§ [Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration of Session 1995–96 on Open Government (HC 84) and the First Special Report from the Committee of Session 1996–97 containing the Government Response thereto (HC 75).]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a sum, not exceeding £78,288,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, for or towards defraying the charges for the year ending on 31st March 1998 for expenditure by the Office of the Minister for Public Service on the central management of the Civil Service; expenditure resulting from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster's chairmanship of the BSE Implementation Committee; expenditure on privatisation of executive agencies; and certain other services.— [Mr. Freeman.]
§ 5.2 pm
§ Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)
This is the second debate this year that has been initiated by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. The first was on the Child Support Agency and this one is on freedom of information. That is a clear sign of the breadth of the work and scope of the Select Committee. Today's debate stems from the Committee's report, published on 20 March 1996, on open government.
Currently there is in place a code of practice on access to Government information. The code came into effect on 4 April 1994. The effectiveness of the code is guaranteed by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, who acts as the mechanism for external review. The Select Committee is empowered tocall Departments and Ministers to account for failure to supply information in accordance with the code.The code has now been in operation for some two years and now might be an appropriate time to review its effectiveness.
I have no doubt that the code has strengthened the democratic process, and it has done so in at least three distinct ways. First, it has brought greater objectivity to personal files. Secondly, it has improved decision making both by Ministers and by public servants. Thirdly, it ensures better-informed debate. The White Paper, "Open Government", stated:At the heart of the Government's philosophy is a belief in the need to return to individual citizens the power and means to make their own choices and to determine their own priorities. The Government has insisted that public institutions exist to serve the individual, and not the other way about.Few in this House would quarrel with that description. It is an entirely laudable objective and one that I support. The code goes a long way towards achieving that aim.
146 I am a late convert to the principle of freedom of information. I had previously believed that there are certain areas of Government activity that should remain secret, such activity being cloaked, as the Germans say, under "Nacht und Nebel". Indeed, it might reassure the House to learn that, even in countries that have freedom of information Acts, certain activities of Government remain secret. There clearly must be limits to the openness of government. No freedom of information regime grants completely unlimited access to all Government information; to allow such access would make government and responsible decision making impossible.
The code currently contains exemptions similar to those found in parliamentary legislation abroad. The House will be aware that one of the arguments most often used against freedom of information is that it will harm the frankness and the candour of decision making and thus damage the process of government. Clearly, that danger must be avoided; however, the code has, as one of its exemptions:Information whose disclosure would harm the frankness and candour of internal discussion".At the end of the day, it is the ombudsman's responsibility to judge whether exemption has been properly used, or whether it is an excuse to deny the right to information.
The Select Committee has made it clear that it is now necessary to go much further than a code or, indeed, an Act of Parliament. We argue that there should be a change to the culture of public service, from an assumption of secrecy to an assumption of openness. We are therefore pleased to note that the Government have now agreed to revise the code in line with the Select Committee's recommendation, to make clear the principle of availability of information. I shall be interested to hear from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster whether he believes that that change is forthcoming and what further measures he proposes, to ensure that the civil service's understandable instinct for concealment is replaced by an instinct for disclosure.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)
My hon. Friend spoke about "Nacht und Nebel"—night and fog—but surely that applies not only to civil servants, but to quasi-Government agencies, such as the Benefits Agency? How will his code of practice apply to such bodies?
§ Mr. Pawsey
I am grateful to my hon. Friend—his knowledge of German is, I suspect, equal to my own. The code of openness applies to the agencies as well: they are required to provide additional information as is thought necessary.
My argument is that the code remains only a code and does not go far enough. We should introduce a statutory right. We need an Act of Parliament to ensure that the citizen has a right of access, to see what lies on his or her file.
The Committee welcomed the fact that a public interest test was included in the code, which states:It should be considered whether any harm or prejudice arising from public disclosure is outweighed by the public interest in making information available".It would be helpful, therefore, were we to read more evidence in the ombudsman's reports that civil servants are actively considering the public interest before refusing information.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
I am interested in the fact that the hon. Gentleman 147 repeatedly mentions civil servants. He is aware that civil servants accept political and certainly day-to-day business direction from Ministers. That appears to be missing from his equation. I am not sure how or why.
§ Mr. Pawsey
If she contains herself a little longer, she will find that I refer to Ministers being more open just as much as I believe that their civil servants should be more open.
One of the great benefits of freedom of information is the right that it gives citizens to know more about records that are maintained about them. Citizens should be able to read what a civil servant writes about them. The code is of recent inception and is not well known, so it is not well used. I hope that one of the by-products of the debate will be to draw attention to the existence of the code and give it greater publicity, so that the ombudsman receives more complaints.
Even if the debate attracts attention to the code, I do not believe that the code goes far enough. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant), a code remains a code, and I believe that the citizen should be given much greater statutory rights.
Secondly, freedom of information might result in more comments being made informally and orally instead of in writing. I understand the point. It should not, however, be forgotten that decisions on individuals' files might have to be justified later. If the written documentation proves inadequate to justify a decision, the decision maker will be in difficulty. Recently, a Minister in Australia resigned precisely because there was no written audit trail to account for decisions that she had taken.
I shall now describe some of the benefits that result from open government. In the White Paper, the Government stated that open government waspart of an effective democracy".Targets and guarantees of service should be set out. Complaints procedures should be set down and publicised. The right to Government information is part of that culture change.
I am delighted that members of the Select Committee, who played an important part in gathering information, are present in the Chamber. When the Select Committee took evidence, it became clear that freedom of information Acts concentrate the bureaucratic mind. A minor example taken from Australia remains firmly in my mind and, I suspect, in the mind of hon. Members who heard it. In relation to an interview that took place prior to the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act in Australia, a note in the margin of a letter read—this may annoy the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)—Not bad for a woman".148 Clearly, after the Freedom of Information Act, such a comment would be unthinkable. When notes become readily available, prejudice and bigotry diminish.
§ Mr. Pawsey
I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is an indefatigable member of the Select Committee and works exceedingly hard. I am pleased, but not surprised, to see him in his place.
§ Mr. Campbell
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those kind words.
Another point emerged from evidence that we took about the Australian experience. Let us say that there was a personal file on Mr. A. The Freedom of Information Act meant that any document could be obtained, so if a person wanted to make a comment about Mr. A. that they did not want to be read, they would write it on a sticky yellow post-it note and attach it to a document in the file. Then, if that document was requested, the yellow note was removed and the document handed over, but the real stuff was not in it. We found that that was happening in Australia. We want to watch carefully to ensure that it does not happen here.
§ Mr. Pawsey
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. His memory of what takes place in Australia is good, and I acknowledge the strength of what he says.
§ Mr. Fabricant
A far more despicable example of such a practice occurred at the end of the second world war. The British and American authorities in Germany attached paper clips to files of some German prisoners of war who were known to be members of the Waffen-SS. If the paper clip was attached, it showed that they would work for the new occupying powers and would not be held to trial.
§ Mr. Pawsey
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I should, however, remind my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) of the remarks that I made earlier about the audit trail. Obviously, if the audit trail is incomplete because post-it notes have been removed, the person responsible for the information must answer.
§ Mr. Michael Lord (Central Suffolk)
My hon. Friend knows that, although the Committee's view may lean toward statute, some of us are not so keen on that route and believe that the code should be given longer to work. Is my hon. Friend aware that, before the debate, there was a statement from the Ministry of Defence about Gulf war syndrome?
§ Mr. Lord
The major problem was the lack of accurate records, which is relevant to what we are discussing. Does my hon. Friend agree that the thing that has struck the Committee most about our visit to Australia—and in much of our deliberations on this issue—is the difference between individuals' records, and the issue of making them available to individuals, and state papers, which fall into an entirely different category?
§ Mr. Pawsey
My hon. Friend is right to make that point. He is another conscientious member of the Select 149 Committee; he is always present. He mentioned the Gulf war syndrome, and I believed that he was about to say that those who believe that they have been injured as a result of service in the Gulf war and those who believe that the Ministry of Defence has not dealt satisfactorily with their case, may be able to refer it to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, so that he can examine matters to discover whether there are any points that he should seize on. My hon. Friend has touched on an interesting subject.
I said that, with the introduction of the code and, I hope, the introduction of an Act, government would become more open. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire, I believe that to be of great benefit to the average citizen. It concerns me a great deal.
During our investigations, we learnt of a less helpful phenomenon—the development of what are called "fishing expeditions". They occurred when a pressure group or an Opposition Member of Parliament demanded substantial amounts of information—records, documents and papers. That operation is extremely expensive and time-consuming. If the experience of Australia is anything to go by, in many cases, that is unwarranted. Any freedom of information Act introduced in the United Kingdom would, therefore, have to take careful note of that possibility.
Government seeks to protect itself against the possibility of fishing expeditions. We were told in Australia that one method of achieving that was to take advantage of the exemption provided for Cabinet papers and Cabinet documents. To frustrate fishing expeditions—
§ Mr. Pawsey
Exactly as the hon. Gentleman says, trolley-loads of documents were wheeled through the Cabinet Office—in one door and out of the other. They were then effectively protected from outside scrutiny.
My personal view is that the principal objective of a freedom of information Act should be to benefit the individual citizen and to give citizens the right to obtain information about their own specific cases. If Government and Ministers were more open, that would bring additional benefits and advantages to the man in the street. That was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk (Mr. Lord) and by me in our references to Gulf war syndrome.
Another virtue of openness is the improved decision making that goes with it. As one Australian colourfully said in evidence to us,Sunlight is the best detergent.A recent review of the operation of the FOI Act in Australia concluded:The Act has had a marked impact on the way agencies make decisions and the way they record information. The FOI Act has focused decision makers' minds on the need to base decisions on relevant factors and to record the decision making process. The knowledge that decisions and processes are open to scrutiny, including under an FOI Act, imposes a constant discipline on the public sector.I must tell my right hon. Friend the Minister that I believe that that discipline would be just as effective in the United Kingdom as it is in Australia.
§ Mr. Lord
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a grave danger in comparing the operations of one nation 150 with those of another, and trying to impose new legislation on one country simply because it exists in another country? He will remember that when we visited Australia, one of the reasons given for introducing the law was corruption. Many people mentioned corruption to us, and we were given the impression that that was quite widespread. That does not apply in this country.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that even though the statute exists in Australia, people there have found numerous ways of getting round it, blocking it and making life difficult at the decision-making level? Finally, does my hon. Friend acknowledge that several senior people in Australia, including some of those who had been responsible for introducing the legislation, admitted to us that in some cases it had made decision taking at the higher level more difficult?
§ Mr. Pawsey
My hon. Friend raises some interesting points, but I am not sure that I go all the way with him. I believe that we can learn from the examples and experiences of other countries. I do not believe, however, that it is wise to transplant legislation from one country to another. There is virtue in learning from countries that have a democracy broadly similar to our own. Our Parliament was translated to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States—all countries that have FOI. I believe that, generally, FOI works well in those countries.
I am a late convert to FOI. I am a convert because I want additional power to be placed in the hands of the ordinary citizen. I want ordinary citizens to see what is written about them by civil servants. We Conservatives have a slogan: "Trust the people." I want that translated from a slogan to actuality. I want the people to enjoy that trust, and to see what is written about them. I am not convinced that what is written about them at present is always entirely fair, straight and honest. For that reason, I have become converted to the FOI regime.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
My hon. Friend knows that, unfortunately, I was unable to accompany the Committee to Australia. I do not know what reflections he might have on the important matter of health and safety, which was brought to my attention four or five years ago after a potentially disastrous accident involving a train carrying chemicals in my constituency. The train was derailed in open country; if it had been derailed in either of the towns on either side of the site of the accident, the result would have been cataclysmic.
This afternoon, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk (Mr. Lord) pointed out, we heard a grave statement from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces about Gulf war illness and the fact that inadequate—let us say just inadequate—replies were given to inquiries in the House in past years. That is an extremely grave matter, in which I am interested because of the affliction that has affected several farmers in my constituency and in the south-west, arising from the use of organophosphate dips for treating sheep. Health and safety is a very important matter of generic concern.
§ Mr. Pawsey
My hon. Friend is a member of the Select Committee and plays a major part in its workings and deliberations. I am grateful to him for his intervention. He makes a valid point and argues my case better than I could.
151 A further benefit of FOI is that it results in better-informed public debate. Chairman Mao said, "Knowledge is power." I want that knowledge and power to be placed firmly in the hands of my fellow citizens.
Let me quote the words of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who, I hope, will speak in the debate. When he came before Committee, he said:In a parliamentary democracy it is extremely important that all those who take an interest … should know the facts behind a particular Government decision, the reasoning behind an administrative action, so that there can be informed debate.My right hon. Friend was right. No one on the Select Committee would quarrel with what he said.
I believe—as does my right hon. Friend, I think—that open government makes better government. It gives less opportunity for mistakes to be swept under ministerial carpets or under the departmental carpet. It allows greater opportunity for righting wrongs and means that the people of this country would be even more fairly governed.
The Government have asked the ombudsman to consider complaints relating to the refusal of information covered under the terms of the code. The Select Committee supports that approach. So far—this comes back to my earlier point about the code being unknown—the ombudsman has received only 113 complaints. He has investigated and reported on 23, and 18 further complaints are under investigation. The ombudsman's reports on his investigations demonstrate how effective he has been in ensuring that Departments and agencies disclose information that has previously been withheld for no good reason.
The House will be pleased to know that all Departments have so far complied with the ombudsman's recommendations. One of the benefits that come from the ombudsman system is the fact that it is free to the complainant. That, added to the flexibility of his approach and to the high regard that his office enjoys from Departments and agencies, is a powerful benefit to the citizen.
It may be appropriate for me now to refer to the outstanding qualities of the current holder of the office, Sir William Reid. Sadly, Sir William is due to retire at the end of this year. I am, however, certain that I speak for all Members of the House in expressing appreciation and admiration for the work that he has done since his appointment in 1990. His tenure has witnessed a significant increase in the number of complaints received by his office and a formidable extension to his jurisdiction. Open government is merely one of those extensions. Sir William has established an entirely justifiable reputation for the quality of his investigations. I know that the House will join me in wishing him a long and happy retirement.
There are two unresolved issues arising from the Select Committee's report on the ombudsman. One is the extent of his jurisdiction. Early in this Parliament, in the Committee's report on the powers, work and jurisdiction of the ombudsman, the Select Committee recommended that all Government bodies came within his remit, unless they were explicitly excluded in a schedule to the Act. At present, a body comes within the ombudsman's jurisdiction only if it is explicitly 152 included. The Cabinet Office, the Atomic Energy Authority, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, the Civil Aviation Authority, the National Curriculum Council, the Broadcasting Standards Council and the training and enterprise councils currently remain outside the ombudsman's remit, so he cannot investigate them. That is surely wrong. I believe that the Government should act speedily to bring those bodies within the ombudsman's jurisdiction. Such a move is long overdue.
Secondly, the Committee recommended that the Government grant the ombudsman access to Cabinet and Cabinet Committee papers. At present, he is denied access to such documents under the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967. I believe that a serious anomaly exists in that area. The code includes Cabinet papers in the lists of information whose disclosure might harm the frankness and candour of internal discussion. Judgment, however, is subject to the possibility that any harm might be outweighed by public interest if the information were made available. Therefore, a right to information in the public interest exists, but the ombudsman is denied the access that he needs in order to judge whether the refusal to disclose is justified.
The Committee recommended that the ombudsman have access to such papers, but I assure the House that that does not necessarily mean that the information would have to be disclosed: Ministers would retain the power to prevent the ombudsman from disclosing any information that was considered prejudicial to the safety of the state. I would welcome my right hon. Friend's comments on the matter: an anomaly exists and it must be resolved.
The Select Committee recommended a freedom of information Act, which we believe would open government to more public scrutiny. We do not claim that the existing code is ineffective: clearly, half an information loaf is better than no information. The code is helpful but, in our view, it does not go far enough to satisfy a growing appetite for openness. In evidence from Australia and New Zealand, the Committee heard about the effects of open government from those who have seen at first hand FOI regimes at work for more than a decade. The overwhelming consensus was that open government had been of considerable benefit to public life. It is fair to say that the FOI principle is now an accepted part of the political fabric in those countries.
The Australian Law Reform Commission and the Administrative Review Council recently published a review of the federal Freedom of Information Act. It concluded:That the Act has had a marked impact on the way agencies make decisions and the way they record information".The consensus in Australia and New Zealand was that the right of access to personal files had resulted in far greater objectivity when recording information—I made that point earlier. According to the Australian and New Zealand experience, requests by individuals for personal information constituted the greatest single use of FOI legislation. Therefore, FOI had resulted in a greater release of information. I am pleased to reassure the House that the dire forecasts about the effect of FOI on the candour of advice have not been borne out by events.
153 I congratulate the Government on introducing both the code and the citizens charter, which represent substantial steps forward in open government. They materially benefit the citizens of the United Kingdom. However, the Select Committee and I ask the Government to go one step further and introduce a freedom of information Act. By doing so, the Government have nothing to fear and much to gain.
Before I sit down, I seek the indulgence of the House. I serve on the Standing Committee that is considering the Education Bill. With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, and by leave of the House, I shall shortly leave the Chamber in order to return to my place on that Committee.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. F'awsey) does not need the Chair's permission, but I much appreciate his courtesy in informing the House.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
This is a short but important debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) on introducing it. He made some important and sensible comments—which is not a common occurrence in the Chamber. I believe that we should demand a freedom of information Act from any Government of any complexion. However, today I shall address the reasons why I believe that the House of Commons needs such an Act more urgently than any individual who desires access to official files.
Sadly, Members of Parliament now have real difficulty in obtaining access to accurate information from Government. I shall explain why that is so. Increasingly, answers to parliamentary questions—irrespective of the code of conduct—if they do not seek to mislead, certainly seek to make it difficult to understand fully the information necessary to examine the workings of government. Such information is so fundamental and vital in a democracy that it cannot be treated as a mere matter of procedure. We are told that there are two kinds of knowledge: either we understand the subject or we know where to obtain information about it.
Ministers and the proceedings of the House of Commons are highest on our list when we require access to information. Therefore, I am sorry to say that in the past 30 years, I have seen a marked deterioration in the desire of Government Departments to hand out information. It has now reached the point where they take—if I dare say it—a two-finger approach to the House of Commons. I have a specific reason for that assertion.
I have read the code carefully and it states plainly that, when information is requested, it should be supplied unless the exemptions that the hon. Gentleman mentioned come into play because of security or other problems. So why must Members of Parliament ask 30 questions before they obtain information—in this case from the Department of Transport—that flights carrying British citizens are operating illegally? That was clear from the answer provided to my first question, yet I was forced to put 30 questions to the relevant Department—which cost the taxpayer a considerable sum—before I obtained a precise statement.
154 Why do I increasingly receive answers that are so obscure as to be laughable if they were not so embarrassing? I recently obtained answers that said things such as, "It is too soon to know when we shall take that decision." That is fine, but when will we know when that decision will be taken? I recently tabled a series of questions about the channel tunnel fire, the committee meetings and the decision to open the tunnel to various forms of transport. Some of my questions were answered, inasmuch as I was told that I could not have access to the information I sought, but that a summary of the general reports would be available to me in the Library of the House of Commons—presumably if I lived long enough.
I asked the Secretary of State five specific questions on fire-related incidents, all of which in some way affected my constituents. They were answered in the following manner.This"—presumably the information—is precluded under the terms of the channel fixed-link concession agreement".There are reams of it. In effect, the answers say that the Government can supply the information only to the people concerned, because it is confidential and itshall not save as required by law"—[Official Report, 6 December 1996; Vol. 286. c. 804.]be supplied to the House of Commons.
Is not the Minister required by law to give information to Members of Parliament? Do we not have privileges in this Chamber? Do we not have the right to question him, precisely because we are concerned about safety? I think that we do, and people should look closely at what Ministers say.
I have had other startling—I was going to say mind-boggling—answers from Government Departments. I asked the Secretary of State for Transport, pursuant to his answer of 31 October at column 238 of the Official Report, what was the total number of hours that had been worked by consultants on privatisation. The Minister replied:The answer could he provided only at disproportionate cost."—[Official Report, 29 November 1996; Vol. 286, c. 420.]Only two firms were involved and the total expenditure had already been made public.
In another reply, the Minister said that it was not the Government's policy to divulge the hourly fees for their advisers. When I asked further questions, I was told that the employment of individuals was a matter for their employers. In other words, because Government money was being spent by a Government appointee on a Government procedure—it was being given to a private firm—the House of Commons was not to be told how much it was costing and what was the total effect on the taxpayer.
Had I more time, I could continue with example after example, but I finish with one that I find endearing and very entertaining. I asked the Department of Transport a series of questions about Civil Aviation Authority investigations to ensure that international standards are being met. The question was pursuant to an earlier reply and, again, I gave the Department the date and the column number. I received the answer:It is not clear to which of the answers of 26 November the hon. Member is referring."—[Official Report, 29 November 1996; Vol. 286, c. 418.]Has the Department of Transport not heard of the telephone? Does it not understand that when there are two questions in a column, both from the same 155 hon. Member—one question on one subject and the second on a subject to which the pursuant question relates—it probably means that she is talking about the subject mentioned in her second question?
The reality is that, whether we like it or not, Departments are going in for obfuscation on a grand scale. They use the creation of stand-off agencies to try to hide information and use as an excuse, "This is commercially confidential," and so on. Even when we know that the information is vital, it is not forthcoming. I know, for example, that the Department of Transport is vacating an office building in Manchester and handing over £800,000 of taxpayers' money to its landlord for the only reason that it wants to reject the lease and move to Manchester. I need to know about that, because it affects the costing of a move that relates to a district traffic office. Yet I am not allowed to have that information in the House of Commons. I have to use my own sources. No one is prepared to make that information public. We are perilously close to trying to hide information. It happens time and again.
The Chamber should be full for this debate, because when the House of Commons cannot get information about Departments, about the effect of European legislation, about the implications of changes through agencies, our constituents suffer. Nobody else suffers. Our constituents suffer individually because of decisions that are taken for no apparent reason, and no one bothers to explain why. They suffer collectively because of decisions taken by the present Government, which are never explained and never laid out in any detail, but simply carried through, as they have been during the past 17 years, with scant regard for the interests of the House of Commons.
Above all, when such behaviour becomes the norm, when not just civil servants but their masters give the impression that the House of Commons is a Chamber to be derided or circumvented, so that it does not need access to accurate and important information, every one of us is in great danger. When Governments are able to do what they like with individual lives, with no regard for individual interests, democracy will cease to work. The House of Commons—probably for the first time since Simon de Montfort called together his baronial friends—is seeking accurate information. Let the Minister answer that if he can.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I echo her congratulations to the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), on his conversion to freedom of information.
I am, de minimis, grateful to the Government for introducing a code, as for many years we came to a block on that. I add my fervent congratulations on the work of Sir William Reid, who has been a good toiler in those fields and extended the public's perception of that to which they are entitled. I also commend Mr. Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Some hon. Members will have received a detailed briefing, which was covered by my hon. Friend the 156 Chairman of the Select Committee. I look forward to my right hon. Friend the Minister responding to a number of questions.
Some of us have gone across this course for many years, and the basic question is, "Why freedom of information?" Our system of government is one of democratic and accountable government. If we think about our language, literature, the resonance of freedom and liberty, we use the words of Pope, in his "Essay on Man":What can we reason, but from what we know".Over the years, I have watched the argument ebb and flow, but the central feature of British Government, the Executive and its bureaucracy—Whitehall—is that they must hold upon and unto themselves all the rights about releasing information that affects the public policy of our nation. We cannot be democratic, nor can we hold Governments to account unless we know what they are doing. The right is that of the people. This system of government is constructed to serve the interests of the people.
What are the arguments against providing information to the generality of us as citizens? Is it to protect the interests of the Executive? Executives are formed from this democratic Chamber; they are an extension, in a sense, of that representative function. I emphasise as strongly as I can that there is no democracy. I agree with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich. There is no true democracy—perhaps I should qualify it in that way—if Government rigorously maintain unto themselves the right to release information as and if they please. That is really what the struggle has been about all through the years. However, that is the prerogative not of Government, although that is what we are held by to this day, but of the people and of the House.
We all, including the Cabinet Minister, have an interest in ensuring that we are informed. I know that, from the high battlements of Government, it is sometimes convenient to be able to withhold information. Over the years, I have reflected that one day—this now seems more imminent—we shall be in opposition, and the information that we shall struggle to obtain will be vital to the development of public policy.
That is the first constitutional principle. It is a right of the people. It is a right because of who we are, because of our spirit and our feeling. It is also the essence of accountable government, and I affirm that public policy decisions are likely to be the better for a full and open debate.
I am concerned. A series of events has touched on the role of the House and its ability to hold Governments to account. Whatever the House feels about the Scott report—it made its judgment on the inquiry—that report revealed a great deal of information about the working of Whitehall. I have never heard the Government dispute the detail in the report. As I understand it, the Government, and therefore the House, decided that Sir Richard Scott's conclusions were inappropriate and wrong. We have the evidence of senior civil servants—the Cabinet Secretary no less—that giving half the picture is an appropriate way of keeping us informed. That has become the culture, and was the title of a play and an important book on the subject. Half the picture is not good enough.
We have had the code, and we have a series of initiatives. Lord Callaghan's Administration had the Croham directive. I was bemused by the fact that when 157 one asked former Labour Ministers how they implemented the Croham directive and what it meant to their Departments, they would deny all knowledge of it. It was a breath on the wind and it blew away, but it served its purpose to give Government a busyness and an impetus.
I am also mindful of the fact that the curse of commercial confidentiality diminishes our ability to obtain information. It is blown out of all proportion. I shall use the example of the sale of Ministry of Defence housing, which is another controversial matter. I understand that members of the Select Committee on Defence were given information that was not available to other Members of the House, although we are all duly elected on an equal franchise. However, the information was available to Members if they had commercial associations with commercial companies that wished to make a bid. That is wildly inappropriate.
What was commercial confidentiality in that instance? I have still not fathomed it out, although I have had enlightening correspondence from the Prime Minister. The essence of the sale was an auction: we invited competitive tenders. The United States Government conduct auctions, which they consider to be public matters. What is for sale and the conditions attached to it are a matter of public knowledge. How else can people be assured that a sale has been carried out openly and above board, and that the best possible price has been achieved?
I cited those examples because they are of some importance in determining the nature of public policy, although I have not gone into detail, as I intended. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster perhaps knows, I am a parliamentary chairman of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. It is not that I do not wish the Government well—I have seen the changes that Conservative Governments have introduced. That which was impossible yesterday, has become possible today.
I remember the reforms that were made to bring the security services into the open. In the debates of 1988, I listened to Ministers say that the entire state of the United Kingdom was in danger of falling. I heard Back Benchers argue that it was outrageous even for Ministers to know what the security services were doing. Yet, the very Minister who advanced those propositions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), the then Home Secretary, overcame those arguments and found a way forward. However inadequate I may think those measures were, there was a revolution in thinking.
Where is the block on openness? I do not see my political friends, such as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, as enemies of open government. I appreciate the argument about the cautious, judicious process of government, but I see an opening up, so why is there a constant block? When one reads Sir William Reid's reports, one feels that there is a bureaucratic block, and that Whitehall itself fears open government more than anything. I did not understand why that should be so, until I read the Scott report. I then saw that our public policy is often determined by unelected civil servants, even without the remit of their Ministers. That is very serious.
It is perhaps inappropriate to repeat on the Floor of the House what the Deputy Prime Minister said outside the House, but he stated that he would like a freedom of 158 information Act because it would help him to manage his Departments. That is one of the great difficulties. The huge range of British Government is such that it is difficult to know what is happening in all the limbs and outer parts.
I urge my right hon. Friend, and through him the Government, to grasp the opportunity to assert what the House and the country has stood for—our worthwhile tradition of liberty and holding Governments to account. In order to do that, ours is the right to have all the information that we wish, as of right.
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)
The theme that has emerged from the previous two speeches is that the present parliamentary process gives insufficient opportunity for people to make a proper contribution—not least through their elected parliamentary representatives—to policy making, the preparation of legislation and, perhaps most important, the scrutiny of Government policies and actions. I agree with that view. All too often, people are kept in the dark. Parliament fails to provide protection against government from behind closed doors.
The code of practice on access to Government information was a welcome—although regrettably small—step to the opening up of government. In theory, the code limits the grounds for withholding information and provides, for the first time, a mechanism for independent review of refusals to give information by officials and Ministers. It is said that Departments are now committed to releasing the internal guidance that they use in their dealings with the public. Even exempted information may, in theory, be disclosed if there is an overriding public interest in doing so.
We should not allow ourselves to be deluded into thinking that that is sufficient. There are serious problems not only in the way in which the code is working in practice, but in its scope, which is far too narrow to be genuinely effective. The Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration recognised a number of failings and omissions, and made some useful recommendations, many of which the Government have accepted. However, they have notably rejected some of the most important recommendations.
I urge the Government to reconsider. The first problem is that public awareness of the code is still too low. Rights that people do not know they have are of limited value. The Government's recent, small-scale advertising has not raised the code's profile. The Government have decided that it is a matter for individual Departments to promote the code, but I believe that central Government must play a key role.
The code currently promises access to information only, and not to documents. That is another significant drawback that allows selective editing to take place. The public have little reason to have confidence in such a scheme. The Minister acknowledged the problems that that causes. Does he believe that the Government should amend the code so that copies of original documents must be provided when requested?
Much information is exempt from the code. Any rational parliamentarian would accept that there are grounds for some exemptions, but other omissions seem draconian. A blanket ban on information relating to 159 immigration, for example, seems only to reinforce the view that there is something to hide. The Government have argued that the exemptions are justified because they cause extra costs or work loads to be imposed on the relevant Department. In a democracy, such an argument is not and never can be a valid excuse for withholding information; such information is one of the costs of democracy.
There is another exemption on disclosure of information held for health and safety purposes, including food safety. Even if the disclosed information were to reveal substantial danger to the public health or safety, the code currently does not help the public obtain such information. After the recent E. coli deaths in Scotland, and the continuing public concern over bovine spongiform encephalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, its human equivalent, does the Minister not agree that the public have a right to know about possible dangers in the food that they eat?
Many public bodies are exempt completely from the code. It seems ironic that a scheme to encourage open government does not include in its jurisdiction the police, nationalised industries, the Atomic Energy Authority, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Broadcasting Standards Council, training and enterprise councils—the list goes on and on. Even when the ombudsman can investigate, the Government have retained the power to reject any recommendations made.
An obvious, natural and right remedy to the situation is to pass a freedom of information Act. That was, rightly, the conclusion of the Select Committee, not least because it would simplify and unify the hotchpotch of rights to information. Such an Act would cover the entire public sector, provide access to documents—not only edited highlights—and provide everyone with an accessible and enforceable right to information.
The Government have chosen, again, to reject that recommendation, and I do not believe that their reasons for doing so stand up to scrutiny now any more than they did in the past. It has been claimed that, as an administrative document, the code is more flexible and can be amended more easily in the light of experience. The code can be amended more easily—but not necessarily to achieve greater openness.
The lack of a proper Bill has allowed serious anomalies in the permitted exemptions, such as those for immigration and food safety. It has also led to disparate charging regimes, and to Government-filtered information rather than to the provision of full documentation. The lack of a statutory basis means that current statutory secrecy clauses cannot be overridden, and that the Government can prevent the ombudsman from conducting an investigation, because his jurisdiction has simply not been re-examined by the House.
The Government claim that the code has entirely avoided long and expensive disputes in appeals. That is untrue, because, in some cases, the appeals procedure has taken many months. The main reason why there have not been delays is that, as I said, most people are not aware of the procedure or how to make use of it. Therefore, the ombudsman has not been overburdened, as was, and should be, expected if people are encouraged and able to make effective use of the system.
160 Liberal Democrats have long called for a freedom of information Act, to end the Government's often obsessive secrecy. We believe that such an Act would enable people to know much more about the conduct of government, and thereby hold Government to account. The Act should confer a general right of access, except in a small number of narrowly defined areas in which it is overwhelmingly in the public interest to ensure that confidentiality is maintained. I shall not list those matters, but I believe they could be determined fairly easily by general agreement.
Complaints about refusal of access to information or unreasonable delay could then be referred to an independent commissioner, who has powers to carry out investigations and to take action to ensure that information is forthcoming. An independent tribunal could be established to hear appeals against decisions, to which both the information holder and the information seeker would be entitled to appeal.
As the Liberal Democrat spokesman on the environment, I have a special interest in ensuring that environmental information is not withheld from the public. The Government have previously stated their agreement, at least in principle, on that point. The European Union directive on freedom of access to information about the environment has been implemented by the environmental information regulations. However, a major deficiency of the regulations is that they lack a specific enforcement mechanism.
More than three years ago, in July 1993, in their Command Paper, "Open Government", the Government promised to introduce a statutory right of access to health and safety information, modelled on the environmental information regulations. They suggested then that the new right could be enforced by a tribunal, and that any such tribunal could also deal with complaints under the environmental information regulations. Although there have been four Queen's Speeches—at least two of which were regarded as "light" in terms of legislative work load—since the publication of that White Paper, there has been no sign of movement to implement the proposal.
The matter was examined, yet again, during the passage of the Environment Act 1995. I introduced an amendment to the Bill that would have allowed for the creation of a specialist tribunal that could hear disputes on the provision of access to environmental information. In responding and arguing against that amendment, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford), speaking on behalf of the Government, clearly said that he anticipated that there soon would be such a tribunal, and that the work was "well in hand". Since his insistence, that matters were "well in hand", was more than a year ago, perhaps Ministers will tell us today whether we are any closer to setting up that environmental information tribunal.
Apparently we are no closer, because, this afternoon, I received a written answer from the responsible Minister stating:I have no immediate plans to introduce legislation to establish an environmental information appeals tribunal. The recently published first report of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities on Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment recommends different procedures, which are being carefully considered.161 Perhaps I should remind the Chancellor of the Duchy of his own answer, in January 1996, when he appeared before the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and was questioned about the delay. He replied:A commitment was given, a promise was made, we have not delivered it so far and I want those promises honoured.It appears that the Government are happy to suggest that they will do something and to give assurances that they will do something, but they are far less happy actually to do anything. In the meantime, the public are denied access to a proper enforcement mechanism under the environmental information regulations and to health and safety information.
As the Government have said that the proposed right to health and safety information will not apply retrospectively, information that is currently being gathered will not be accessible even when—or if—the new legislation is enacted; the longer the delay, therefore, the greater the amount of information that will be permanently withheld from the public.
I shall give an example, from the south-west, of why the issue is important to my constituents. Solicitors Toiler Beattie have asked for information and correspondence received by the Department of the Environment from South West Water on the delay to four bathing water schemes in the south-west—which are vital for my constituents—and the process under which the list of sensitive areas was reduced, whereas South West Water's list of less sensitive areas was increased. The Department of the Environment made a formal refusal, on the ground that much of the information that they were seeking related to "confidential deliberations" of the group that worked out the proposals for the sensitive and less sensitive areas under the urban waste water treatment directive. Subsequent correspondence, however, showed that the information withheld had not even been considered by that group.
In a democracy, surely the public have a right to know on what basis an area of bathing water has been declared sensitive. In a democracy, surely a water company—which may or may not be polluting that water—should not have the right to withhold such information from the general public, whom it serves. Will the Minister, therefore, give a firm commitment and a fixed timetable for establishing an environmental information tribunal? As the Government have already shown their sympathy for the creation of such a body, and the concept has broad support, surely there is no reason to procrastinate further.
As I said, the code of practice on access to Government information is a welcome step in the right direction, but it has not gone far enough, and it is not broad enough. The Government—or perhaps their civil servants, who advise them—do not appear to trust the public. By denying the House an opportunity to debate a proper freedom of information Bill, they seem not to trust the democratically elected representatives of the public either.
We must begin to increase the level of trust between the Government and the citizens of the United Kingdom. A democracy works best when its citizens are informed and can demand the highest quality of service—service which they are entitled to expect. Without such information, it is not truly a democracy. I believe that we still have a long way to go to achieve that.
§ 6.8 pm
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
There seems to be a perception in the House that many of our problems could be resolved by making more information available and that the country would be better governed as a result. It is ironic that those who advance that case seem to ignore what is happening to us in the European Union. In my submission, the problems identified in the debate stem as much from our membership of the European Union as from our domestic arrangements, as some hon. Members perceive them.
It is unacceptable that the Council of Ministers will meet in secret. We shall not know what was discussed. No minutes or Hansard will be available of what is said there. We shall not even know how our Ministers have voted. We have to rely on inspired leaks to the press or perhaps a Minister volunteering the information. We have even less access to European information than we have to information through Parliament.
I accept that, when we put questions to Ministers, as we all do frequently, we are not obliged to elicit the truth. I suspect that a game is played on many occasions, when Departments have a vested interest in not declaring the truth. Nevertheless, the Back Bencher has the opportunity to go back again and again on the same subject to tease out what is going on in the Department or in the Minister's mind. That is vastly better than the situation in Europe—we do not know what goes on the Council of Ministers and we have no means of finding out.
I am inclined to go further and say that, considering the past 25 years and our membership of the European Union, we might not have reached the position in which we find ourselves if the British people had been told the truth from the beginning. Had the British people been told the truth 25 years ago, I believe that they would have voted differently in the 1975 referendum. They were not told the truth because the politicians of the day—they must take the blame for this—recognised that, had the truth been told, the people would not have endorsed what was in prospect.
Back Benchers, who represent their constituents on many issues—particularly agriculture, in my case—are now in the appalling situation of being unable to discern what is going on and what discussions and decisions have taken place on the issues about which we are vitally concerned. We have scarcely any real opportunity to find out what was in the minds of Ministers when they were engaged in discussions with their opposite numbers in Europe. We have no means of knowing what was said or how they voted.
I believe that Sweden has had freedom of information legislation for a long time. After being members of the Community for only a very short time, the Swedes are realising that it is not what they thought they were letting themselves into. They did not realise that joining the European Union would leave them unable to discern what was going on. We are not party to the important decisions that involve us as Members of Parliament and the people whom we represent because there is no open debate in the Council of Ministers.
I know that others wish to speak in the debate, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion by saying that, although I recognise that many right hon. and hon. Members feel that there are deficiencies in our system in the Westminster Parliament and I sympathise with their 163 views in many respects, a greater threat to democracy overhangs the issue—the threat from a form of government by unelected and unaccountable people whom we have no means of controlling. When the decisions predicated by the European civil servants and the European Commission are brought to the Council of Ministers, they are rubber-stamped without any democratic check or balance by the representatives of the people—ourselves, the Members of Parliament.
§ Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)
I congratulate Sir William Reid on his retirement. I have worked with him since he became the ombudsman. He has been one of the best ombudsmen and has highlighted the office more than anybody else. I have seen him on television news programmes on several occasions, pushing the argument for greater freedom of information. Wherever he goes, I hope that he continues to do that.
The code came into being about two years ago. The Select Committee went to Australia, where we took a lot of evidence and worked very hard. It was not a gravy train, as some people portray those trips; it was a hard slog and we had to take a lot of evidence from Australia and New Zealand. It was interesting to see the contrasts between their freedom of information legislation and the situation here. Since then, their legislation has been updated to make it even better and friendlier. We discovered some aspects that were not quite right.
In this country, we have just had a freedom of information system introduced—we did not have it when we were in Australia. We are the leading lights of democracy and we have not even got freedom of information legislation; we have a code. It is a beginning and has worked to a certain extent, but there are a lot of loopholes and the code leaves a lot to be desired. The Select Committee was right to say that there should have been legislation. The Labour side voted for that and it was decided by one vote. I hope that the Government take that on board. In fact, I am not bothered whether they take it on board now, because the new Government—my party's Government—might do so. We shall hear later what my Government will do when they get power.
There are advantages and drawbacks. We have heard the advantages. I do not want to take too long, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright), who used to be a member of the Select Committee, wants to speak, but there is no harm in mentioning the drawbacks again.
Public awareness of the code is limited. It receives little publicity. Many people are not aware that it is there for them. They do not know where to go. In fact, they do not even know how to contact the ombudsman. We have had that problem before with the health service. Health trusts tell everyone how to complain to the trust, but they do not tell anyone how to complain to the ombudsman if they are not satisfied with the result. It is the same with the code. People who are refused information are not told that they can complain about that to the ombudsman.
Of course, complaints take a long time to investigate. I want to speak briefly later about delays by Departments. Access is given to information but not to documents. A person has to be precise when asking for information. Why 164 do we not give people the documents? Why do we narrow it down and say, "You must tell us what you want and we'll give it to you"? Why not just give people all the relevant documents? That is how it should be done. It is done like that in New Zealand and Australia.
As the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) said, the Government are free to ignore the ombudsman's recommendations. I always thought that the ombudsman had the greatest of power. I thought that he had the power of a High Court judge, but the Government can take no notice of his recommendations. That is beyond belief in a democracy. That is why we have an ombudsman.
In some cases, people requesting information from Government Departments are getting four or more reasons why they should not have it. They are told that providing information makes extra work. Of course it does. Democracy is costly and may involve extra work, but that is not a blanket excuse or even a reason for refusing information. I hope that the Minister will address that point in his reply.
The experience of the past two years makes it clear that the code of practice should be reviewed. The general election is approaching and I am sure that the incoming Labour Government will examine the code of practice, amend it and introduce the relevant legislation. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) will confirm that undertaking. The code is not working and we know what we have to do to put it right.
There have been many complaints about Government Departments and it is interesting to find out just how sloppy they are. For example, the Department of Trade and Industry delayed for eight and a half months before failing to supply some information that had been requested. The DTI simply did not want to release it.
The Health and Safety Executive took 13 months to supply information on handling nuclear fuel. I thought that the Health and Safety Executive was a public body, but of course it has been exempted, so information is not available.
The Department of the Environment was asked for information about Touche Ross. After 17 months, the problem still had not been resolved and the information remained unavailable. Somebody was certainly trying to hide something. Obviously, there are some dodgy characters working for Touche Ross.
Many straightforward requests are denied. The Department for Education and Employment took 34 days to deal with one request and provide one page of foolscap.
§ Mr. Campbell
An Act of Parliament would cover all those organisations. At present, they are under no legal obligation to supply information. If a complaint is made to the ombudsman, the Minister can ignore it. Legislation would prevent long delays. A statutory right to information would put an end to all the time wasting and people would not have to wait 17 months. The ombudsman would enforce that statutory right.
At present, we have only a code. A code is simply decided, whereas the House considers legislation and can amend it. That is democracy. Legislation would get rid of all the claptrap of people being denied information month after month and year after year.
165 The Treasury took 41 days to supply information. The Inland Revenue also took 40 days to provide information. All those days were lost in delays in providing simple information. It seems to me that the Government and civil servants are afraid to release information. When the Select Committee went to Australia, we discovered that civil servants there were anxious about releasing information. They were worried that it might upset Ministers. The matter comes down to the fact that Ministers and civil servants are hiding information and destroying democracy.
Finally, I should mention the national health service code which has operated for about a year. It is not working. Once again, the code has not been publicised. Trust after trust is refusing to supply information and most people are unaware that they are entitled to information about their hospital records. Although the code was a good idea, the public have no idea that it exists. I hope that the next Labour Government review the matter and introduce legislation on the freedom of information. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland will confirm that.
§ Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood)
This is a short debate, and I shall be extremely brief as I have only one point to make. I sat on two Select Committees that produced reports on the matter—the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and, more recently, the Select Committee on Public Service. No doubt the Minister will tell us that those Committees had different views.
The Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration spent a prolonged time examining nothing but the issue we are considering today. We travelled to Australia and New Zealand. Never was a trip more justified and never did more people see the light in more enjoyable surroundings. One could see conversions taking place as we travelled around that glorious land and returned to discuss what we had discovered.
The Select Committee produced what will be seen as a landmark report in the history of an issue that has been debated for so long. It represents a devastating critique of existing arrangements and a devastating argument for moving in a different direction.
The Public Service Committee—an admirable Select Committee on which I now sit—was driven by the party divide after Scott and was unable to take the same bipartisan and dispassionate approach. The party hatches came down and we all did what we had to do. The first was an example of a Select Committee at its best; the second was an example of a Select Committee reverting to type.
There is one issue to confront and the House can no longer avoid it. We have to decide whether information—the lubricant of democracy—should be considered to be a grant from Government or a right of citizenship. If the House believes that it should continue to be a grant from Government, it will be happy to continue with codes that the House has never discussed, scrutinised or approved. If, however, it believes that information is a right of citizenship, it will demand legislation to enshrine that right. The House would then be able to scrutinise the issue and examine the advantages and disadvantages of the code. The House would own the legislation.
166 We are moving away from a system of cosy self-regulation and club government, when majorities decide how much the rest of us should know, towards an era when people claim rights as citizens and expect the House to protect those rights.
We are on the eve of what will probably be seen as the most ambitious period of political reform for more than a century. It seems quite extraordinary that the Government appear not to understand the mood and are entering a general election campaign defending the voting rights of hereditary peers while denying people freedom of information legislation. Never have a Government so misunderstood the democratic current now running through this country. We are on the eve of a great reforming Administration, and I expect my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) to tell us that freedom of information legislation will be a prominent part of our first year in office.
§ Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)
The thrust of this debate has been almost inevitably towards freedom of information legislation. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) for his eloquent plea. His speech was preceded by the equally eloquent plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell). I was also struck by the powerful plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). She issued a warning both to the present Government and to future Governments. She said that, in her experience, despite the White Paper, the code and the strength of Select Committees, Governments are now more reluctant to release information than when she first became a Member.
One of the debate's most moving speeches was made by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), for whom I have always had enormous respect. I hope that my saying so does not do him further damage among Conservative Members. He is a passionate advocate not only of freedom of information but of everything that touches civil liberties in the House. Often when I hear him speak, I think to myself, "This is the House of Commons at its best"—a fiercely independent Member making a plea for the rights and powers not only of the House but of individual citizens. I consider it a privilege to take part in the same debate as him.
I very much admired the way in which the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), advanced his arguments. I congratulate the Committee on its excellent report, especially on concluding that freedom of information legislation is the best way of proceeding. I want to convey my most heartfelt thanks to its members for the enormous sacrifices that they have all undergone on our behalf in going to far-flung places to examine important issues. Such sacrifices were worth while, given that the Chairman returned a convert to freedom of information. The House owes a great debt of gratitude to the Committee, which, under the hon. Gentleman's able chairmanship, initiated today's debate. There are all too few debates of this nature. Perhaps, there are all too few debates on Select Committee reports.
I associate myself with the remarks made about Sir William Reid and offer my thanks for his outstanding contribution. He has proved to be a redoubtable battler. 167 He courageously accomplished an important task in taking the mandarins as well as members of the Cabinet in such a direction.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said about the need for open government:When you start saying, 'Well, we must only reveal the minimum amount of information possible to the public', and the presumption is that the public and Parliament do not have the right to know, you lead towards totalitarianism and political dictatorship, and I think that is fundamentally different from my conception of parliamentary democracy.He was absolutely right. The White Paper on open government said:At the heart of the Government's philosophy is a belief in the need to return to individual citizens the power and means to make their own choices and to determine their own priorities. The Government has insisted that public institutions exist to serve the individual, not the other way about.That is quite so. It will be Labour's intention to unlock the British people's potential to renew their communities, public services and nations, by trusting them and creating partnerships with them in the way in which the White Paper suggested.
In oral evidence to the Select Committee on 17 January, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said:The two major advantages"—of open government—are, first of all that in a parliamentary democracy it is extremely important that all those who take an interest … should know the facts behind a particular government decision, the reasoning behind administrative action, so that there can be an informed debate, so that those affected can understand what actually will affect them and why — Secondly, it is very important in government there should be a culture, a spirit of openness, for that makes better decision making among civil servants and ministers, because civil servants have to take minor decisions on behalf of ministers in many different circumstances. It is very important that the approach should be the public need to be informed about this particular process or decision, that should be the assumption of civil servants, and I think it makes for better decision making".The irony is that the Chancellor made that statement when the Scott report was in the course of completion. Scott revealed, however, that a culture of secrecy permeates almost every aspect of the Government's activity. Information was treated as a precious resource, to be given out only when absolutely necessary and, even then, not in full. If guidelines were changed, it was considered that there was no need to tell Parliament. Instead, inaccurate and evasive replies were used as a series of excuses for keeping Parliament and the public in the dark about what was going on.
The Scott report made the case for a freedom of information Act unanswerable, not only because of how it might have been applied in the specific case with which the report dealt, but due to the sea change that it would bring about in attitudes towards the release of information. Ministers have said that a freedom of information Act would not have helped in the arms-to-Iraq affair; that the information would have been covered by the exemptions that any sensible freedom of information Bill would have to include.
Much of what was being asked did not relate to national security or even commercial confidentiality, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich so ably 168 exposed. Information was withheld, because that is the culture in which the Government operate, and Ministers wanted to avoid embarrassment and accountability. Despite his fine words about open government, the Chancellor of the Duchy was put up in the Scott debate to defend the indefensible in one of the most ruthless and cynical exercises of self-preservation undertaken by any Government in modern political times.
The Scott report underlined the case for a freedom of information Act. Scott stated:Without the provision of full information it is not possible for Parliament, or for that matter the public, to hold the executive fully to account … If Ministers are to be excused blame and personal criticism on the basis of the absence of personal knowledge or involvement, the corollary ought to be an acceptance of the obligation to be forthcoming with information about the incident in question.We heard a clear statement from the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Both his party and mine have long been favour of introducing a freedom of information Act to stop unnecessary secretiveness in government. The control of information is one of the greatest powers available to the Government and that power will grow as the information society develops. A Government's attitude to sharing information with the people says much about how they view power and the relationship between themselves and the people who elect them.
The Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, in the report under discussion today, recommended in paragraph 126 that the Government should introduce a freedom of information Act. It asserts that a statute would bring about a far greater change in the culture of Government than merely publicising rights. The report states:A more powerful reason (than publicity for rights) given for statute by those we met when we visited Australia and New Zealand was the need to change governmental culture from one of secrecy to one where openness is accepted and there is a willingness to allow the public to participate in the process of government … The Committee noted that New Zealand had a directive in place prior to the Act but this was, however, later deemed to be ineffective.It concludes:We are convinced that on balance the advantage lies in favour of legislation. We recommend that the Government introduce a Freedom of Information Act.That is a seminal and landmark report that will be extraordinarily influential.
Four out of five voters now support freedom of information legislation, yet the Government reject that, instead placing their faith in the operation of the code of practice. The Government believe thatthe Code should now have an enhanced role underpinning the answering of Parliamentary Questions and in other matters of accountability. Given this increase in the importance for the provisions of the Code, the Government does not believe it would be sensible to seek a fundamental change in the status of the Code.I shall not go into further detail, because we have had an important debate in which Back Benchers have participated. I shall bring my remarks to a close by complimenting the Government on the strides in greater openness that they have made. All the great campaigners—I count colleagues in the Chamber among them—know how difficult it has been to persuade Governments of all complexions to go in the direction of freedom of information. Indeed, it is easier for Oppositions than for Governments to be persuaded.
169 We believe that the code does not go far enough, and I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood the promise that he sought: we will take an early opportunity to legislate for a freedom of information Act. Bills are available and much of the work has been done by others who have preceded us. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) was one of those and we have his Bill. The Cabinet Office has also done much of the work. Its staff have also been to New Zealand and Australia to see how things are done there. All the work has been done and it could be that, in 12 months' time, if the electorate do the sensible thing, freedom of information legislation will be on the statute book. I look forward very much to that. Such legislation will not be a panacea—no Act of Parliament ever is—but it will be a step change in altering the culture in Whitehall. I even predict that some of my hon. Friends—right hon. Friends if they are in the Cabinet—may not be as enthusiastic about such legislation as some of us are. Nevertheless, we will deal with those problems if and when they arise. I am delighted to have taken part in the debate and I look forward to the Chancellor's remarks.
§ The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Roger Freeman)
I found myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) when she said that this was an important debate and that she regretted the relatively sparse attendance. The hon. Lady was right, because this is probably one of the most fundamental issues that the House, as a legislature, has to face and it is important that it is properly debated.
We know that the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is attending a Standing Committee, but I congratulate him and the Select Committee on producing an excellent and well-reasoned report. I do not agree with all the reasons and in the time available to me I shall seek to give a summary of the arguments against them, but I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) on the even-handed and rational way in which he presented his case.
The remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), which were echoed at shorter length by the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright), touched on the key issues in this debate. My hon. Friend has been a legislator for almost 18 years and I have been a member of the Executive for 11 years. Both of us represent with our experience the different sides of the argument. The argument for the legislator is the essential, unarguable case for proper, prompt and comprehensive information to be given to the House by the Government. As a member of the Executive, I argue that citizens, and indeed right hon. and hon. Members, possess another right—the right to good government. Both of us bring to the House, I hope, the same genuine desires for proper and open government.
The process is a dynamic one. No one should have a closed mind about what is good, open government. We have seen, in the past 10, 20 and 30 years, significant changes, partly brought about by consistent pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, and the process is evolving. It is also important to consider what is in the best interests of the citizen in terms of good and orderly government. I shall develop that theme in a moment.
170 I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) for quoting what I said to the Select Committee. I believe seriously that rational debate relies on full information and that rational debate on that basis leads to rational decision making and not the normal rant that we sometimes get, not only in the House, but unfortunately in Committee.
On the Scott report, I may say that I do not regard the episode over arms to Iraq as typical of the issues that the Government face. In the daily press of events on Government and the experience of Government Departments, it was atypical, although extremely important. I intend, once we have dealt with the remaining issue on public interest immunity certificates, to place a summary in the Library of the House of all the actions that we have taken, which I promised at the Dispatch Box to do during the Scott debate. I hope to be able to do that as soon as the House returns from the recess.
At the centre of our policy towards openness is the code on access to information, not a freedom of information Act. I am pleased that the Select Committee welcomed what we had achieved with the code on access and I shall publish, as soon as the House returns, a new, revised code on access to information and I shall place a copy in the Library. I shall also write to the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. The new code will take into account the various recommendations for improvement that we have received, in particular, from the Select Committee on Public Service. I hope that it will be an improvement and I am sure that it will be because it deals with what I call the harm test. The addition to the code also, if I might quote from the final draft which I have circulated to the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration earlier today, states:The approach to release of information should in all cases be based on the assumption that information should be released".It is, therefore, presumptive. Later on, it states:In those categories which refer to harm or prejudice"—the harm test, which should be used when deciding whether information should not be disclosed—the presumption remains that information should be disclosed unless the harm likely to arise from disclosure would outweigh the public interest in making the information available.There are many other amendments and we have tried to ensure that they are in keeping with the report.
What are the arguments against a freedom of information Act? I hear what the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland says about the Opposition's early commitment to a Bill—perhaps not in the first Session of any future Labour Government, but it will receive early consideration. It is not without cost. The right hon. Gentleman will have seen my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary's costing of the Opposition's programme. He will have noticed that, because I am so scrupulous, there is no entry under "freedom of information Act". It is difficult to cost, but there will be a positive cost, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman recognises.
It is important to recognise that such an Act would probably result in no additional disclosure. In every freedom of information Act throughout the world the usual exceptions apply to dealing with intelligence, Cabinet discussions, civil service policy advice, bank rate policy and so on. We must not fool ourselves into thinking that such an Act would mean a raft of additional information.
171 Although the crucial argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth was that such an Act would change the culture and discipline of the civil service and, indeed, Ministers in disclosing information, I believe that it would damage the candour and even the openness of civil servants.
§ Mr. Freeman
If the hon. Lady will allow me to finish my argument, I shall be glad to give way.
If we followed the suggestion by the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) and made it a statutory obligation to disclose documents, fear of disclosure would mean that civil service advice would not be written down as comprehensively as it is now and civil servants would not be as free and open in describing the various options.
§ Mr. Freeman
I accept that the hon. Lady has experience of government. However, Labour Members have not had direct experience of government for 17 years. There is a distinction between facts, reasons and background information that should be disclosed fully and promptly and the sort of policy advice where the civil servant says, "Minister, you've got three options—A, B and C. Don't take A, B is too costly and the Treasury won't wear it, so you're stuck with C."
If, under a freedom of information Act with the sort of provisions wanted by the hon. Member for Blyth Valley, there are statutory sanctions to ensure that such a document is available, first, the advice will not be written down, and secondly, it will not be given.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
The self-confidence to argue a case openly is something that the civil service will rapidly learn. In the five years of my trade brief, I found that civil servants were perfectly capable of putting their arguments not only with great force but, at that time, with great coherence.
I shall give one example of the sort of problems I now encounter. Information that I required that would safeguard British travellers was not vouchsafed from the Department of Transport—I got it from the Federal Aviation Authority of America. That country has a freedom of information Act and I took the necessary information off the Internet, in the House of Commons, courtesy of the American system.
§ Mr. Freeman
I agree with a comment the hon. Lady made earlier. She asked, have not the civil service and the Government heard of the telephone? In my experience, where there is ambiguity or doubt in the mind of the civil servant, call the hon. Member concerned. I intend to take steps to ensure that that advice is more widely promulgated. Too often, we exchange information between the Executive and the legislature via 172 parliamentary questions or correspondence—yet we could find out the reason behind a question, if there is any ambiguity, and provide prompt and fuller information.
I want to place on record what the Government have done to change the culture. It is a slow process, but change is forthcoming. We now publish information memorandums on privatisation opportunities for the private sector. Previously, the civil service would say, "You cannot publish it because it is commercially confidential and there is no justification for it being placed in the Library of the House of Commons." I am pleased to say that we changed that during the past two years.
Today, we published "Public Bodies 1996", which gives information on the remuneration of chief executives of public bodies. There is guidance on answering parliamentary questions, as the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland knows, because he has questioned me about it in the past. We now require that openness guidance to be included in each parliamentary question folder before the civil servant completes advice on answering a question.
I assure the House that when we produce the next monitoring report on the work of the ombudsman and the code of access to information, we will include experience in each of the public Departments. As I said in the Government's response to the Select Committee:Departments will therefore in future be specifically asked to record examples of Code requests as part of the annual OPS monitoring exercise for inclusion in future annual monitoring reports, identifying (wherever possible) where they have resulted in a change of policy towards disclosure.That is a significant change and I hope that it will be helpful.
I join in the tributes to Sir William Reid. Not only is he a distinguished public servant at a time of great change for the ombudsman, but he has been extremely kind to many hon. Members and ensured that their constituency problems have been dealt with. I am grateful to him for dealing with the concerns of my constituents that I have passed to him.
The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) raised a number of interesting points. I repeat the Government's commitment to introduce a Bill on access to personal records and information held on health and safety matters. I regret that we have not yet had the opportunity to do so. If I continue to hold my present responsibility, I will do all that I can to persuade my colleagues collectively to include such a Bill in the Queen's Speech.
The hon. Members for Blyth Valley and for Truro raised the issue of publicity. So far, there has been a national campaign. It might make sense now to have a regional one, to ensure that more members of the public are aware of their right of access to the ombudsman and, indeed, their right of access under the code of access.
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor
I referred earlier to the answer that I received today on the environmental information tribunal, which we had understood would be the most likely forum in which access to environmental information would be enforced. The Minister said that he wanted legislation on health and safety. Will he clarify the position on the enforcement of access to information on both health and safety and the environment?
§ Mr. Freeman
The Government are considering the proposals in the report of the House of Lords Select 173 Committee on the European Communities on freedom of access to information on the environment, which recommends alternative procedures for resolving disputes under the regulations as soon as the Government have decided the best way to proceed. I must say that I was unaware of that point, but the hon. Gentleman has now ensured that I will take a personal interest in the matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) raised important points, including access to information on European regulations. I hope to be publishing, in early January, a guidance to all Departments on how to win friends and influence people in Brussels. We do not actually call the check list that—we refer to how Ministers should become involved at an earlier stage in the origination and preparation of directives and regulations. It is important that we take a close interest at a much earlier stage. That goes not just for Parliament and the Executive, but for business and industry.
My hon. Friend also mentioned transparency. I discussed that issue with Swedish Ministers during my recent visit to Stockholm. They were right to say that the whole process of directives and regulations from Brussels should be much more transparent. One way in which to achieve that is to engage in more consultation.
I join the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood in congratulating the Select Committee. I must say that the hon. Gentleman's speech sounded very much like that of a Member of Parliament who was exiling himself permanently to the Back Benches as a voice of the people. Conservative Members will do all that we can to ensure that his ambitions are fulfilled.
Question deferred, pursuant to paragraph (3) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of estimates).