiter. We agree and, to ensure that the Bill is strengthened in that regard, we shall seek support from Labour Members in Committee and on Report--which will be an interesting event judging by what we have heard tonight. It cannot be right that Ministers and officials have the final say on whether information is released.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills asked that the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House. I have much sympathy with their argument. Having heard so much opposition to the Government's measures from their Back Benchers, we would relish such a Committee.

The Home Secretary claims that the Bill represents a sea change in providing access to information, and that the culture of secrecy is over. He asserts that introducing a statutory right heralds a new era of openness. The debate has shown that many of his hon. Friends, as well as Conservative Members, are not fully convinced of that. They have demonstrated serious reservations about key aspects of the Government's proposals. The general mood of the debate demands that the Home Secretary should think again. Right hon. and hon. Members can reinforce that concern by supporting our reasoned amendment.

9.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) has some brass

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neck. In 18 years, the Tories failed to create any statutory right to know. Their code of practice was non-statutory and effectively unenforceable. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said from the Conservative Benches that the Conservative Government set their face against freedom of information legislation. Now they have the unmitigated gall to criticise a Government who are creating a statutory right to know. The Tory party is without credibility on freedom of information. Tory Members' pious posturing is a case of, "Do as I say and not as I did for the past 18 years".

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) described the speech of the righthon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) as a sad and confused affair. I chide him. He was too harsh. Let me defend the right hon. Lady. She has a difficult brief. Having done nothing to end the culture of secrecy in Whitehall for 18 years, she now opposes a Government who are acting to tackle it. It is difficult for her. At one point, she favoured keeping things as they were--the old inadequate code. Then she wanted to amend the Bill to strengthen and support it. Then she wanted to deny the Bill a Second Reading and prevent any amendments being tabled.

The right hon. Lady told us that she had done her homework and that there was some logic to the various U-turns. By the end of her speech, I thought that they had become S-bends. I am sure that there was logic somewhere, but she could not explain it to us, just as she could not explain why she kept secret a pile of prison reports on her desk for a year. At least when criticisms come from the Liberal Democrats or from our own Back Benchers, they have the merit of coming from those who have a record of supporting a statutory right to know. We have the opportunity in the weeks to come in Committee to deal in depth with criticisms of the Bill, but I will deal with some of the main ones today, including the main Conservative ones.

Disagreements about a Bill containing such detail are inevitable, but let us set out the common ground between the Government and many of my colleagues on the Back Benches who expressed concerns and made excellent contributions to the debate. It was a very good debate. The speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) received warm and deserved tributes from many hon. Members. It was an important contribution to the debate. Excellent speeches were also made by my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke- on-Trent, Central, for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) and for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). A thoughtful speech was made by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis).

The level of agreement is profound. We all agree that the Whitehall that we inherited is too secretive. It is unnecessarily secretive. It is secretive by culture, and unnecessary secrecy can be profoundly undemocratic and corrosive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North said.

As the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said, there is a mood for greater openness in the House. The Government and Whitehall recognise that there is a need to be more open, but I say to our critics that the advocates of freedom of information do not have a monopoly on righteousness. There is a tension between

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the right to know and other values. If we were debating a right to privacy today, many of those who advocate freedom of information might also advocate a right to privacy for Britain.

The Government hold information about individuals. They usually have no consent to make that public. Journalists may well want access to information held by Government, but it is not always right to hand it over. What may be suitable for The Guardian is not necessarily right for Britain.

Companies give substantial amounts of information to Government about commercially confidential matters--such as their financial intentions, their approach to their competitors and the internal affairs of their business. Interestingly, under United States freedom of information legislation, companies made up to 60 per cent. of the requests for information because they were trying to find out about the commercial secrets held by their competitors. If British-based companies believed that, under freedom of information legislation, our Government would unnecessarily hand over commercially confidential information to the press or competitors, it would restrict our ability to obtain otherwise sensitive information about financial movements, the environment and health and safety issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North suggested that an explicit public interest in disclosure should be referred to in the exemption for information. I point out to her that clause 13 contains a requirement to consider the public interest in disclosure.

People also expect Government to be run according to the principle of collective responsibility. Parties are the basis of democratic government. By their nature, parties are coalitions and there must be room for legitimate discussion within any Government. There must also be room for senior officials to advise Ministers without their advice appearing on the front page of national newspapers a little later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase(Dr. Wright) rightly referred to the need for a legitimate area for policy formation--limited, yes, but necessary. Government is still too secret, but the public interest is also served by some recognition of a right to privacy, some rights to commercial confidentiality and the right to develop an efficient policy advice system within Government--as well as the right to know.

None of those values is absolute. There can be no absolute right to privacy, confidentiality or internal Government debate, any more than there is an absolute right to information in all circumstances. Those are rights for the balancing. There is a natural and creative tension. It is perfectly legitimate and proper for each country to determine how, within its culture and history, it gives different weight in its laws to each of those values. Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and other countries have struck the balance in their own way. They may all be useful examples, but they should not be regarded as templates forcing us down a particular route. We must seek our own solution in robust debate in this House and in this country.

Some people have a tendency to point to all the most liberal propositions in the legislation in other countries. They then add up all those points and say that a failure to meet the test of being the most liberal on all counts is a betrayal. That is not what we promised in our manifesto.

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The Bill delivers a sensible and balanced package, reflecting the importance that we attach to freedom of information, as well as to privacy of the individual, while not permitting the abuse of our legislation for commercial advantage; it will enable effective democratic government.

We welcome the chance to debate those issues with colleagues. We have shown that we are willing to listen and we shall continue to do so. The recognition of the need for balance is essential. I welcome that recognition, especially in the contributions made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase. I point out to my colleagues that, although various newspapers--including The Guardian--have orchestrated a principled campaign on this matter, what is right for journalists is not necessarily right for us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough asked whether Ministers were entrenched. I assure her that we are not. We are convinced that we have found the right balance. We do not have a monopoly on wisdom in these matters, but we are prepared to engage in vigorous debate and we are not afraid to listen.

Freedom of information is a three-stage process. First, hon. Members should remember that, in the Data Protection Act 1998, the Government have already granted the right to access to personal files held by public authorities. Many other countries regard that as the core of what they call freedom of information. In a sense, we already have in place provisions that enable members of the public to look at their files.

In the Bill, we are in the process of implementing the second stage--access to wider Government information. The third stage has also begun, with the publication of yesterday's strategy to begin opening up the culture of Whitehall and other public authorities.

Some countries have tough FOI laws but have had limited changes in the culture of the bureaucracy, so FOI has had limited success in creating openness. Other countries, such as New Zealand, have concentrated less on the wording of the legislation than on the cultural changes and have achieved a greater degree of openness. Legislation is only part of the process. It provides the essential legal base, but creating a new culture of openness is in many ways the real test.

Yesterday, the Home Office published the report of a working party on openness in the public sector, which demanded that public authorities now start the process of putting in place that culture of greater openness. To some extent, as has been said, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already published a large amount of information previously held secret. We are in the process now of creating a new culture in Whitehall and among public authorities. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald says that it was done under her code of practice. It was not under her code of practice; it was a decision by Ministers that they wanted to be more open, unlike the previous Government. The present Government were prepared to publish these things.

A classic example, which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald should remember, is the seven piles of documents on the guidance given to immigration officers, which she wanted to keep secret and which my

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right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I decided to put into the public arena. That information has done no damage to immigration controls. That was an example not of the right hon. Lady's code of practice, but of moving forward on freedom of information voluntarily.

However, we need to do more than give Ministers the right to move forward voluntarily. We need a new culture in Whitehall and among all public authorities. Some have asked, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, what if the Government should change? What if there should be some other Government who were not as open as the present Government are? That is why the cultural change is necessary. We intend to push forward this agenda, building stage upon stage to create a new openness in Government, which will remain for decades to come. That is what the Government are committed to, and that is what we intend to deliver.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) voiced several criticisms about the number of clauses dealing with exemptions. He claimed that there were 24 exemptions in the Bill. There are in fact 25 clauses dealing with exemptions, but most of the subject areas remain largely the same as they were in the White Paper "Your Right to Know"--national security, defence, international relations, law enforcement and others with which the right hon. Gentleman is familiar. However, we have added Parliament and other bodies, such as the National Audit Office, to the exempted area. We must protect parliamentary privilege, so we have had to add some exemptions for them. Because we have broadened the Bill, we have had to add some narrow exemptions.

The Bill will deliver a statutory right to know in Britain for the first time ever. There will be more information about health authorities delivering services, about the police dealing with burglaries and thefts, about schools, about local councils and about every area of government, including local government, and how our public authorities work.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) said that the Bill marks a fundamental shift of power from the state to the people. Indeed it does. The Conservatives talked about FOI; we shall deliver it. All that they came up with was a non-statutory code. I confess that I did not even know about it, and I suspect that most people did not. The Conservatives' FOI code was kept secret; we need to ensure that we are now public. The Bill will deliver openness and deserves support. I commend it to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The House divided: Ayes 138, Noes 377.


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