§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about freedom of information, on which I have today published a draft Bill and consultation paper. Copies are available in the Vote Office.
In December 1997, the Government published a White Paper entitled "Your Right to Know". I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) for his work on that document, which underpins the draft Bill. I am also very grateful to the Select Committee on Public Administration for its consideration of the White Paper's proposals.
In drafting the Bill, we had to strike a careful balance three ways, between extending the public's access to information, protecting citizens' own privacy, and preserving confidentiality where disclosure itself would be against the public interest. That has been a difficult balancing act, but I think that we have got it right. The scales are weighted decisively in favour of openness, and the proposals will radically change the relationship between Government and citizens.
The proposals are not merely about abstract rights, to the benefit of academics, historians or constitutional theorists alone, important though all those are. The proposals will benefit everyone and provide access to the sort of information that people really want to know: parents will be better able to find out how schools apply their admissions policies; patients will be able to understand how hospitals allocate resources between different treatments and how they prioritise waiting lists; and citizens will be able to find out more about the actions of their local police force.
Under the Bill, for the first time, everyone will have the right of access to information held by bodies across the public sector. There will be a duty on public authorities to adopt a scheme for the publication of information about their work; a positive duty on authorities, even where they are not obliged to provide such information, to consider disclosure on public interest grounds; and a new Information Commissioner, together with a new information tribunal, to enforce the rights which are created.
Let me now explain to the House how the draft Bill compares with the White Paper's proposals. On which bodies are to be covered, the Bill's proposals are a little wider than those of the White Paper. All the functions of the police and police authorities are to be covered as the Select Committee proposed, with specific exemptions for information which is gained as part of an investigation or which relates to informers. The security and intelligence agencies, now together with the National Criminal Intelligence Service, will remain outside the scope of the Bill. We are discussing how Parliament can be included without prejudicing parliamentary privilege.
Unlike the current code, the White Paper promised access to specific documents and actual records—the Bill delivers that promise. Applicants for information may express a preference for the means of communication of the record: inspection of originals, a copy, or a summary of the information that is sought.
22 The White Paper set out seven areas to be covered by exemptions, together with other information that would be excluded from the Bill. It also set out conditions on the right of access. The Bill delivers broadly the same exemptions as the White Paper, but the tests involved do differ.
As to policy advice, there was never any expectation that Cabinet documents, inter-ministerial correspondence and official papers on developing policy would ever be disclosed under a freedom of information regime. As the White Paper said:
Now more than ever the Government needs space and time in which to assess arguments and conduct its own debates with a degree of privacy.Moreover, it is worth bearing in mind the fact that the product of such private deliberations is almost always a public announcement of policy.
Under the Bill, there will be a class exemption for the formulation of Government policy in place of the simple harm test in the White Paper, which we believe will achieve the same purpose in a more straightforward way. The White Paper proposed a substantial harm test to cover six specified interests in addition to policy advice, which was to be covered by a simple harm test. After careful consideration, we reached the view that a single omnibus substantial harm test could not work properly for the range of exemptions proposed. What is or may be "substantial" in relation to law enforcement may not be so in relation to international relations. We believe that the harm concerned must be capable of being interpreted in relation to the subject matter that it is designed to cover.
Therefore, where national security is an issue, the test now proposed is whether the exemption is required for the purpose of safeguarding it. Where the health and safety of an individual is at issue, the test now proposed is whether disclosure would or would be likely to endanger the physical or mental health or safety of an individual. Elsewhere the proposed test is whether disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice the criteria set out in the relevant exemption.
These tests will result in a more open regime than under the existing non-statutory code of practice. Under the code, the test is the possibility of harm being caused. Under the draft Bill, the test is a higher one of probability. Generally, the Information Commissioner will have the power to substitute his or her judgment as to disclosure for that of the public authority. He or she will be able to ensure that public authorities are not able to claim that prejudice would be caused in circumstances where this would be trivial or frivolous. The prejudice has to be real, actual or of "substance". In respect of policy advice, the commissioner will be able to challenge the reasonableness of a Minister's decision against disclosure.
There are two areas where the White Paper suggested that a harm test would apply where in fact such a test turns out to be impractical: these are personal information and information supplied in confidence. First, the disclosure of personal information is governed by our obligations to comply with the European Community data protection directive and the European convention on human rights. The convention and directive do not provide for the application of a harm test, and we cannot therefore unilaterally provide for one ourselves.
Secondly, we believe it would be wrong to overturn in the Bill duties of confidence that arise at common law. Those doing business with public authorities have the 23 [Mr. Jack Straw]
right to ensure that their confidences are respected. In many cases, public authorities need access to information held by others, which they in turn will be prepared to release only if given an undertaking of confidentiality. Where information is supplied to a public authority in those circumstances, the public authority should not be required to disclose it if that would constitute a breach of confidence actionable by the supplier of the information.
Let me turn now to the enforcement provisions for the new regime. An Information Commissioner will enforce the regime, and there will be rights of appeal against decisions of the commissioner to a tribunal, with a further appeal, on a point of law, to the courts.
The Select Committee on Public Administration said in its report that there was a need for coherence between the data protection regime and the freedom of information regime, with a "simple and comprehensive" right of access to each. We agree. Many requests for information will be for a mixture of personal and general information. We shall therefore merge the office of the Data Protection Commissioner with that of the Information Commissioner.
The cost of all the proposals when fully implemented is forecast to be between £90 million and £125 million a year. A task force to assist implementation, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, has been established. The Bill is compatible with the requirements of the European convention on human rights.
The Bill will now be subject to extensive consultation with the public and Parliament, including the Select Committee on Public Administration. I have spoken today of the need to balance rights. There is a right to know, a right to privacy and a right to confidentiality. For too long, we have given insufficient weight to the right to know. The proposals in the draft Bill seek to redress that balance.
This Government have done more than any other to open their workings to greater scrutiny by the public. In our manifesto, we promised a programme of constitutional reform to get citizens more closely involved in the decisions that affect their everyday lives. We have delivered, as promised, a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. We are bringing rights home through the Human Rights Act 1998, and today we are taking forward our pledge on freedom of information.
I commend these radical and balanced proposals to the House.
§ Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)
Before responding, I must declare an interest as a journalist and chairman of a regional newspaper company. I hope that, on this occasion, the Home Secretary has heard that declaration.
We welcome the fact that the Home Secretary has chosen, on this occasion, to make a statement on the Floor of the House. I hope, however, that he is aware that, after the past two years, many Members of the House, not all of them Conservatives, will need persuading that the Government have their heart in freedom of information.
§ Sir Norman Fowler
I do not think that I should take an intervention at this point.
24 The one action by the Home Secretary that we remember above all others was his obtainment, earlier this year, of an injunction against the whole of the British media to prevent publication of a few paragraphs of the Macpherson report, which was, in any event, to be published a few days later. Will he explain to the House how he squares that with all his words about freedom of information?
Our concern is increased not only by the fact that the clause that sets out the exemptions to freedom of information is the longest in the draft Bill and that the exemptions go way beyond national security, but by the fact that, in one vital respect, the test for withholding information has unquestionably been made easier. The White Paper proposed the test based on the question
"will the disclosure of the information cause substantial harm?"
The Home Secretary is now proposing a test based on the question whether disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice matters set out in the exemption in question.
Does not that mark a retreat from the White Paper and a reduction of the test in the previous Government's code of conduct, and was it not argued against inside Government by several Ministers, including the Lord Chancellor? In the lengthy negotiations in Whitehall, have not the Government Departments and the civil service won the battle in what they regard as a damage limitation exercise?
I have some questions about specific details of the statement. Is the Home Secretary saying that none of the submissions that come to Ministers will be available for publication, even though many of them are factual statements of the position in a particular policy area? Has he rejected any substantial change to the 30-year rule, given that it has clearly broken down in many respects? Will he say more about the costs of the new system? He said in his statement that they would be between £90 million and £125 million. Will the Government reimburse bodies such as the police, or will costs go where they fall?
Above all, will the Home Secretary confirm that the Government could and should become more open without any legislation? I remind him of the way in which he personally blocked all questions about the leak inquiry concerning the Macpherson report. Does he remember that, on 4 March, I asked him not for the identity of those who were to be interviewed, but whether Ministers, officials and special advisers would be interviewed? His written reply stated:
It would not be in the interests of the leak investigation now under way to give these details."—[Official Report, 4 March 1999;Vol.326,c.855.]That does not sound like a Minister who is committed to freedom of information.
How will the Bill affect the Government's refusal to disclose the fact that a European Union Committee is considering nearly 200 taxes—twice the number previously thought—for tax harmonisation? Is it not strange that the Dutch Finance Ministry confirmed that freely over the weekend, while the Treasury yesterday told the press that it was "confidential"?
25 Our aim will be to make this legislation effective, but if the Government want more openness in public bodies, they must take the lead and set an example. So far, there is precious little evidence of that.
§ Mr. Straw
As I explained in my statement, that assertion is incorrect because the Bill will result in a strengthening of the test in the previous Government's code of conduct. Their harm test was simply one of a possibility of harm, but this is of a probability of harm. Yes, the tests differ from those proposed in the White Paper; there is no dubiety about that. I have explained the reasons. On further examination, we found that had we kept to the substantial harm test, information which, unquestionably, could have caused harm to, for example, the national interest in respect of national security or to a law enforcement investigation, but would not have fallen into the category of substantial harm, could have been disclosed. We think that that would itself have been harmful. For that reason, we have gone for more straightforward, simple harm tests.
As I said, the harm tests that we have proposed must ensure—and will be required to ensure—that the harm concerned is real, actual or of substance. We are not talking about an assertion by Ministers, or anybody else, that something could cause a trivial or minor degree of harm; it must be of substance.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether, under clause 27, none of the submissions that go to Ministers would be disclosable, including factual statements. Factual statement background information is potentially disclosable; it depends which part of the Bill it falls under. Importantly, every Department will have to establish a code of practice for the publication of information. In my view, Departments should be separating argumentative policy advice documents from those which provide background information, and ensuring that background information is disclosable. Moreover, one of the big differences between this Bill and the code which preceded it is that the proposals will be enshrined in legislation and will secure a major change in culture.
The right hon. Gentleman asked what the Government did to become more open even before this Bill was published. Pages 1 and 2 of the consultative document set out a good deal of information about the sort of changes that have been made, where the Government have already introduced major improvements in openness.
Since I became Secretary of State, my Department has put its statisticians on a proper independent footing. No longer, as for my predecessor, is the date of publication of crime data in the gift of Ministers, who then manipulate it to suit their political purpose. We have published all operational manuals relating to the immigration and nationality directorate, except those relating to law enforcement.
26 When I came to office, more than a dozen reports of Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons were sitting on the Secretary of State's desk—some more than a year old—waiting for him to approve publication. I have established a clear protocol so that those documents must be published, whether I like it or not, within six weeks. Many of my colleagues throughout Whitehall have similarly ensured that there is much more openness than there ever was under the last Administration.
We are all delighted to learn from the right hon. Gentleman that his aim is, on behalf of the Opposition, to make the legislation effective. There is always room for a Pauline conversion. As some of us remember, in the Conservative campaign guide the whole Tory party stated that there was
"no need for a Freedom of Information Act"
"the only group in Britain who are seriously interested in a Freedom of Information Act are inquisitive left-wing busy bodies."
In our judgment, all British citizens are interested in a Freedom of Information Act, and we are delivering it.
§ Dr. David Clark (South Shields)
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and congratulate him sincerely on his draft Bill. It marks a new stage in the struggle to sweep away the cloak of secrecy that has engulfed British society for too long, and means that for the first time our citizens will have a statutory right to information. I also thank my right hon. Friend for the manner in which he is taking the Bill forward, and for allowing wide discussions both inside and outside the House.
The Bill is in some respects slightly different from the White Paper, as I would expect, but I have no difficulty in going along with most aspects of it. I would, however, like elucidation of one issue: that of prejudice and substantial harm. My right hon. Friend said that prejudice would have to be of substance. Can we not write that into the Bill? It would be very reassuring.
§ Mr. Straw
I, in turn, thank my right hon. Friend for his generous comments.
My right hon. Friend is correct in saying that the Bill will, above all, change the culture in which Governments operate. This is the first time that any citizen in this country will have a right to information from Government, and Government will have to say why information should not be provided rather than citizens' having to say why it should be provided. That is a profound change from the climate that we found when we came to office.
As for my right hon. Friend's substantive point—or, rather, the point on which he differs with me—he asked whether the Bill could state that prejudice must be actual, real or of substance. I will certainly consider that, but, as my right hon. Friend knows, following the Pepper v. Hart judgment by the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, if an issue relating to the interpretation of the Bill and of prejudice comes to court, their lordships in the Appellate Committee take account of what Ministers have said in explanation. I am sure that any court will take account of the definition that I have used—
"real, actual or of substance"—
whether or not it is possible to write it into the Bill. That is one of the reasons why I have put it on the record.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
Putting the Bill on the statute book, even in its present form, would 27 constitute a significant advance in the right of the citizen to have information; but do we not have the impression that while it has been hidden away in the Home Office, the mice have got at it?
Will the consultation be real, and will it make it possible for some key points to be reinstated in the Bill? Does the Home Secretary recognise the feeling that—as the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) suggested—prejudice should be defined in some way as substantial, serious or significant, and that there should be a right of access to factual information on policy issues that might otherwise be excluded because it is in the category of advice to Ministers? Issues such as BSE and Gulf war syndrome come to mind as examples In regard to which important facts must be included in the advice to Ministers. Should not threats to the environment and the need to prevent corruption be among the grounds on which otherwise protected information can be forced into the open, in the public interest?
§ Mr. Straw
I first thank the right hon. Gentleman for his broad welcome for the Bill. Obviously, I understand that he may have some reservations, but it is a significant advance. I promise that, in all the very long and open consideration within Government on the Bill, I never spotted a mouse even in the Home Office, and despite the fact that there is poison against rodents in my room just around the corner from this place.
§ Mr. Straw
It was not laid by the Patronage Secretary.
On background papers, the right hon. Gentleman asked how much we can change. It is important that, so far as possible, background papers that inform policy considerations, but do not determine them, and whose publication would not prejudice the good workings of government, should be published. That is one of the things that we need to look at very carefully. By the way, we intend to publish the background papers leading to the publication of the Freedom of Information Bill as proof of our good faith.
I say again that there are two safeguards in relation to the publication of such papers. One is that each Government Department has to publish its own programme of publication. The second is that, under clause 14, even where it is held by the Government Department and by the commissioner that the Department is entitled to refuse, as a right, to publish the information, it will still have a duty to consider exercising a discretion in the public interest for publishing that information.
We have looked at the use of the word "prejudice" a good deal. One of the reasons that it was chosen by parliamentary counsel was that it is in greater use than the word "harm". The House will be fully familiar with the fact that it crops up in paragraph (4) of part II of schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972. The point about that—it is, of course, an Act that was passed under a previous Administration—is that it talks about information whose publication would prejudice the authority.
28 The use of the word "prejudice" crops up again in the Contempt of Court Act 1981. More important, it has been the subject of much judicial definition under the European convention on human rights, so its use is appropriate. Of course, that could be the subject of more consideration.
As for threats to the environment, again, the provisions of the Bill say that environmental information has to be published, save where it would endanger the health or safety of an individual. That is a pretty high test to pass. We certainly believe that the maximum amount of information relating to the environment should be published. Again, the degree to which the Bill achieves that end will, I hope, be the subject of consideration, not least by the Select Committee on Public Administration.
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. I share the view that the measure will be a significant advance over what has gone before, but he will realise that there is a certain amount of disappointment among some of those who have taken a close interest in the matter. He will have seen it alleged—it is not a view I hold—that the Bill will not make a significant difference to existing practice. Will he please address that point?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the powers and, indeed, identity of the commissioner will be crucial to the way in which the Bill is enforced? If, for example, the commissioner turned out to be a retired Cabinet Secretary, we might all have grounds for suspicion that it might not be enforced with quite the rigour that we would like, so can we have an assurance that the selection process for the commissioner will be open?
Will my right hon. Friend say something about the powers that the commissioner will have? In the event of a dispute between a Minister and the commissioner, who will have the final say?
§ Mr. Straw
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's commendation. The Bill is a significant advance. Of course, I have seen the allegations that it will not make much difference. They will turn out to be untrue. Once the Bill has been passed—as I hope it will be, no doubt with the support of the Opposition—into law and been implemented, there will be a profound change in what people see as their rights in relation to those of Government.
We certainly did not have it in mind that a retired Cabinet Secretary might be able to be appointed to the position of commissioner. I should say—if I may give vent to a private idea—that I had it more in mind that the position might be a good place for a retired Home Secretary, or that some consideration should be given to how we may create a selection process to achieve that end. I should also say, for the benefit of the record, that that was said in jest—although I am always a candidate for a write-in vote.
The commissioner's powers will be very extensive indeed. In most of the exemptions in part II of the Bill, the commissioner will have the power to substitute his or her decision for that of the public authority. Therefore, if the public authority says, "No, don't publish", but the 29 commissioner says, "Yes, do publish", the commissioner's decision—subject only to an appeal to a tribunal and, ultimately, to the courts—will apply.
Policy advice, because of the certification procedure, will be dealt with at one remove. However, under the current clause 28, if the commissioner says that, in his or her view, a document that has been categorised as policy advice is one that no reasonable Minister could possibly have categorised as policy advice, the document would be published.
I accept that the position of commissioner will be a very important appointment, and that the selection procedures will have to reflect that fact.
§ Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)
Given our long national tradition of openness in local government, from how many advisers will the Mayor of London be able to accept confidential advice?
§ Mr. Straw
I am not sure of the precise answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question, although I can say that local government has been significantly ahead of national Government on the matter of openness. He may have been raising an issue about relations between central and local government. One of our proposals is that the Department that possesses information originally will have control over which freedom of information regime should apply to it.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the response to his statement today by Opposition Front Benchers was absolutely mind-blowing for those of us who spent 18 years trying to get a Freedom of Information Bill passed, but watched the Tories vote down any attempts to pass such a Bill? As long ago as the 1983 Parliament, as shadow Home Secretary, I made the passage of one such Bill the official policy of the Labour party.
In considering changes to the legislation between now and the introduction of the full Bill, will my right hon. Friend take account of the fact that although parliamentary counsel are excellent advisers on words, they are not necessarily the best advisers on policy? Will he remember that fact when considering the wording of the final Bill?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the presumption in the legislation must be that information will be disclosed, rather than withheld; that risks shall be taken on disclosure, rather than on concealment; and that any changes between the draft Bill and the full Bill shall be made to widen the window of information, and to get rid entirely of the net curtain mentality that prevailed under the Tory Government?
§ Mr. Straw
I do indeed remember my right hon. Friend's pioneering contribution to freedom of information legislation and his action in 1983, when he was shadow Home Secretary, to make that the then Opposition's official policy. I share his view on the Conservative Opposition's rather rapid conversion on the issue. Although they do not have a monopoly when it comes to conversions, their conversion on this occasion is bigger than others that I could think of.
30 I accept what my right hon. Friend says about parliamentary counsel, who, in my long experience, are brilliant, but they do not presume to make policy decisions, which are a matter for Ministers.
I fully understand that my right hon. Friend has not had time to see the consultative document, but clause 8 lays down the fundamental right that every citizen will have. It starts:
"Any person is entitled, on making to a public authority a request for information—
That clause is fundamental to the Bill. It sets up the presumption of a right to information. Everything else is merely an exception and does not detract from the fundamental nature of that right.
- (a) to be informed by the public authority whether it holds information of the description specified in the request, and
- (b) if that is the case, to have that information communicated to him."
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)
That statement would have been truer of the White Paper than it is of what we have seen of the draft Bill. I welcome the fact that this is a draft Bill that can be considered by the House at greater leisure and in detail. However, it represents a significant retreat from the White Paper. In some respects, although it is broader, it is weaker than the code of practice. It removes the code's more enforceable—in the sense of discretion—public interest test, making it easier to conceal misconduct. It exempts all information about the formulation and development of Government policy, including factual information and scientific analysis on issues such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy and genetically modified food in clause 28(1)(a). It replaces the White Paper's substantial harm test with a lower prejudice test. It contains wide catch-all exemptions, allowing authorities to refuse disclosure without having to show that it would cause harm. It allows new exemptions to be created at short notice to block requests already received.
Those are just a few of the points that show that the draft Bill is a significant and substantial retreat from the Prime Minister's assurance in the White Paper about the partnership between the citizen and the state. It reverses the White Paper's presumption that the information is the citizen's and gives central Government large discretion over the release of information.
§ Mr. Straw
The hon. Gentleman has taken an active interest in the subject, not least as a member of the Select Committee on Public Administration, so I am sorry to say that I do not agree with him. I do not believe that anyone reading the Bill would come to his conclusions. There has been no dubiety; I have not disguised from the House for a second that we have differed from the White Paper's six areas in which the substantial harm test was to be established. This has been a consultative process in which we have had second and third thoughts. We have changed the effect, though not the method, of the clauses relating to policy advice, principally clause 28. However, in no sense could that be described as a significant retreat from the White Paper.
With respect, the hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that we are reversing the presumption. I ask him to look at clause 8, which establishes for the first time the clear right of every citizen to seek information from Departments and other public authorities. The authority must argue the case for an exemption.
31 [Mr. Straw]
We are publishing a large amount of information about BSE—a process that may have begun under the previous Government. [Interruption.] It may be discretionary. The House may have to consider that matter, not least in the Public Administration Committee. I have no interest in factual information being the subject of exclusion or exemption. However, there is an important point about policy advice. I have read and re-read the Select Committee's report carefully. It never argued that the process of policy development and formulation should take place in an environment in which people were not able to have disagreements in private. Policy formulation in government, in opposition or in the editorial conferences of newspapers cannot take place properly unless people have confidence that what they say in a meeting will not be broadcast publicly. Institutions cannot operate if they are not allowed some privacy in policy formulation.
Some countries with freedom of information regimes have not given proper protection to policy formulation and advice. The paradox of their situation is that, far from that leading to an increase in the accountability of Ministers and decision makers, it has reduced accountability because it has cut the audit trail. Officials and Ministers have gone in for Post-it notes and oral decisions which should have been properly recorded, or for devices for ordaining all sorts of documents which have nothing to do with the Cabinet or Cabinet Committees as Cabinet documents. We want a straightforward and honest regime which recognises that we are dealing with three competing rights—the right to know, the right to privacy and the right to confidentiality. Getting the balance right is difficult, but I think we have achieved it.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the best test of the legislation will be the first occasion when the Government give factual information to the House of Commons that is rather uncomfortable for them—something that may arrive sooner than they expect? Is it the intention to include detailed papers about information on European matters which will be of grave concern? He will be aware that the House of Commons needs to take back to itself the right of access to information, and that it is because of the 20 years of refusal to give such facts and figures to the House that the Bill is desperately needed.
May I comfort my right hon. Friend with one thought? He should not worry too much about those argumentative papers which he says are essential—those will be the ones that get into the public domain without any assistance from him or anyone else.
§ Mr. Straw
I can reassure my hon. Friend that my ministerial colleagues and I publish factual information that is uncomfortable to us every day of the week. It is right that we should do so, because the public have a right to know what is going on in our area of the woods. The statistical services of the Home Office have been put on a properly independent basis, and it is now the director of the research, development and statistics directorate, and not Ministers, who publishes those statistical data—whether they are uncomfortable or not—and sets the date for publication.
32 On European Union matters, I agree that much more should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. In terms of justice and home affairs, we have sought, with the co-operation of the relevant Select Committees of this House and the other place, to improve the flow of information that is made available to the House in advance, for example, of Justice and Home Affairs Councils. We are always open to suggestion on ways of improving the flow of information.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth(Aldershot)
Many people will think that the Home Secretary has made a good case against his own Bill. Given the huge raft of exemptions for which he has provided, can he give some practical examples of information that he expects the Bill to produce which the Government are not prepared to produce at the moment? Does he agree that, under the new proposals, he would have been prevented from seeking an injunction against The Sunday Telegraph when it tried, rightly, to place in the public domain information to which the public should have been entitled?
§ Mr. Straw
I find the hon. Gentleman's point about the injunction, and that of his right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), to be eccentric. With the full support of the courts, I was seeking to protect the privilege of this House to see the document first, as well as the commission and the Lawrence family. No one could argue that I was seeking to suppress publication, as there was no doubt that the document would be published three days later, in any event.
The hon. Gentleman asked what would happen under the Bill that is not happening now. I gave a series of practical examples in my statement, and I am sorry that he was not paying his usual attention to what I said. The examples included information on waiting lists and the allocation of resources by health authorities; information on school admissions policies; important information on the police service, which should be made available unless it interferes with the investigation or prevention of crime; and information on many aspects of central Government.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman recognises that we have been very open. Often, when I am asked a parliamentary question, it is suggested that I do not give information, but I say that we ought to provide it. I and my ministerial colleagues have sought to ensure that we provide much more information than the previous Government did or than we are required to provide.
§ Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on finally presenting the draft Bill to the House, after what seemed like an elephantine gestation period. I thank him for his kind words about the Select Committee on Public Administration, which it has been my privilege to chair, and its work on the draft Bill.
Are not the disappearance of the substantial harm test, the new override powers of the tribunal over the Committee's decisions and the almost unilateral nature of the public interest test, which is now in Ministers' hands, bound to lead to the suspicion that all the Sir Humphreys have drawn the covered wagons of Whitehall into a circle, to deny us information that, had we followed the White Paper principles, would have been put in the public domain if someone had requested it?
§ Mr. Straw
I thank my hon. Friend for what he said about the publication of the draft Bill. Our manifesto 33 commitment was to legislate in this Parliament, and we are only two years into it. We produced a White Paper in late 1997 that was considered by the Select Committee that he chaired, and we have now produced a draft Bill. We will legislate as soon as we can and I believe that we will end up well before the end of this Parliament with an Act on the statute book. That, I think, is significant progress.
I have sought to explain to the House why we decided, on careful examination, that it was not possible to use a single substantial harm test to cover all the disparate interests. Nor, in my judgment, was that desirable, because there could have been information whose publication would have caused real harm, but harm that could not quite be categorised as substantial, that would have had to be made available.
My hon. Friend spoke about the Sir Humphreys, but Ministers are responsible for what is in the draft Bill. We have taken advice, which has not been all one way, but we take full responsibility as Ministers. We are not hiding behind officials' skirts. Ministers have brought the proposals to Parliament, and it is for Parliament to decide how to dispose of them.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
Does the Home Secretary accept that in the brave new world that he is outlining, the taxpayer should and will learn a lot more about people whose pay and expenses are met through taxation? Should people who work in a Department on substantial salaries and who travel extensively be prepared to be open with the public about their activities? Will he give an undertaking that, before 34 the legislation is enacted, he and his colleagues will tell us everything about what their political special advisers do in Departments, spending taxpayers' money?
§ Mr. Straw
I have answered many questions about the activities of my political advisers. It is usually pretty straightforward information. I am not sure whether it was the right hon. Gentleman or someone else who tabled a parliamentary question about the travel costs of my special advisers over the past two years, but I have answered the question and I shall continue to answer such questions.
§ Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)
I welcome the draft Bill. I remember that, many years ago, in the Public Administration Committee, when the Tories, to a man, wanted a code of practice on freedom of information, Labour Members, to a man, wanted a statutory right. The statutory right is the biggest improvement that the Government have made. The Committee will sit shortly, take evidence and make recommendations. Can I take it that those recommendations will be accepted?
§ Mr. Straw
The serious answer is that the usual dialectical process will take place—[Interruption.] Conservative Members do not know what that is. Thesis, antithesis and synthesis will take place. The Select Committee will make its proposals and we will read them carefully. I have not been able to accept every proposal made by the Select Committee in its previous report, but we have accepted several, including the criticisms that there was a disconnection between the data protection regime and the proposed regime for the Information Commissioner. We have sought to ensure that they will be properly connected.