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Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): In view of the confusion about the Freedom of Information Act, especially the scurrilous accusations of partisanship by the Opposition, may we have a teach-in for hon. Members so that we can better understand what the Act says and how it operates? Perhaps the FOI commissioner could be asked to organise such an event.
Mr. Hain: As you will know, Mr. Speaker, there is guidance for Members of Parliament on some important issues for us in respect of the Act. The overall point is that we introduced the Act because we believed in greater transparency and accountability of government. That is what we believe in and will stick to. Despite these day-to-day processing stories that are being raised by the Opposition, in time the workings of the Act will settle down. Some complex matters are involved, such as how to protect the principle of ministerial responsibility but at the same time protect the position of officials and civil servants as well as national security and commercial confidentiality. Every request has to be judged carefully, and that we are doing with scrupulous fairness.
May I ask for an urgent statement from the Fisheries Minister about the official information released to fishermen on 25 January promising them three extra days fishing at sea with the proviso that they fish in an
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environmentally sensitive way? Now they have been told that it was all a mistake and that the days on offer are being withdrawn. The Leader of the House knows how hard-pressed the fishing industry has been. He also knows that people have made financial commitments based on the official information that they were given. Will he ask his colleague to come to the House to make a statement about what can be done to allow the Government to live up to their word and not further prejudice things against the industry?
Mr. Hain: I realise the importance of fishing to the hon. Gentleman's constituency, to Scotland and to the whole of the United Kingdom. It is a vital industry. My hon. Friend the Minister will note carefully the points that the hon. Gentleman has made and I am sure that he will want to respond to him in writing.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Is it possible to have a debate on miscarriages of justice? I am sure that the House was pleased that the Prime Minister was able to apologise with such sincerity to the Conlon and Maguire families yesterday. I am sure that anyone who heard Gerry Conlon's interview could understand the burden that had been taken off him after so many years of injustice.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are a number of miscarriages of justice in the south Wales area, in particular the so-called newsagent three, who were wrongly imprisoned for 11 years for the terrible murder of Philip Saunders, who was a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan). Mike O'Brienone of the Cardiff three, who is now my constituenthas always said how much it would have meant to him if someone had just said they were sorry. How can we take this forward?
Mr. Hain: I agree with the point that my hon. Friend makes about the moving response from the Conlon family to the Prime Minister's forthright apology for what was a grave miscarriage of justice. Any miscarriage of justice is a stain on the legal system, and the House will want to ensure that they are apologised for and that the necessary consequences follow. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will note the points that my hon. Friend has made in respect of the case that she raised.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): Has the Leader of the House has seen early-day motion 684, which is supported by a number of colleagues on both sides of the House and from all parties, and which details the consideration in Committee of the Identity Cards Bill, indicating that clauses 8, 9, 10, 11, 23, 24 and 25 were not considered?
[That this House regrets that, because of the guillotine, the Standing Committee on the Identity Cards Bill was prevented from discussing Clauses 8, 9, 10 and 11 relating to issue etc of identity cards, renewal of identity cards for those compulsorily registered, functions of persons issuing designated documents and power to require information for validating register and Clauses 23, 24 and 25 relating to rules for using information without an individual's consent, appointment of National Identity Scheme Commissioner reports by Commissioner and jurisdiction of the Intelligence Services Commissioner and Tribunal;
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further regrets that, as a consequence, the total number of groups not reached because of knives was 10 and the number of Clauses and Schedules stand part not reached because of knives was six; and therefore deplores the restricted time allocated to the remaining stages of the Bill on Thursday 10th February.]
The wider point, on which I should be grateful for a discussion as soon as we return after the recess, is how we restore to the House the proper examination and consideration of Bills, especially those that touch on the freedoms and liberties of the citizens of this country and those that raise big issues of the relationship of the citizen to the state.
Mr. Hain: As a Government, we have sought continuously to introduce sensible timetabling. The hon. Gentleman disagrees with me on that matter, and there may be individual cases where issues need to be addressed, but I think that I am right in saying that the Chairmen had repeatedly to pull up Conservative members of the Committee to which he referred for filibustering, and that additional time was offered.
The big picture is that we ought to back the introduction of identity cards, for the reasons that the Government have explained, and I want to know where the Conservative party stands on that. I gather that Conservative Members will abstain on the matter today. Are they for or against identity cards?
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): May I raise with my right hon. Friend once again the question of rail freight and the channel tunnel? A strategic rail freight network is developing on the continent of Europe, and the channel tunnel is underused and in financial difficulty, while on this side we have an inadequate railway system that does not deliver sufficient freight to the channel tunnel. We could put 30 extra freight trains a day through the tunnel10,000 trains a yearthus making a tremendous difference to our freight industry. We could link our industrial areas directly to the continent of Europe if we had that freight delivery system. Can we not have a full debate on the need to develop a rail freight route that links Scotland and all Britain's industrial areas to the continent of Europe?
Mr. Hain: The Secretary of State for Transport will agree with my hon. Friend's objectives. We all want more freight to go by rail and less on the roads for environmental and efficiency reasons. It is undoubtedly true that there are opportunities to make greater use of the channel tunnel, which is why the Government seek to maximise those opportunities. My hon. Friend refers to the inadequate railway service, but I am sure that he will also want to welcome the huge investment that the Government are providing to improve our railway network, including for freight, and to compare it with both the dreadful situation that we inherited from the Conservatives and the cuts in rail investment that would follow as part of the £35 billion in cuts that they are promising if they win the next election.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con):
May I tell the Leader of the House that his responses on the
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Freedom of Information Act 2000 sound almost as though he is auditioning for the future role of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster? He certainly gave the sort of answer that we get from the present incumbent of that post.
We need a debate on freedom of information. Of course, the Government introduced the Act, but the question is whether they did so to enable the even-handed disclosure of information or for partisan political advantage. When the right hon. Gentleman says that civil servants decide such things, he should bear in mind the civil service advice that was leaked, which advised that certain aspects of the exchange rate mechanism papers should not be revealed because they might be read across and then used by the Conservatives to insist on answers to some of the questions that we have asked. They are answering the questions that are helpful to the Government. Why are they not answering questions that would be helpful to the Opposition?
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