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Mr. Alan Howarth : My hon. Friend has observed that the people are, or ought to be, sovereign. Is not part of the reality that we are addressing the fact that so much power lies with experts? That is a regime under which we do not invariably prosper. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are likely to have better decision making if the advice of experts is made accountable and tested by being exposed to the scrutiny of common sense and of alternative experts?
I give three principal reasons for freedom of information. First, there is the question of who we are. We are human beings, whether artists, individuals or people with passion--free citizens in a free society. Let us remember that this is a democracy. Who we are entitles us to freedom of information.
The second reason is accountable government. Unless we know what the Government are doing, how can we judge them and how can they be held accountable? If the Government conceal behind a screen of absolute protection and secrecy their intent or purpose, how can we as Parliament or as public society discuss intelligently and reasonably the objectives and purposes of public policy? We cannot. My third reason is the affirmative point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) raised. If information is open and available, surely the quality of decisions will be better. Those are my three general arguments and, as is the way of politicians, I believe that they cannot be gainsaid.
What is the essential grit, nut or hardness in the Government's arguments? I have pursued that point over the years. I had intended to trouble the House with a recitation of the gallant intervention by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education into the Official Secrets Act 1911. It is so denigratory that, although out of the mouths of babes and sucklings sometimes comes truth, I realise there are some things of which even Secretaries of State for Education do not wish to be reminded.
Instead, I shall refer to a more contemporary document. I am trying to make a distinction about civil society--the nature of our political society. I accept the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central that the central interest to most of us as citizens is often at the level of information relating to pollution and to the things that matter to our lives. I am
Column 622concentrating on the things that matter to our society, to our political establishment and to the nature of democracy.
I refer to a recent document signed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It was necessary for my right hon. Friend to make the assertion in respect of the Commissioners of Customs and Excise v. Henderson, Abraham and Allen. One of those individuals is a constituent of mine. In relation to the Minister of State's certificate, I will refer to one of the categories of document that do not touch on national security. My right hon. Friend said : "I have formed the opinion that the production of such documents would be injurious to the public interest and that it is necessary for the proper functioning of the public service that the documents should be withheld from production. All these documents fall into a class of documents which relate to the formulation of Government policy and the internal dealings of Government departments Decisions made by Ministers are frequently preceded by detailed discussions within and between Government departments and by consideration of the various possibilities open to Ministers." My right hon. Friend's next point is critical and revealing of the Government's attitude :
"It would, in my view, be against the public interest"
the invocation of the public interest is always a powerful argument here
"that documents or oral evidence revealing the process of providing for Ministers' honest and candid advice on matters of high level policy should be subject to disclosure or compulsion."
My right hon. Friend concludes :
"I would respectfully pray in aid the reasoning of Lord Reid in Conway v. Rimmer."
Nothing gives authority better than for the Government to indicate a legal source. Of course, that is quite right. In a common law system we expect precedent and ruling. Therefore, we should refer to what Lord Reid had to say about that essential claim for the need for secrecy in matters that affect public policy and which determine the well-being of the state and possibly the lives or, with regard to that constituent of mine, the freedom of people.
In the magisterial way of that great judgment of 1968--and it is part of our argument today that attitudes change with time--Lord Reid stated :
"I do not doubt that there are certain classes of documents which ought not to be disclosed whatever their content may be. Virtually everyone agrees that Cabinet minutes and the like ought not to be disclosed until such time as they are only of historical interest. But I do not think that many people would give as the reason that premature disclosure would prevent candour in Cabinet. To my mind the most important reason is that disclosure would create or fan ill-informed or captious public or political criticism."
In other words, it is outrageous that people should have contrary views and they are all ill-informed if they are contrary to mine. Lord Reid continued to state that the burden of the argument is that "The business of government is difficult enough as it is, and no government could contemplate with equanimity the inner workings of the government machine being exposed to the gaze of those ready to criticise without adequate knowledge of the background and perhaps with some axe to grind."
On that basis, we might as well close down Parliament. One of its endearing features is that most of us have axes to grind ; but most of us have inadequate information with which to grind them on the basis of legislation and the new high Tory view. Lord Reid continued :
Column 623"And that must, in my view, also apply to all documents concerned with policy making within departments including, it may be, minutes and the like by quite junior officials and correspondence with outside bodies."
Events came forward on that basis and I do not intend to explain or take a view about where the Matrix Churchill case will end up, other than to note that my constituent, whose liberty was at risk, is not in that unhappy position at the moment.
If we consider this subject since the war, it is interesting to consider the influence of DORA--the Defence of the Realm Acts. I have lived through the era of TINA--there is no alternative. We must consider the attitude of a nation under pressure, engaged in a war and in a fight for survival. That nation required certain measures. I may have caused people to snigger at the expense of Lord Reid--although I am not sure that I did that. However, that honourable gentleman was formed in the last world war. His attitudes and those of many who held key positions in public administration grew out of the need for national survival and from that came the absolute injunction to secrecy and to keep information controlled because it might be a matter of life or death. Such an attitude is understandable in that context. That is why I believe that the challenge of the 1990s will win, overcome and subsume the high Toryism of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North. In his statement to which I have referred, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office referred to "revealing the process of providing for Ministers' honest and candid advice on matters of high policy should be subject to disclosure or compulsion."
There are grounds for that, in the sense that there is ministerial accountability. We are considering in Committee ministerial accountability in respect of the arrangements for the European Community. If decisions are made in a different forum, outside the call of this House, Ministers cannot be accountable for those decisions. Therefore, the doctrine must face some form of challenge. I put it no higher than that.
In respect of the case to which I have referred, I continue to refer to it only to the extent that the documents released by the courts have shown the lengths to which Whitehall wished to keep secret the shifts in defence- related trade and policy and to change the guidelines promulgated in Parliament on the ground, presumably, that that would affect the honesty and candour of advice from civil servants to Ministers. That is a very important aspect.
I want to consider why the Government are arguing for such secrecy. My right hon. Friend the Minister, who has now left the Chamber, will perhaps well recall the comment :
"There seems considerable merit in keeping as quiet as possible about this politically sensitive issue and we do not wish to face the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with presentational difficulties."
In that kind of admission in departmental documents, we see the extinction of the argument for honesty and candour. The advice received by Ministers is certainly candid. However, it urged a lack of candour towards the public.
With respect to the internal workings of government, Ministers overlook the fact that the prospect of early disclosure of the information would make the advisers more candid. They would be more candid about the public debate on the issue. If the documents are released, we must
Column 624be able to show that the issue is a matter for public debate and that we have weighed it up. The arguments should not be for secrecy. The instruction for candour would be reinforced by the knowledge that whatever one was arguing for would become available.
Advisers would be more inclined to accept the merit of being as open as possible about advice so that that can be decided and defended according to arguments sustained through the democratic process. I remind the House that this is the low Tory view. It is certainly not the high Tory view. We seem to be reaching an age in which no argument should be sustained by reason. It is a great inconvenience that our majority has been reduced from what it should be which is absolute--to a more debatable level.
The real advantage of the Bill is that it would create a presumption in favour of democratic debate. The prospect that advice will become public sooner rather than later will mean that the advice will be candid. I did not hear one good argument from my right hon. Friend the Minister. I believe that the most central and convincing argument is personal privacy. We all recognise, in respect of protection of the state, that there are certain areas of information which, for the integrity of the democratic process, should be protected. However, that is very limited and should be closely distinguished. The presumption is that we, the people, conceive the institutions through which we rule ourselves. Therefore, we low Tories will argue that all the information of government, other than that immediately in the heart of the defence of the realm, the privacy of the citizens, its tax arrangements and so on, should be open to the public as of right with the protections and mechanisms that are identified in the Bill. Let us give a cheer for the Bill and see it into Committee.
Mrs. Barbara Roche (Hornsey and Wood Green) : I am absolutely delighted to speak in this debate which has been of such a high standard. First, I should say that it is a great privilege to speak after the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). Before I was elected to the House I remember being asked in a public context a difficult question--to name a Conservative Member whom I admired. I am sorry to give the hon. Gentleman cause to blush, but, without hesitation, his name sprang to mind. Having heard his speech in this debate, I am pleased that I made that choice.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on the way in which he presented his Bill and the way in which he has campaigned for it. I also congratulate the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Hon. Members on both sides know of the great strength of public feeling about the Bill. I am sure that all of us have had many letters and post cards on the matter. In my short time in the House, I do not think that I have had so much strength of public feeling in my constituency on any subject that has come before the House.
This debate has been going on for some time. The Royal Commission on the press which reported in 1977 referred to the right of access to information and the legitimate concerns of people, Parliament and the press if our information is too restricted. We speak for many people when we say that we have almost an obsession with
Column 625secrecy in this country. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was right to say that unless we change the culture of institutions, secrecy will continue.
I note what the Chancellor said about the open government initiative, but, like the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, I am afraid that the Chancellor's words have a slightly hollow ring to them when we see the Government claiming immunity by signing public immunity certificates. Such certificates might threaten the liberty of individuals and also prevent discussion of the public's concerns. Recently, we heard that the Department of Health told soft drink companies that there was no need to inform the public that a brand of apple juice contained more than eight times the safety level of a specific toxin. That matter rightly outraged public opinion in the United Kingdom. It seems as though Ministers agree with Sir Humphrey Appleby from "Yes Minister" that, "You can either be open, or you can have government". They believe one cannot have both.
The documents that might have entered the public domain under the Bill would have shown the lengths to which Whitehall advisers were prepared to go to keep secret the shifts in defence-related trade policy, and the changes in guidelines promulgated in Parliament, which took place in the years before the invasion of Kuwait. Such legislation would have provided a public interest defence for any whistle blower who tried rightly to expose what was going on. A democratic public debate about whether we should have armed Saddam Hussein would have been possible and appropriate. Geoffrey Robertson QC commented :
"These pros and cons of defence-related trade with Iraq should have been argued out in Parliament, in editorials, in pubs and clubs and common rooms a Government which refuses to share this dilemma with the public, and which is advised to solve it secretly or deviously, is not a Government which has respect for the informed public debate which is central to the democratic process."
Mr. Stephen : The hon. Lady mentioned Iraq. Does she not recognise that, at the time that foreign policy decisions were made in London with regard to Iraq, there was a delicate international situation involving both Iran and Iraq in the middle east and that the full openness for which she argues might have made the conduct of our foreign policy very difficult?
Mrs. Roche : It is always easy to say that full openness would have made things difficult. Our policy of secrecy certainly made things extremely difficult for the men and women of our armed forces when they had to take part in the Gulf war. The fact that there was that secrecy and what was clearly happening was an arms trade with Iraq meant that there was no public debate whatever on the issue and it led to the consequences that resulted.
If we follow the path of the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen), how far would he extend it? Where would Parliament's rights be? Might there not be subjects which the House should perhaps not discuss, primarily because it would make things difficult? One of the roles of not only the House but the public is sometimes to make things difficult, to shed light and perhaps to make things uncomfortable.
No one is suggesting that national security should be breached or that the lives of security services and armed
Column 626forces personnel should be endangered. The Bill includes exemptions from providing information on seven counts ranging from causing significant damage to defence to breaching personal privacy, so the hon. Gentleman's worries would be well covered.
For far too long, Governments have hidden behind the defence of national security. The security services have rightly been mentioned. The Chancellor said that MI6 will be put on a statutory footing. The Secretary of State's assurances would perhaps have greater weight with Opposition and Conservative Members if he gave his support to the recent Home Affairs Select Committee report on parliamentary accountability for MI5. That would enable us to accept that the Government are keen to blow away the cobwebs and are prepared to provide parliamentary scrutiny of our security services.
Most people's thirst for the right to know rightly and understandably stems from daily matters. They want to know how safe their car is, whether the food that they buy is properly and hygienically produced, or what is the safety record of the ferry on which they cross the channel. The Government claim to be interested in offering people choice. If they want people to be able to make informed choices, I urge the Government to support the Bill to ensure that it has time to reach the statute book. People need to know the safety and environmental record of companies that they plan to patronise. If choice means anything, it means that one has the knowledge on which to make that choice. Choice does not mean anything if one makes a choice from ignorance.
Reference has already been made to the tragedies of the King's Cross disaster and the Bradford fire. Similarly, after the Marchioness river cruiser sank on the Thames in August 1989, it was revealed that the ship into which it had crashed, the Bowbelle, had been involved in three previous river accidents. The public did not know about those accidents and were not aware of the dangerous record of the Bowbelle because accident records are confidential. Again, if choice means anything, it means that the public have a right to know in such cases.
Of course, no one knows whether accidents could have been avoided by greater openness, but it is possible that if the public knew about the problems they would demand improvements that could prevent such tragedies from happening. It happens time and again. The same is true of the Bradford fire. If all the circumstances and the history of the stadium had been known, there would have been a public debate in Bradford. Questions would have been asked of several public bodies. It may well be that the tragedy could have been averted.
My postbag is evidence that many of my constituents are rightly concerned about the environment. Their concern influences the products that they buy. Under the Bill, a company that employs more than 50 people would be obliged to publish in its annual report how often enforcement action had been successfully taken against it for breaching laws on the environment. The Bill would also require companies to publish information on health and safety at work and the company's pension fund.
Other people come to my advice surgeries with accounts of discrimination at work. The Bill would give them access and the ability to correct records and references held by their current and former employers.
Perhaps one of the most moving cases with which I have dealt is of a constituent who has become badly disabled and is now partially wheelchair- bound following an
Column 627exploratory operation 10 years ago. During the operation she was injected with a contrast medium or dye. After suffering crippling symptoms, she tried to find out what was in the dye. She met a wall of silence from doctors, the hospital and the health authority. Having been a hospital nurse before her disability forced her to give up her job, my constituent was shocked to find that the authority had no obligation to reveal what was in the dye with which she was injected.
When I have tried to gather further information on the subject, I have found that such cases are by no means unusual. My constituent's case is not an isolated one. Under the Bill, she would have the right to the information on written application within 30 days. That would enable her to pursue any remedies that are available.
I cannot see what argument there can be for denying my constituent the basic right to know the components of the dye that was injected into her. Such examples of personal experience of state power and secrecy are excellent reasons for supporting the Bill.
Another reason is our personal experiences as Members of Parliament. As a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, I certainly feel that the Bill would enable me to undertake my duties and responsibilities more efficiently and effectively. As Members of Parliament, we have no right to information. We can ask questions, but we cannot insist on answers. I gather from the Table Office that the advisory limit for refusing to answer written questions, on the ground of disproportionate cost, stands at £400.
Apparently, there is no limit on the amount of money that Ministers can spend on replies. An interesting illustration involved the former Prime Minister, who refused to say how many questions she had declined to answer during her premiership, saying that answering that question would involve, "disproportionate cost." Yet, in June 1989, she was asked, in one of those questions that are a waste of parliamentary time, to list the Government's achievements since 1979. The reply covered 34 columns of Hansard, and the cost was later disclosed to have been £4,600. If we are talking about checks and balances, that is perhaps a classic example of the way in which the balance lies in favour not of the legislature but of the Executive. The Bill would go some way to check that balance.
Other countries look in some disbelief at the way that we carry on. As Richard Norton-Taylor wrote in The Guardian :
"Ostrich-like, determined to insulate Britain from the outside world, the government pulled up the blanket higher, tucked it in tighter, confirming the established view among Britain's puzzled and closest allies that the obsession with secrecy is now le vice Anglais."
If members of the Government feel that their Departments have no stupidity, ineptitude, inefficiency, bad decision-making, bureaucratic bungling, dishonesty or corruption to hide, they have nothing to fear by supporting the Bill.
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on promoting this measure and thereby giving us the opportunity to debate an important subject, on which there is much common ground. I suspect that the Bill may try to do too many things, which may make it difficult for it to proceed on to the statute book, but its intention is
Column 628right. I am not sure whether it will achieve what hon. Members who have spoken think it will. I would describe it as a "yes, but" Bill and this has been a "yes, but" debate. During every speech I have said to myself, "Yes I agree, but".
I want to know the 1792 secret that is sitting on the Minister's desk. We do not even know the subject, and we should be told. There are interesting secrets to be revealed, and some things should not remain secret.
We may be able to achieve some of what we want without the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) referred to the fact that the Data Protection Acts only cover computer records rather than files. We could sensibly use that legislation to extend data protection, and from that point of view I am not sure whether the Bill is necessary.
As one listens to the debate, one tends to muse. I have been thinking about our own dear Whips Office--I am sure that Labour Members have thought of theirs--and the personal files and records that it might contain. If the measure is enacted, I wonder whether we shall be protected. I had thought that the Whips Office would be exempt, but I can find no such exemption. Clause 3 states : "In this Act public authority' means any government department"--
I am not sure whether that covers it--
"any other corporation or body"--
it is certainly a body-- "in relation to any function which it exercises on behalf of the Crown"--
we are getting closer--
"any other corporation or body at least half of whose revenues derive directly from money provided by Parliament"
we have got them. The Whips Office will be covered by the measure, and that is something to be said for it.
The Bill represents an attempt to move from a society run on a need-to-know basis to one run on a right-to-know basis. It is designed to shift the balance--which is what the Government have sought to do through recent actions. They have created a more open society, in which the disclosure of information is judged correct unless there is good cause to prevent it. They have moved society on from the days when things were kept secret because it was not good for children to know the truth.
The Bill would not provide a right to be told, however, but just the right to know. One would have to know what question to ask and of whom, unless one scattered lots of questions in the hope of obtaining the relevant answers. It does not place a requirement on any public authority to collect information. If the relevant authority does not have the requested information, it is required to say who might have it, if it knows that it is available from somewhere else, but it is not required to collect it. Such collection of information may be the answer to the problem of parliamentary questions to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central referred, which are often answered with the words, "We do not collect this information centrally." I suspect that that practice may still continue.
I support the principles behind the Bill. Almost two years ago to the day, I stood here promoting my own private Member's Bill, the Public Safety Information Bill. It proved too complex for the House to swallow and got no further than its Second Reading, but, nevertheless, we
Column 629had a useful debate. I recall quoting the words of Charles Churchill--I offer them again to the hon. Member for Stoke -on-Trent, Central :
"In full fair tide let information flow :
That evil is half cured whose cause we know"
That is the theme of the Bill in poetic form. The down-to-earth reasons for the Bill are in part revealed by some of the disasters to which the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) referred--those disasters were the rationale behind my Bill. It is worth recalling that Desmond Fennell, who wrote the report on the King's Cross fire, said :
"I view with dismay the suggestion that information gained by a statutory authority which has a bearing on the safety of the public using a system for mass transportation should not be made publicly available."
We should be moving towards such disclosure.
I am not certain that the Bill goes far enough. If one knows about something, one can make a reasoned judgment, but in some cases that information must be presented. In 1987, 31 people died at King's Cross. It was subsequently discovered that between 1945 and 1987, there had been 46 escalator fires. None of those, happily, led to the sort of disaster that resulted in loss of life, but had the public been informed of the danger posed by those fires, pressure for improvements would have been brought to bear. Pressure is not always exerted by individual members of the public, although it often is by the press or elected representatives.
If no action is taken when conditions demand it, lives can be lost. Often, no action is taken because no pressure is exerted, and often no pressure is exerted because there is no knowledge. When considering the Bill need to dwell on the need to seek such knowledge.
My Bill sought to require not just a right to know, but the right to be told. That is missing from this Bill, especially when one considers the protection of the public in places where they could be at risk.
In 1985, 50 people died at Bradford football ground, when a wooden stand caught fire because of the rubbish collected underneath it. Bradford council had been warned about the combustible materials in that rubbish. When we discussed my Bill two years ago, I quoted a letter sent to me by the former leader of Bradford council, Ronnie Farley :
"This information never reached the public or the elected members as there was no legal requirement for it to do so. Had the Public Safety Information Bill been law, it would have been discussed in public at the next meeting of the committee, the public gallery would have been packed"--
as the press would have drawn attention to it.
"I cannot conceive it possible that no remedial action would have been taken. The fire would not have happened and those people would be alive today."
There are many other disasters, such as that involving the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987. Reports were known to have been received showing that there were no lights on the bridge to warn that the bow doors were open. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green referred to the Marchioness disaster in 1989. I well recall that disaster, as the Bowbelle sailed from my constituency. Some reports relating to the Bowbelle's sister ship were known to the authorities, but not the public. That is the key issue--the public could not be aware of the information, but it should have been possible for the information to be drawn to their attention.
Column 630My Bill would have made it a requirement that football grounds or transport that had received a warning would have to display a notice stating that fact, so that nobody could unknowingly take a risk. Having seen the warning, they could take the risk knowing that, on balance, they accepted it.
In 1988, the Clapham junction train crash occurred in my constituency, and 35 people were killed. The subsequent Hidden inquiry showed that there had been five similar incidents of faulty wiring which were known and reported. However, the lesson was not learned, the public did not know, a row was not caused and lives were lost.
Lives and health can be saved by information. The Health and Safety Commission has made that clear. One of its reports states : "Where their own immediate safety or health could be at risk, the public should be in possession of information enabling them to understand their position."
I hope that it is clear that I wholly support policies to ensure more freedom of information, but I believe that the Bill does not go far enough. Perhaps its powers could be extended, or the Government could listen to the discussions and take further action.
However, we must also be aware of the dangers of partial knowledge. The apple juice case has been mentioned several times today, but it is not a good example to use when discussing the Bill. The information that seeped out about apple juice related to a risk that did not exist. As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green said, someone would have to drink 140 litres of the wretched stuff to suffer anything more than a mild stomach ache--quite apart from the other results of consuming such quantities.
Anyone who has picked up a slightly rotting windfall apple and munched into it will know that it tastes different from normal apples. The report involved the natural over-maturing of apples. That was causing the problem, not chemicals inserted by the food industry into cans or cartons of apple juice. Therefore, the public were unnecessarily worried. We must be careful about partial knowledge.
Ms. Glenda Jackson : Surely, what compounded the fault and genuinely frightened many of my constituents was that the newspaper reports referred to carcinogens and the possibility of infant defects. The Bill addresses exactly that problem. The Government had arrogantly presumed not to release information. There have been so many other examples of the Government arrogantly refusing to release information that the public automatically thought that they were not releasing the information because they had something to hide.
Mr. Bowis : I appreciate the hon. Lady's point. The other argument is that, if the information had been released, it would have caused unnecessary concern. However, after the information was leaked, it was right for a statement to be made and for the entire detail of the report to be made public. I merely say that we must maintain a balance between unnecessarily alarming the public and giving them the right to know, which I support.
Ms. Glenda Jackson : Part of the public disquiet arose from previous examples, in which it was the policy and the arrogance of the Government invariably to protect the producer rather than the consumer. That fuelled an
Column 631entirely justifiable fear in the public mind that there was some risk. We subsequently discovered that there was none, unless one drank enormous quantities of apple juice. If the report had been released when the Government received it, with a covering note defining the amount of liquid that would be required to produce adverse effects, no one would have been caused any disquiet. However, genuine disquiet was caused.
Mr. Bowis : Leaving aside the hon. Lady's reference to arrogance, I would say that the Government in their wisdom reached certain conclusions and that, in this instance, they were probably right. I do not think that the Bill would achieve what the hon. Lady thinks it would achieve, because the fact that a report has been received does not mean that the Government will make an announcement to that effect. The Bill merely says that if an authority is asked about a report, it will have a duty to explain it and make it available. Perhaps the hon. Lady is suggesting, as I suggested in the case of public safety, that the measure is not quite as good as we should like it to be. Perhaps there should be an authoritative body that can say that there is deemed to be a risk and that it should be made public, not just available to the public. Such a body could be the Health and Safety Commission. Perhaps the hon. Lady and I can find common cause on that.
I do not think that the Bill achieves all that its supporters claim. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central is not in the Chamber, but perhaps someone else can enlighten me. I have received about a dozen of the postcards that have been mentioned, but I am not much convinced by that, any more than I am convinced by the fact that 68,000 of my constituents did not send me postcards.
However, I was influenced by the people who wrote to me explaining their genuine concerns and stating what they hoped the Bill would achieve. In a letter supporting the Bill, one of my constituents stated :
"When you buy fresh fruit and vegetables, you do not know what chemicals have been sprayed on them or even whether peeling them would necessarily remove all of the chemicals."
That is not covered by the Bill.
"This Bill would help in providing the public with clear information about the food they eat. For example in labelling foods. Some items have the sugar contents listed under each separate type of sugar, such as sucrose, glucose, dextrose. Many people do not know that they are all sugar".
I do not think that that is covered by the Bill, but people think that it will cover such matters. I do not say that such matters should not be covered, but the Bill does not cover them. Therefore, in our debate, we must be careful not to raise expectations that cannot be met.
It has been suggested that the private sector will be controlled to a greater extent than the Bill proposes. I understand that there are three methods of introducing such controls. One relates to the information held by a public authority about a company or business, and that seems reasonable. The second relates to clause 80, about directors' reports. The clause lists the Acts under which a warning has to be revealed in the annual report. I fully support that excellent measure.
The third relates to access to employment records. I am slightly wary of that, partly because of the old question of what is a record, particularly with job references. We know that there is data protection for computer records, and we have suggested that they might include filed records, but