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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this is one of those areas where there is broad political agreement, certainly between the Benches of the noble Lord and our own Benches. Yes, of course, we need to tackle the culture of secrecy that, over many decades, has taken root in some parts of our institutions. I cannot give an undertaking that we shall root out all of that before we implement the Freedom of Information Act, but the training and the learning exercise that needs to take place to deal with that problem is important.
I believe that departments are robust in dealing with complaints where the ombudsman has upheld them. I congratulate the ombudsman and the departments on their positive responses, as noted in the report. Progress has been made, but there is more to do. We are proud to have introduced the Freedom of Information Act. However, we know that we have a long way to go in tackling that culture of privacy and secrecy that, at times, is all too pervasive.
Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, has my noble friend noticed that in case after case, even where the outcome has been satisfactory, the ombudsman criticised the way in which the request for information was initially dealt with and, in his introduction, pointed out that some departments appear even now not to recognise that requests for information have to be dealt with under the code? When may we expect to see a proper training scheme in place for all staff, as was discussed during the debates on the Freedom of Information Bill?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I cannot be specific about the dates for the commencement of training, but of course, we need to have a lead-in so that departments can deal effectively with such issues. Training will be absolutely critical. The need for a national roll-out plan is urgent and we are in the process of preparing one. Although the Act provides us with up to five years to introduce roll-out training and so on, we would expect to bring matters forward much sooner than that.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, may I, through the Minister, express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who in response to a Question which I tabled for Written Answer valiantly fought to obtain the names of members of a working party? I received his reply today and I am most grateful to him.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government's Freedom of Information Act is a profound piece of legislation. I believe that it is as profound as the Human Rights Act. I believe that, over time, it will change the culture of secrecy which many in your Lordships' House sought to defend for far too long. I believe that our Act is effective and robust and provides an important right of access for the people of our country.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, will the Minister stretch his mind far enough to accept the possibility that answering a question and making his own position clear are not necessarily the same thing?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the new US Administration, while stressing their commitment to national missile defence, have made no decision on the development or deployment of a specific system. The US has made clear that prior to making any such decision it will consult fully with allies, with Russia and with others. We expect formal consultations to be scheduled with NATO allies once the US has developed its thinking further.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, the Prime Minister recently implied that if there were to be such requests from the United States, he would be inclined to give a positive reply. Is the Minister aware of the deep concern among many of our European Union allies, including those who are loyal allies of NATO, such as Germany and Italy? Would the Government support efforts made in particular by the German Government and others to try to bring Russia and possibly China within a negotiation that would allow the ABM treaty to survive and any possible NMD initiative to be associated with large-scale disarmament proposals under the Start 2 and Start 3 treaties?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we fully understand how serious and sensitive the issue is but I reaffirm what I said in my Answer. The United States Government are determining how to take the matter forward and they have come to no conclusion in relation to the specific form. It is also clear that the issue is a matter of anxious debate with our European allies and with the Russians. We are comforted by the statements made in particular by Colin Powell that those concerns will be taken into account and that consultations will continue. We believe that we should be fully involved in that situation and we will take those discussions further.
Lord Marsh: My Lords, while it is reassuring to know that the United States will consult with friendly and major nations on the subject, can we have an assurance that the British Government will consult with the British Parliament?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, your Lordships will be aware that in any matter which needs to come through this House or the other place the Government have always honoured their responsibility.
Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in the hard realities of the age in which we live real dangers face us in the sphere of international terrorism and the possible use of nuclear/chemical weapons by unorthodox means? Does she further agree that before we go down the road of "gi-normous" expenditure, it would be as well to examine how far such a system would defend us against the real and likely attacks which lie ahead?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I repeat that I understand the anxiety that has been generated by the issue. It is serious and sensitive. However, noble Lords will know that we undertook our own Strategic Defence Review in 1998 and as far as we are concerned that review stands. We shall continue to identify those issues which best serve the safety and security of the British people. That is not to fail to recognise the threat. We understand and sympathise with it.
Lord Blaker: My Lords, did not the Foreign Secretary say in Washington on 7th February, as reported in the Financial Times the following day, that an American national missile defence system could yield a net gain? Would the Minister spell out for us his thinking in saying that?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary during his recent visit to Washington made clear that we fully understand and share the concerns of the United States about the threat from weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. The Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State Colin Powell agreed that we should work together to do all we can to strengthen the international regime against missile proliferation.
National missile defence would be one element of the new Administration's response to the threat and it is not in British interests for our closest allies to feel vulnerable to attack. However, as I have said twice, the new Administration have made clear that they have no firm views on a specific system. Therefore, we must take this stage by stage and not run before we have decided in which direction to walk. We will treat the matter with the same probity and judicious judgment that we have used in the past. The nation's security will remain our priority.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, will the wonderful Freedom of Information Act allow the British public to have access to the details of the agreement we have made with the Americans on the use of Fylingdales and the Mendip Hills and any changes which may be necessary to that agreement in order to accommodate the NMD process?
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