§ Order for Second Reading read.1.44 pm
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am pleased that the Traffic Calming Bill received a Second Reading, because it is a useful measure. If I had allowed my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) to speak on traffic planning measures, he would have done so without hesitation, deviation, or repetition for longer than was available to debate the Bill. However, I will make possible a tripartite welcome to the Bill of the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) by wishing it every success in Committee.
I am grateful for the 45 minutes that are available to debate my Freedom of Information Bill, and hope that all hon. Members who want to contribute will be able to do so. I can be brief, because the Bill has already passed through many hands. I am the latest fortunate recipient. I successfully introduced two earlier private Member's Bills dealing with different aspects of freedom of information, but the measure now before the House is the most important of the three, because it will provide umbrella legislation within which the two other Acts would operate.
The Bill essentially concerns official secrecy and proposes a new statutory right of access to official records. It will allow ordinary citizens access to records held by the Government and other public authorities. Information could be withheld only if it could be established that its disclosure would result in genuine harm.
The case for such legislation has been frequently stated. The Bill seeks to empower the individual and that principle is one on which the whole House ought to agree. I am happy that my Bill has all-party support and widespread public support.
If my Bill reaches the statute book, it will ensure that people will not continue to be left in ignorance about important developments concerning their personal affairs, communities, environment, safety and public authority services. It will allow the public to protect their own interests in dealing with the state. There has been a drift towards centralisation in Governments of both political complexions in recent years and a measure to redress that balance is now required.
The Bill would enable individuals to know the basis on which decisions were taken on their behalf and to challenge those that they considered unsound. They would also be able to ensure that agencies that purport to protect the public are doing their job properly, rather than be fobbed off with assurances that they are unable to question. Individuals could also challenge the official complacency that one sometimes confronts when attempting to obtain information in order to effect change.
Openness would be a safeguard against the potential arbitrary exercise of power. I hope that that important principle commends itself to right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. The Bill would invigorate and enhance the machinery of government and our political system. It would allow better scrutiny of official decisions and make it more difficult for mistakes to be concealed. I found refreshing the creditable performance of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, when he openly admitted before the House the mistake that he made last weekend. We all make mistakes and we should be less 663 concerned about trying to conceal them: The Bill would also make it difficult for unworkable policies to be imposed.
I could give numerous examples to illustrate my arguments, but will cite just three that recently came to my attention. Why should the reports compiled by the vehicle certification agency on the safety and pollution standards of new models of cars be kept secret? I am not suggesting for a moment that the agency approves unsafe cars, because I know that it does not. I am pleased that it undertakes the work that it does. The public are entitled to know which of the approved cars are the safest or the least polluting, but at the moment, they do not have access to the information.
Secondly, why cannot we find out more about safety problems affecting medicines? I discovered recently that the medicines control agency of the Department of Health inspects pharmaceutical plants, but the disclosure of the results of such inspections would contravene section 118 of the Medicines Act 1968. We learnt from the press last week that there had been serious safety problems at a Fisons pharmaceutical plant in Cheshire, but that information did not come from any British source. It was released in the United States under the American Freedom of Information Act.
Thirdly, why is the information about the quality of drinking water and hygiene conditions on British cruise liners secret? It is true that a prestigious ship such as the QE2, which plies across the Atlantic, is subject to inspection by the British Ports Authority when it docks in British ports, but the reports are kept secret. When the ship goes to New York, however, the American authorities can, under the Freedom of Information Act, expose any items of concern to them and make them public. The American Centre for Disease Control quite properly goes out of its way to circulate the inspection score results for each ship to travel agents and the press to ensure that the public know about any potential problems.
Unfortunately, the American way is not the British way. Let us contrast the American provisions with our own. I choose as an example—it is only one of many—the case of a hostel for the homeless in London which last year was closed down with only two weeks' notice because it was alleged that the drains were in imminent danger of becoming a health and safety hazard. The Government's position was that repairs would be too expensive. When the Minister for Housing and Planning was asked on a BBC radio programme why no one had been allowed to see the report that described the nature of the health hazard and the reason why it was estimated that repairs would cost as much as £2 million, he repliedYou cannot have detailed reports made available to every outside organisation and everybody who wants to come along and look at them…There is no way that I am interested in having umpteen organisations looking into every last detail of all our papers…I will not show you the report. I see no reason to show the BBC the report. You know the contents of the report. If you don't believe me that is tough luck.In that example, the Government were essentially saying that there is no way that their decisions will be subject to scrutiny. That is precisely what is wrong with the present system. That is what the Bill seeks to change.
There is much support for the Bill. As I said earlier, it has cross-party support and I am grateful to those hon. Members who have sponsored it. Moreover, there is a 664 clear body of public support for the measure, which has been tested by opinion polling. The latest MORI poll, conducted last January, found that 77 per cent. of the public back a freedom of information Act. The Minister may be interested to know, in parenthesis, that 75 per cent. of Conservative voters also wanted such legislation. He might tuck that information in his inside pocket and take it to the chairman of the Conservative party for use in coming weeks.
The House will know that other Freedom of Information Bills have been before the House. As long ago as in July 1979, there was a Bill which, if anything, had more distinguished support than mine. Its sponsors included no less a person than the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), who happens to hold the distinguished position of Home Secretary in the present Government. That may explain his absence. Freedom of information is not an issue which appeals merely to special interest groups, to the Liberal Democrats or to other Opposition parties. To his credit, the present Home Secretary supported the Bill at a time when his own party was in government. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and take a similarly enlightened view of the Bill.
Another distinguished supporter of our cause is the right hon. and learned Member for Tunbridge Wells (Sir P. Mayhew)—who is only, after all, the Attorney-General. In 1979, the right hon. and learned Gentleman served on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill. On 15 February 1979 he said:
"I hope very much that a public right of access to official information will prove practicable and that we can so order our affairs that a member of the public who is affected by an official decision can, as of right, get at the information upon which that decision is based. If it proves practicable, I believe that such a right should be enshrined in statute." —[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 15 February 1979; c. 207.]
If that was the view then of the present Attorney-General, he, too, should be here today to give legal advice to the Minister.
At that time people were concerned about the practicability of introducing a wide-ranging freedom of information measure, even though similar measures had long been in force in the United States and Sweden. Since then, however, we have dealt with the issue of practicability. Legislation similar to this measure has been introduced in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, all with Westminster-style Governments. If similar legislation has been found to be practicable and compatible with the Westminster model of government in other countries, I do not see why it should not be good enough for us.
The list of Cabinet Ministers does not end there. The right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), who is now the Secretary of State for Transport, supported the Bill, as did the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was a member of the all-party parliamentary committee for freedom of information. That committee was dedicated to securing precisely this kind of legislation. At that time the Chancellor of the Exchequer was the committee's vice-chairman. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when he replies to the debate.
The Minister ought also to bear in mind that in 1981 the Minister of State for the Armed Forces wrote a very interesting article. I anticipate that the Government's reply will be that this would cost too much money. However, the 665 right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton), who is now the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, said in that interesting article in 1981:Critics of freedom of information say that the costs of implementing the legislation would be prohibitive. I would answer that, on the contrary, it is secret government that is expensive.The right hon. Gentleman went on to refer tothe squandering of taxpayers' moneyin some then recent scandals that had been concealed by official secrecy. He added:Freedom of information would give the British people less government, better government and more democratic government."In the past, Government Ministers have supported such a measure. I hope that they will not be found wanting when this measure is put to the test.
Right of access is properly subject to a series of carefully honed and well-worked exemptions. Information would not have to be disclosed if, to do so, would damage defence, security interests, international relations, law enforcement, the competitive position of businesses, third parties or personal privacy. I stress that necessary confidentiality would be protected. I do not want anybody to think that this is a snoopers' charter.
§ Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)
One of my constituents has been trying for about five years to obtain a hearing for his case against the national health service. He has been thwarted because he has been denied access to information regarding his health history. Would the Bill benefit my constituent?
§ Mr. Kirkwood
A private Member's Bill, which became the Access to Health Records Act 1990, gives people access, as of right, to their health records. It was introduced by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). That Bill was also the result of pressure by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Alas, the provisions of that Act are not retrospective. If the health records to which the hon. Gentleman refers were written prior to the implementation of the Act, he may be unable to obtain help from it. This Bill, however, would, as a matter of overarching principle, allow that to happen.
Policy advice given by officials ought also to be properly protected. That does not mean that the factual information upon which it is based—analyses, projections and any other factual data—would be protected. Policy advice, however, certainly should be protected. In exceptional cases, but only where there had been an abuse of authority, official negligence or a danger to the public, exempt information still might be disclosable. Even in those circumstances there would be no automatic right of access; the benefits of disclosure would have to outweigh the possible damage caused. It would have to be shown that, in those circumstances, releasing the information was in the public interest.
In common with the data protection provisions that cover electronically stored information, the Bill would be enforced by an independent commissioner. A tribunal or registrar and tribunal would back up the commissioner.
I expect that the Government may say that the citizens charter provides the answer to the problems of secrecy and that the Bill is unnecessary. I welcome the charter and I agree that it contains some minor disclosure proposals, but it does not do very much. The important difference is that, under the citizens charter, the Government decide what information should be disclosed, not the individual 666 seeking it. The £5 million used in publicity to launch the citizens charter could pay for one year's worth of public provision of access under a freedom of information Act. It cost the Australians £4.7 million in 1990-91 to deal with 24,000 requests for information.
The Bill would give our citizens a fundamental democratic right—the right to know. Other countries provided that right years ago. Sweden has already provided the necessary legislation, America introduced such legislation in 1966 and France introduced it in 1978. Australia, Canada and New Zealand produced freedom of information laws in 1982. It is time that Britain followed suit.
§ 2.1 pm
§ The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Tim Renton)
I hope that the House will not mind if I intervene at this early stage in this debate. I would not normally do so on a Friday, but time is short and it might help the House if the Government's position on the Bill were known.
It is a pleasant coincidence to me that the last time that I spoke from the Front Bench on private Members' Bills was in 1989 when I spoke on the Protection of Privacy Bill and the Right of Reply Bill. Those Bills concerned the right of the individual against what was seen as the overwhelming power of the press. They led to reforms in the Press Council and the establishment of the Press Complaints Commission. At the heart of today's Bill is concern about the rights of the individual in relation to the power of what Thomas Hobbes described as that great "leviathan", the state.
Although I have sympathy with some of the broad principles advanced by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), the precise remedies prescribed in this all-embracing Bill are excessive and unnecessary because of the increasing openness of the Government. They would be impracticable—I stress that word because the hon. Gentleman spoke at length about the practicalities. Those remedies would be impracticable to men and women of good will, but more of that in a moment.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the cajoling matter in which he presented the Bill. He has had a consistent and constructive interest in access to public records. The hon. Gentleman introduced the Access to Personal Files Bill in 1987 and the Access to Medical Reports Bill in 1988. Today's Bill goes much further, as it creates an all-embracing public right of access to all records held by public authorities, subject to certain exemptions and the public interest tests contained in clauses 16 to 31.
The scope of the Bill is wide, as it applies to all public authorities. It would be fully retrospective after one year of operation and it would expose some 92 miles of shelved files in the Public Records Office alone to its access requirements. The Bill is designed to override and, therefore, in effect to replace a large number of existing statutory provisions relating to the disclosure of records and information. It is an ambitious Bill and, for that reason, despite its friendly title, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I believe that it is unworkable.
Before considering the Bill from the point of view of practical implementation, it is right to discuss its aims and 667 briefly to set out some general principles. Everyone agrees that democracy can work only if the public are well informed about public issues and political choices.
§ Mr. Renton
I have known my hon. Friend for many years; I was sure that he would support that statement, and so do I.
Everyone would also agree that democratic government must be accountable to the electorate and their elected representatives in Parliament and that accountability cannot be effective if the details concerning Government policy and performance are hidden.
Public services also work best if there is openness about what they set out to deliver and how they are performing. As the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire recognised in part, that is a key function of the citizens charter in respect of, for example, greater openness about waiting times in the national health service, the performance of schools and the comparative efficiency of local authorities, as audited by the Audit Commission. I suggest that that is the openness of the 1990s, which other democracies are following with interest.
The Bill would take us down a path that some countries took in the 1970s and 1980s, but for no great comparative advantage in terms of the effectiveness of their services and democratic processes.
There is room for fair and genuine debate about the best means to the end in open and accountable government. I have in mind the different answers which men of good will can give to four questions: what are the best means to achieve the end in open government? What records should the public have a right to see? How exactly should justifiable confidentiality be defined? And who should make decisions on the disclosure of information held by public authorities? In my judgment, on each of those four questions the Bill goes further than people of good sense would wish good government to go. Indeed, it goes further than many operational freedom-of-information regimes have gone.
There is a distinction between a policy of open government and one of freedom of information. Open government is about the voluntary creation by the Government of the conditions for an informed democracy. It is about greater transparency and accountability for the delivery of Government services. The Government can take pride in having carried forward the structures of openness in many profoundly significant ways.
"Freedom of information" is a good public relations term for a general public right of access to the records of Government Departments and other public authorities. As the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire said, the Bill would create an all-embracing form of such a general right.
In contrast, and instead of freedom of information, the Government are concentrating their efforts on considered and structured steps to enhance accountability and increase transparency in government. That has been combined with selective statutory rights of access to personal records—as the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire will know—and publication of certain information in statutory public registers.
668 I have time to give only a few examples, but they are selected from a wide field. The Department of Social Security holds data on millions of people. Increasingly the data are held on computer—national insurance records alone hold 60 million accounts. In line with the Data Protection Acts, "next steps" and the citizens charter, the Department is operating much more openly. People can check their computer records—4,000 did so in 1991.
On health, in recent years the Government have assisted private Members' Bills, including those sponsored by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, allowing patients greater access to their medical records and a say in whether those records should be provided to prospective employer's insurance companies. The hon. Gentleman referred to official complacency. What we have done in social security and health—both of great importance—is provide a fine and increasing safeguard against official complacency.
On food safety, in fairness the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire will recognise—he is a fair man—that inspection is largely a function of local environmental health officers. The enforcement procedures established and reviewed in the Food Safety Act 1990 include much more openness to inspection for Crown bodies. Those were discussed extensively. Enforcement is an open process and inspectors have powers to ensure that defects are quickly remedied.
I could give many other examples, but I know that other hon. Members wish to speak in this short debate. In total, the Government have done much more to create transparency in government than any of their predecessors. On the other side of the coin, in the interests of good government there must be boundaries to the right to see papers and records. The Bill recognises that, but the question then arises of where the boundaries should be drawn and where the exemptions lie.
The Bill covers the usual grounds of defence, security, international relations, law enforcement and personal privacy. I shall confine my remarks to just three points about the structure of exemptions. First, the exemptions under the Bill are much more restrictively drafted than many of the models on which the legislation is based. For example, it contains no exemption for internal working papers, thus creating a much greater presumption in favour of disclosure. Secondly, the Bill sets out to override all—I stress the word "all"—other statutory and common law restricting or prohibiting the disclosure of information. I know of no other freedom of information legislation that does that. The Bill certainly differs from FOI Acts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States of America, all of which exempt information, the disclosure of which is prohibited by statute.
§ Mr. Renton
It is a very substantial point indeed, relating to the scope of the Bill.
In substituting new public interest tests for other legislative provisions and protecting the confidentiality of certain information, the Bill would impose one of many answers to a difficult conflict of interests—the conflict between the right of the individual or company to have direct access to Government information and the right of the Government, in the interests of the whole country, to preserve confidentiality where it needs to be preserved.
669 Who decides the public interest? Under the Bill, it is ultimately decided by a commissioner or tribunal of lawyers, who may be wiser or less wise than a Minister. However, they are clearly not elected representatives. That leads me to my third point, which is that, in interpreting exemptions, and particularly the public interest overrides to exemptions, the new enforcement authorities created by the Bill—the commissioner and tribunal would have to form judgments that are presently made by a court, where necessary in criminal proceedings, or by Ministers accountable to the House.
Under clause 30, the commissioner or tribunal would have to weigh cases in which disclosure would bring an element of benefit and an element of damage, and decide where the public interest lies. Would those decisions, which now fall to a Minister directly accountable to the House, necessarily be better accounted for by a tribunal of lawyers? That is one area where the Bill marks an erosion of the Westminster system of government.
The pros and cons of freedom of information have often been debated and will doubtless be debated many times in the future. But they should not be oversimplified. The core is how the line between disclosure and the confidentiality necessary to government should be drawn, and whether it should be decided by the Government within the disciplines of audit and parliamentary accountability, which I have described briefly, or by the courts or an external commissioner and tribunal, on principles codified in law. It depends on the balance between the benefits of FOI in terms of increased public confidence in the integrity of government on the one hand—the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire stressed that in his opening remarks—and its costs in terms of additional bureaucracy, the potential for distracting officials and Ministers, and the precise place for Westminster in this system.
The results of the Bill would fall far short of a panacea, but they might produce temporary relief for the inflamed political imagination of those in the House and elsewhere who are inclined to see evil behind all Government confidentiality, however much they accept that some confidentiality is justified in theory. The Bill would provide that relief at significant cost to the taxpayer and considerable diminution of the powers of the House. I believe that the candour and constructive self-criticism of government would be impaired.
The Government strongly support greater openness in government and take a pride in their record. I believe that we have contributed more to openness, transparency and accountability in government than any previous Administration. We have accepted the principle of access to personal records where practicable—for example, computerised personal records, health records and local social services or housing records.
However, the Bill would carry access rights beyond the limits of the practicable. We are not persuaded that a general statutory right of access to public records such as the Bill embraces is a necessary part of our policy on openness. We believe that the form of requirements in the Bill is unsatisfactory, not least because of the relationship with existing legislation, much of which has been carefully considered in the House recently, and which the Bill intends to override. It would remove key decisions on disclosure to an unelected commission and tribunal and would significantly erode Westminster traditions.
670 I have listed some sectors where the Government have made great improvements, but I assure the House that we shall not rest on our laurels. On the contrary, we shall continue to work for greater openness; as and when we can make further advances we shall certainly do so, and tell the House about them.
§ Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on choosing this topic. I regret that, through the Minister, the Government have been so complacent and negative about the long campaign to end the climate of secrecy that envelops far too many parts of our lives.
The Minister has achieved one thing: he has neatly exposed the difference between the Government and the Opposition. At best, the Government admit some aspects of a citizen's right to be told. We and others believe that it is more a matter of a citizen's right to know. The "I may tell you" approach of the Government smacks of a "We know best" approach and implies that there are some things that people cannot and should not be told. Theirs is an upstairs, downstairs view of the world that smacks of a master-servant relationship. We hon. Members are supposed to be the servants and the electors are supposed to be the masters.
§ Mr. Renton
The hon. Member is clearly aligning the Labour party with the policy of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on freedom of information. Is he aware that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire was quoted in The Independent last week as saying that Labour's support for freedom of information goes about as far as Roy Hattersley's support for slimming aids?
§ Mr. Corbett
We want to go even further than the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. Everyone except the Government accepts that freedom of information lies at the heart of a modern democracy and that there is an urgent need of constitutional reform, which the next Labour Government will introduce. We must both extend and protect individuals' rights. We must also guarantee basic rights and, what is more, make them a reality for every citizen. We shall set out those rights in individual Acts to make them available to every citizen.
The Minister, perhaps because of the influence of his other job, brought an artistic flourish to his description of the Government's openness. The Government have trampled on the rights of our free press and independent broadcasters. Millions of pounds were tipped down the drain in pursuing Peter Wright around the courts of the world. The Government's interference with the BBC series "Real Lives" also springs to mind, not to mention their antics over the Security Service Act 1989 and the Official Secrets Act 1989.
As a prelude to our freedom of information Bill, early in the new Parliament we shall provide a statutory guarantee of press freedom. We shall ensure that the right of independent publication is augmented by the right and ability to obtain the information that helps to make press freedom a reality. Our freedom of information Bill—much along the lines of this one, but extended—will establish a general right of access to official information held by national, regional and local government and by public and 671 statutory bodies. That right will rest on the presumption that all information must be freely available. Exemption from that will require a demonstration that the publication of the information is against the national interest or an invasion of personal privacy. Those are similar to the exemptions outlined by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. If access is refused, reasons will have to be given in writing and the applicant will have to be told of his or her right to complain to an information commissioner and subsequently to an information appeal tribunal set up under the legislation.
We shall welcome debate on these exemptions to ensure that they are as narrow as they can sensibly be. Our Act will repeal the Official Secrets Act and replace it with criminal penalties for the intentional or reckless disclosure of information likely to cause serious injury to the nation, to endanger the safety of a citizen or to assist crime. That idea upsets the Minister, but we shall provide for a public interest defence to allow someone to argue—perhaps a newspaper or a broadcaster—that the information disclosed was in the public interest because it exposed crime, fraud or abuse of authority, or neglect of official duty or other serious misconduct, or because the information had already been published either in the United Kingdom or abroad.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)
With the greatest respect, but also with a sense of indignation, I must say that I am interested to learn that the Labour party has a Bill in mind which the House will doubtless discuss at some stage if Labour is returned to power. But we have a Bill before us to which we are giving a Second Reading—a real Bill, not a hypothetical Bill—and I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would briefly deal with it.
§ Mr. Corbett
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying and I can tell him that early next month we will publish our Bill. He knows as well as I do that today's Bill will be still-born because the Government oppose it.
I want to give an example of the stupidities to which this obsession with secrecy on the part of public servants gives rise. It took The Birmingham Post on Thursday this week to reveal that yet another inquiry, this time into allegations of bribery, is being held into some police officers serving in D division of the West Midlands police force, which covers my constituency. The Birmingham Post got the reluctant West Midlands police to admit tersely that there had been an internal inquiry and that Leicestershire police had been called in to investigate under the eye of the Police Complaints Authority. That was all. The Post revealed that initially two senior officers were involved, suspected of having close links with known criminals. The paper was later able to establish, with no help from West Midlands police, that six officers were under investigation. Why were not West Midlands police more open; why did not they announce what had happened? Why did they attempt to keep this knowledge from the people of my constituency and from the rest of Birmingham and the west midlands? Why, seemingly, did a senior officer of the West Midlands police force instruct that a tight lid be kept on the affair?
Such an attitude does great damage to police public relations and it does nothing for the morale of the service. These allegations and their investigation are a source of 672 major concern, seen against the background of the damage that the activities of some members of the former West Midlands serious crime squad—and all that followed from them—has done. The West Midlands police force will not regain the respect of citizens, which it needs and deserves, until it is more open about matters that are of proper concern to the citizens.
After the election, it will fall to a Labour Government to put a freedom of information Act on the statute book. I shall welcome that task.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd ( Aldridge-Brownhills)
Had it not been for the absence of rosettes, we might have thought that we were at the hustings. I passionately support the Bill to which I think the House should give greater consideration than that given by the Minister of State, Privy Council Office. He must have emerged blinking from the darkness of the Whips Office to be handed a speech of which I have heard various versions and sections in every debate on this topic. I can quote chapter and verse if departmental advisers wish me to do so. It was curious that the Minister could not identify the bits that had been glued to his speech.
The Minister rightly said that in Australia, New Zealand and Canada Conservative Governments took such Bills on board and passed legislation. Before doing so, they published their equivalent of White Papers. If the Minister had given himself enough time to look at those, he would have found that all the reservations and caveats that he advanced were addressed, weighed and disposed of in Committee.
In a democracy three principal reasons underlie such legislation, and they are to be seen in the citizens charter and in much of the admirable legislation that the Government have watched go through the House over the past 11 years. The first of those is the sense of ourselves as citizens. This is our state, our House of Commons and our information. On that first assumption is written our literature, our history and our ideas. To quote Pope,What can we reason, but from what we know?The second of those reasons is accountable government, as the Minister said. He is on clear ground with that now, in view of the Maastricht agreement and the Single European Act under which Ministers are no longer accountable for huge rafts of Government activity. He will have noted that the House of Lords overturned a statute passed since we were returned in the 1987 election.
The third reason is that such legislation improves the quality of decisions and arguments. The Minister seized upon and identified that, and he was right to do so. Affirmatively, the first reason leads, one hopes, to better decisions by government. Aldridge-Brownhills suffers from the Birmingham northern relief road, and I should like the inquiry report into that matter to be published because we have a right to know about the arguments that were advanced. A Territorial Army officer, Major Kennison, fell from a helicopter in a tragic accident. May we have the inquiry report on that? Not a bit of it.
The Bill is about the way in which we live. I pay tribute to a man who honoured those arguments, to a bonny Scotsman, Norman Buchan, who is missed in the House. Burns' night is tomorrow, and that brought to mind the lines from Burns which Norman Buchan taught me:Here's to them that would read. Here's to them that would write. 673 None ever feared that the truth would be heard but them that the truth would indict.I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Sir Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)
I support the principle of the Bill, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). I disagree with some of its details, but perhaps they could be dealt with in Committee.
I have been a civil servant and a diplomat and I recognise the need for confidentiality, but, on the other hand, government is in danger of becoming too secretive. As an historian, I find it puzzling that the papers relating to a miners' strike in Scotland in 1892, 100 years ago, are still not available for historians and that the Hess papers of 1942 are still kept aside. I also find it hard to understand why the secrets of the Ultra Enigma have been concealed.
I clearly understand the Government's dilemma. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister, when he reflects on this debate, to realise that when I was an official and a diplomat, I was far better informed than I have ever been as a Member of Parliament. Were I a journalist I should be much better informed than the average Member of Parliament. This is a profound problem that any Government—I am sure that it will be a Conservative Government—must address soon, with sympathy, Compared with the United States, Israel and many other countries, we are not being given the information that we legitimately need as a democracy.
§ It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed upon Friday 7 February.