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Column 632what about telephone calls? Most people who are employing somebody do not go by the written record, because they worry about what is missed out. Indeed, some people phrase references in such a way as to make it clear that there should be a telephone call to give the truth. I am not sure how far we can go in controlling society so that telelphone calls are included. We would almost have to require that they were recorded--a dangerous path for civil liberties.
That example shows the problems in obtaining what we seek--sensible access to records. We should not think that that is the end of the story and rely on it, because other information that may be passed about us through various means, even through my flippant example of the Whips Office, may not be covered.
Mr. Bowis : I suspect that it is all Whips Offices, although perhaps it is particularly true of the Government Whips Office. I leave that for the hon. Gentleman's Back Benchers to decide. The right to know that would be useful--my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and others have referred to this--is that which would give us a greater knowledge about the bases on which decisions are made. With that greater knowledge, we could make better and more informed decisions, in this place and elsewhere. That would apply also to newspapers and the press. I wonder whether the person who drafted the Bill considered whether press records and personal files held by newspapers, television companies and research companies should be available for access. I say that only in parenthesis, so that hon. Members may consider it.
There is a worry that civil servants' advice to Ministers might be inhibited. I know that clause 21 is aimed at addressing that, because we do not want it to happen. Nor do we want Ministers, because advice is published, to put blame elsewhere ; our tradition has always been that Ministers take responsibility rather than hiding behind a civil servant, and it is a good tradition. Furthermore, we do not want civil servants to be constrained when giving advice. We may be able to deal with that in Committee.
Clause 21(1) refers to information being
"exempt if it consists of the advice, opinion or recommendation tendered by any person in the course of that person's official duties for the purpose of the formation of policy within a public authority."
Information that is not exempt is set out in subsection (2). That includes
"the analysis, interpretation or evaluation of, or any projection based on, factual information".
Both those subsections set out close definitions, but I wonder whether the one exempts a category that the other then reinstates. That may worry Ministers and civil servants.
I am concerned also about clause 16, and other exemption clauses, because of the use of the word "significant". For example, clause 16 exempts information
"if its disclosure would be likely to cause significant damage to the defence of the United Kingdom".
Information on security
"is exempt if its disclosure would be likely to cause significant damage to the lawful activities of the security or intelligence services."
On international relations, clause 18 says :
"Information is exempt if its disclosure would be likely to cause significant damage to the interests of the United Kingdom".
Column 633On law enforcement, it says :
"Information is exempt if its disclosure would be likely to ... impede significantly the prevention or detection of offences". In the briefings that we helpfully received from various organisations setting out the background to the Bill, that word is not used. The reference is only to "damage". "Significant" has either been added since the briefings or it was always there and the briefers did not understand the significance of the word "significant". Its use detracts from that exemption, and we need more detail of what is meant. If significant damage to a country's interest means, for example, paratroopers dropping behind the lines rather than a mass invasion, I would still be worried about paratroopers dropping behind the lines.
I am, in theory, in favour of more information in one regard, but, again, we must be wary of the impact. The contaminated land register was introduced by this Government to provide more information to the public about a particular risk. Because that innovation was not thought through, undue and untold worry and harm were caused to individuals whose properties, they discovered, were built on land that was formerly occupied by a shunting yard or refuse tip and which was still toxic despite treatment. The Government are considering how to revise that register, but that example reflects my concern about the kind of information that is released to the public.
The Government have a good record of achievements, and we do not have to exchange banter across the Floor on that issue. The Campaign for Freedom of Information acknowledges progress but wants more, understandably. Only today, more information was released about education tests. Those of us who were members of the Committee considering the Education Bill are delighted that the stage 3 tests are to go ahead, and equally delighted that the Government have taken the advice of right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the Committee and provided that first-year stage 3 results should not be published. That represents a sensible adaptation of the right to information, where the Government listened to the public and to experts and produced an amended proposal which will be welcomed by the whole House.
The Bill's theme is absolutely right, and I hope that it will be possible to pass measures not unlike those that the Bill proposes. That can be done by improving the Bill in Committee, by the Government taking the action that they have promised before the summer, or by a combination of the two. With 83 clauses, it is a lengthy private Member's Bill, but I wish it well. I hope that the Government will note today's debate and that the Bill's draftsmen will consider how it may be not only revised but supplemented. In that spirit, I wish the Bill and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central all strength to their elbow.
Ms. Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) : After all that, I believe that the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) supports the Bill--and I am grateful for the opportunity to support my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) from the Opposition Front Bench. My hon. Friend is a member of our citizens charter team and if he were not promoting his Bill, it is likely that he would be standing at the Dispatch Box in my place.
Column 634I congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members who, over the years, have done much work in presenting private Members' Bills. Thanks are due to them for enabling my hon. Friend's Bill to be before us. I join in congratulating also the Campaign for Freedom of Information and other groups on their work in bringing this important issue to the attention of right hon. and hon. Members.
This is a timely and necessary debate on an issue which demands urgent attention. I agree with the many hon. Members who have said that the apparently peculiarly British disease of obsessive secrecy must be cured urgently. It is time that our citizens had free access to information that affects all aspects of their lives and that we recognised that information is power. The Government are anxious to talk about real empowerment, but they have done little to implement it and seem keen to withhold it from our citizens.
Hon. Members have given examples of seemingly trivial information that remains officially secret. An example that has not been mentioned, but which is so trivial that it is worth mentioning, is the absence of the British Telecom tower from Ordnance Survey maps. I hope that I am covered by parliamentary privilege when I reveal that the British Telecom tower does exist and that its address is 60 Cleveland street, London.
We have heard how much historical information has been withheld. I welcomed the invitation of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to historians to list papers that they would like to be declassified. I welcome any action to bring such papers into the public domain. The Minister told us that more papers will be brought into the public domain. Such a step is important to some people, but it seems almost a gimmick given the amount of information that is still withheld. Interesting though they are, those historical documents will not be read or used by many of my constituents. Nevertheless, it is progress and we should welcome that.
The Bill recognises that there is a case for withholding information in the interests of national security, but to have rules so rigid that information is held even where it can be shown that its ready availability would actively promote the public interest is bizarre. The public have a right to know information about the safety of public buildings and facilities. The hon. Member for Battersea spoke of his private Member's Bill, which would have helped to achieve that, but which the Government did not accept.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the tragedies at King's Cross and Bradford. As a result of the King's Cross fire, safety checks on London Underground's facilities are regularly published, but comparative details for British Rail stations remain under wraps. Desmond Fennell, who investigated the King's Cross tragedy, reported that he
"viewed 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 publicly available."
We have heard about the Bradford football tragedy. The Health and Safety Executive expressed concerns about safety at that ground. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) said, if that information had been made routinely public or even passed to the fire brigade, a tragedy might have been prevented. The Marchioness river boat sank in the River Thames in August 1989. It was revealed that the ship that crashed
Column 635into it, the Bowbelle, had been involved in three previous river accidents. The public had not known about its dangerous record because accident reports are confidential. Labour Members believe that the public can legitimately expect that if information on safety is made public it is less likely to be overlooked.
The Minister made a very unconvincing case against the Bill. He mentioned expense--and, clearly, expense will be involved--but can we not learn from the experience of other countries, which have found that open government is less likely to lead to costly mistakes behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny? Far from being an expensive diversion, might not the Bill be a constructive measure in increasing value for money in the provision of quality services responsive to consumer demand and public need?
The Bill covers a fundamental issue : the public's right to make informed choices based on information that affects them as individuals and to have access to details of the performance of the Government and of public and private services. Bearing in mind the Government's almost fanatical desire to expand the power of the market across the board, I cannot understand why the Minister does not concede that a fundamental, textbook component of the free market is the universal availability of knowledge about that market. How can the Government be serious about improving public services when, for example, the length of the queue at my local post office is an official secret? The Post Office regularly monitors how long customers have to wait to be served at each of its 1,400 directly managed Crown offices. Its target is to serve 95 per cent. of customers within five minutes, but it refuses to say which branches failed to meet that standard. After years of pressure from the consumer, the Post Office recently agreed to show its data to the Post Office Users National Council, the body representing consumers. However, the council has been told that it must keep the information secret. If it publishes it or gives the press access to it, the Post Office will withhold the information. That means that the Post Office has succeeded in protecting itself from the one thing that is most likely to lead to improvements in service--informed public criticism. There is another issue that shows that the Government are not serious about improving public services. Only last week we discovered--it was in the newspapers--that national health service patients are being denied information even about how long they will have to stay on the waiting list. While other public services are to have their performance indicators monitored by the National Audit Office, the national health service is retaining that function within its own management executive. That will hardly enhance its public credibility. The health service has ordered hospitals not to tell patients how long they will have to wait for their operation. The Bill attempts to strike the right balance between secrecy and openness. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central is right to start with the assumption that official secrecy should be the exception rather than the rule.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) : I agree with many of the elements at the beginning of the Bill, but I have severe misgivings about clause 62, which I invite the hon. Lady to consider. The three-line clause states :
Column 636"It shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence under this Part to prove that before the time of the alleged offence the material had become publicly available, whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere."
What would happen if part of an official document, whose provenance was unclear, were leaked and printed in a newspaper? The clause would appear to allow almost any public sector employee who handled classified documents to release such a document with impunity, thereby establishing the provenance of the document and putting details into the public domain. Does the hon. Lady not have severe misgivings about the clause, which destroys other marvellous elements of the Bill?
Ms. Hoey : I do not have severe misgivings about the Bill ; I have made it clear that I support it. Obviously, hon. Members will wish to make some changes to the Bill. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Battersea wants to go further than the Bill does. If the Bill goes into Committee, I am sure that we shall be able to make some of the changes that hon. Members want.
We have heard about the experiences of other countries that have designed and implemented effective freedom of information legislation systems. They do not cost the earth and are not unnecessarily complex and difficult to administer. They have demonstrably enhanced the rights of citizens.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and his Parliamentary Secretary are honourable men. I believe that their commitment to extend the public's right to know is genuine, but I fear that they have been, and are likely to be, constrained by many of their Cabinet colleagues, either because of timidity or for other reasons about which we do not know. We know that many civil servants do not want the Bill to go through. I hope that the Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster accept that there is widespread support for the Bill in the country.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the many right-to-know cards that they have received. Many of us have also had many letters from constituents explaining why, from their own experiences, they believe that there should be a right to know. I have had more letters from constituents on the Bill than I have had on any other. I have received even more letters than I did on the Pig Husbandry Bill, which was also a private Member's Bill. I am not sure what that says about the people of Vauxhall. The number of cards and letters shows that there is broad support for the Bill across the party political divide.
I recall that Margaret Thatcher once said of Lord Young that whereas other people brought her problems, he brought her solutions. The Minister had no fundamental argument against the Bill. I hope that, rather than relying on excuses for not supporting the necessary legislation, the Government will adopt a can-do mentality and that they will find a way around the concerns raised. The genuine practical difficulties can be dealt with in Committee with all the scrutiny that our system allows.
The people of this country, whether fairly or not, often view politicians and public servants with cynicism. Other hon. Members have made that point. We must face the fact that politicians on the whole are not believed. We are viewed by many people as being liars and cheats who are prepared to cover up all manner of things. When there is no right to know and no freedom of information, it is difficult to disprove that view. The Bill will go some way towards stripping away that image.
Column 637With the Government in their 14th year in power, the institutions of the state are viewed as self-serving and self- perpetuating. The Bill will help to change the image of government, of politicians and of people in public life generally. We have heard a lot from the Prime Minister and from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster about open government and about giving power to citizens. There has been a proliferation of citizens charters, yet the Government simultaneously deny the public the right to know and make decisions in secrecy.
The Chancellor of the Duchy said last week that the Government were preparing a White Paper on openness and he said today that the White Paper will be available in the summer. He has been talking about the White Paper for some time, and the Parliamentary Secretary has claimed that the Bill will be of particular interest. Only last week the Chancellor claimed that the Government were committed to greater openness and to removing areas of unnecessary secrecy. Such changes have been a long time coming and I hope that hon. Members will feel able to take the first step themselves today.
My party is committed to freedom of information. Before the general election, we promised that a freedom of information Bill would be top of our agenda. The commitment to informing the public stretches across hon. Members of all parties. I urge hon. Members to support the Bill. If it receives a Second Reading and reaches Committee, we will begin to deliver a citizen's basic right to freedom of information and a right to know. As one of his main reasons for opposing the Bill, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) said that we already have a tried and tested system. Yes, we have such a system, but the right hon. Gentleman did not say that it is a failed system. That is why hon. Members must support the Bill. I hope that we will allow it a Second Reading.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) : I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in congratulating the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on initiating a debate on this important topic.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), I strongly agree with many of the principles that have inspired the Bill. However, again like my hon. Friend, I believe that the Bill is a bit of a curate's egg. If it progresses beyond Second Reading, we shall need to consider in Committee or at a later stage issues such as an individual's right to privacy and the relationship between a right to know and commercial confidentiality.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central should also think again about the inclusion in the Bill of an outright overthrow and repeal of the Official Secrets Act 1989. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) made a telling point when he said that the 1989 Act has been on the statute book for only two years. It is therefore premature, to say the least, to rush in and seek to overthrow it before we have seen it working for a period of time. I am slightly surprised that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has taken that course. In my previous incarnation as special adviser to my right hon.
Column 638Friend the then Home Secretary, who is now the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, I recall discussions about the reform of the official secrets legislation. I felt that restricting the scope of official secrets law to a number of defined areas of public policy would allow supporters of a freedom of information Act to introduce a Bill that would dovetail neatly with the reform of the official secrets legislation and bring within the scope of a statutory right to know the areas of public policy and Government documentation that were freed by the 1989 Act from the protection of the criminal law, but which were not subject to any statutory right of access by the public.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), I have considerable reservations about the inclusion in the Bill of all-embracing defences of prior publication and of public interest. On the latter point, the specific harm tests within the 1989 Act allow a court--a judge and jury --to take account of the public interest.
An unquestioned defence on the ground of prior publication would allow someone who wished to leak an important classified document the freedom to do so perhaps by securing its publication in a very obscure journal in this country or overseas. He could then point that fact out to a newspaper with a wide circulation which would, like the individual responsible for the leak, be able to claim the defence that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central offers in the Bill.
Mr. Fisher : The fact that we are proposing a prior publication defence does not mean that prior publication in itself would inevitably be found to be a satisfactory defence. It simply gives the opportunity for genuine prior publication to be a defence. It would be for the courts to decide whether it was a defence which held up.
Mr. Lidington : As a layman, my reading of clause 62 of the Bill means that an absolute defence of prior publication would exist. Clearly, that matter will be considered if the Bill proceeds further. If the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central and his supporters wish to have my support and, I suspect, the support of other Conservative Members, they would do well to reflect on whether they wish to press forward and overthrow the 1989 Act in the way in which the Bill does.
I shall refer to those aspects of the Bill on which I sympathise with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central and other hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is true that the Government have moved a long way recently towards greater openness about their policies. Some of the Acts to which my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea referred, Judge Tumim shining his torch into the prison system and reports of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary being published so that everyone can see how our police service is managed, are real advances in bringing information forward for inspection by the public and the media.
I agree that we can and should do more. I was impressed by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea when he said that it was not enough simply to have a public right to know. For that right to be effective, a specific obligation needs to be imposed on the Government or other public bodies to make that information accessible and known to those who might be interested in it.
Column 639I am slightly sceptical about some of the hopes that are held out for the Bill if it is enacted. I somehow doubt whether there will be queues of our constituents knocking on the doors of Government Departments daily seeking to find out what has been going on. Nor, I fear, will all journalists be as excited by a Government document when it ceases to have "top secret" stamped on it and, instead, becomes much more readily available for wider dissemination. I shall dwell on two points on which I think we need to go further in creating greater public access to the workings of government and which have not been touched on hitherto in the debate. The first was highlighted in a recent Hansard Society report about improving the quality of law making in the United Kingdom. The Hansard Society recommended that the Government should be much more open about their consultation exercises prior to publication of Green or White Papers or Bills.
Having had limited experience of two Whitehall Departments, I am clear in my mind that although civil servants make an effort to consult, they tend often to work from the same rather limited list of tried and trusted corporate bodies with which they are used to communicating. Legislation can come before the House, apparently after a long consultation period, and it is only then that interest groups wake up, very late in the day, and find that their legitimate interests are vitally affected because the consultation had not been wide enough and its results not widely disseminated.
That is one aspect of the workings of government where an initiative could be taken by my right hon. and hon. Friends to open up their intentions and policies to wider public scrutiny and to what my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) has called the "clash of expert opinion". The result would be better drafted Bills and better laws.
My second point is about the workings of the European Community. I have been struck by the oddity that papers submitted by our Government to the Council of Ministers are treated as Government documents--documents of the Executive which would not normally be released for discussion or debate by Parliament or the general public. I understand why, in the normal course of international relations, that degree of Government privacy is observed. But in the European Community and Council of Ministers, we have a new hybrid beast--a body composed of representatives of the executive branches of government of the 12 member states who, when they act as the Council of Ministers, perform a legislative function for the EC as a whole. I welcome the initiative of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last week to prise open the doors behind which the Council of Ministers usually operates. Again, I hope that my right hon. Friends will be much bolder in putting forward ideas to make the workings of the Council of Ministers and its process of decision making much less obscure.
The success of any policy designed to allow greater public access to Government information, whether it be embodied in statute or derived from Government initiative, depends on changing the Whitehall culture. In our system there is still a tendency to over-classify documents. I recall the Foreign Office stamping telegrams "Confidential". The reference note said that publication of documents would involve a serious risk to national interest. The contents of the telegrams were matters such
Column 640as the record of an ambassador in some capital of his table talk with the junior Foreign Minister of the relevant country. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made clear, we have moved on quickly in the past year or two. We have even acknowledged to ourselves that the security and intelligence services exist. When I first entered the Foreign Office I looked at my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's daily diary and asked, "What is this listed as Meeting with C'?" I was drawn aside by an official and told quietly in a corner, "David, C is M." We have moved on from those days a little, but we could go further.
We should not deny to ourselves that such a shift would also require a shift in the way in which we think about Britain's constitution. The key to civil servants' resistance to greater public access to Government information seems to be a concern to preserve the notion that a chain of accountability runs from officials to their responsible Ministers and only from the Ministers to Parliament and thereafter to the wider public.
If we go in the direction that the Bill suggests, we shall question that link. That might not be such a bad thing. It is absurd to expect Ministers to stand at the Dispatch Box and know the last detail of how many bed pans there are in each hospital in Barnsley and to decry them if they do not have that information instantly available. The workings of government are so extensive that it is fair for the public to ask not only that Ministers accept responsibility for the policies and decisions of their Departments, but that officials realise that they have a responsibility and some accountability not only to their departmental boss, but to the British public who pay their salaries and whom they are appointed to serve.
I argue that the Government have, to some extent, acknowledged that by moving towards the next steps agencies, which remove most sections of government away from Whitehall and that neat system of accountability, and have established the agencies as semi-detached organs of government. That move is healthy and goes in the right direction, but that and the Bill force us to think carefully about the way in which we have traditionally regarded our constitution. My message to my right hon. and hon. Friends the Parliamentary Secretary and the Chancellor of the Duchy is that there is certainly widespread support among Conservatives and Conservative Members of Parliament for many of the principles and objectives embodied in the Bill. I hope that when my right hon. and hon. Friends tussle with their departmental colleagues and with the institutional mind of Whitehall, they will bear in mind that they have the goodwill of people of all political affiliations and of none, and that they will go back to Whitehall from this debate feeling encouraged to commence that struggle with renewed vigour.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood) : It should not be necessary to argue that a modern democracy should have a commitment to openness as one of its basic ingredients. Perhaps it may not be quite the case, as Francis Bacon so famously put it, that "knowledge itself is power",
Column 641but there can be no doubt that they are intimately connected. Clearly that is the Government's view, since they have always regarded the control of information as one of their major preoccupations.
The central fact in the British case, now thoroughly stale in the telling, is that the British way of governing has been characterised by the most extraordinary secrecy, which is unrivalled among comparable western democracies. One testimony to that, which is all the more remarkable because it comes from a former permanent secretary, Sir Patrick Nairne, could stand for many. He said, the "culture of secrecy is bred in the bone of British parliamentary democracy."
Lord Hailsham once provided a convenient public school translation :
"Thou shalt not blub, and thou shalt not sneak."
What that has meant for British democracy and society has been exhaustively recorded. It ranges far and wide, and high and low. For most of the 20th century, the Official Secrets Act, which was nodded through in a day in 1911, has enveloped public life in a blanket of official secrecy. When its notorious catch-all section 2 was finally reformed after a mere 80 years, by the Official Secrets Act 1989, the new legislation not only continued to allow ample scope for continued prosecutions, above all through its exclusion of a public interest defence, but was emphatically not intended to form part of a widening of access to official information.
That is only the visible tip of a much larger iceberg, as a succession of causes ce le bres in the 1980s showed that British Governments had equipped themselves with a formidable armoury of devices to employ against whistle- blowing civil servants, journalists and broadcasters. At their heart is the ability of Ministers of the Crown to sustain the claim that there is an identity of interest between their interests, those of the Government and those of the state, and the absence in public law of a recognised interest of state to which reference can be made and disclosure compelled and information revealed.
That position was admirably and appallingly stated by Judge Justice McCowan in the trial of the civil servant, Clive Ponting, in 1985--I ask hon. Members to listen carefully--when he said :
"We have General Elections in this country. The majority party in the House of Commons forms the Government. If it loses majority support it ceases to do so, but for the time being, it is the Government, and its policies are those of the State."
That claim of an identity of interests between the interests of the Government of the day and the interests of the state, and the refusal to make any distinction, is at the heart of many of our difficulties.
That high secrecy forms only one part of that routine web of secrecy which envelops the workings of government in Britain. Behind the particular practices, a whole culture exists. For example, the Cabinet committee structure was kept from view. The recent acknowledgment of its existence along with the ministerial rule book--and, goodness gracious me, the fact that we had a Secret Intelligence Service--shows that one cannot sustain fictions for ever.
Official statistics can be doctored. The annual opening of the 30-year Cabinet archive regularly reveals that
Column 642Ministers have always devoted much of their effort to keeping information out of the public domain--even routine information collected by Government about the standard of products and services. Some such information can be obtained only from foreign Governments. Hon. Members have given various examples of the difficulties encountered in obtaining information. It is particularly shocking and shameful that, for example, families whose sons suffer injury while serving with the British armed forces find it impossible to get even basic information about the cause of their sons' injuries from the Ministry of Defence. That problem will be addressed by the Bill. The arrangement that I have described is a direct, perfect embodiment of the British constitutional tradition. It is not a distorting aberration, but a truthful mirror of an
Executive-dominated constitution in which Ministers have inherited prerogative powers from the Crown. They are not used to sharing information with citizens or their representatives. To have done so would have been to govern in a different way ; indeed, to have been a different kind of Government. Instead, constitutional doctrines have been advanced--as they were by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)--to explain why matters are conducted as they are and why, in constitutional terms, no significant change is permissible or desirable.
The central doctrine is that of ministerial responsibility, whereby Ministers alone are answerable to Parliament for what Departments do and civil servants are preserved in their virginal state of anonymous neutrality. That chain of accountability would be broken, we are told, if there were more windows on the policy process and a linchpin of responsible constitutional government would be thereby kicked away. The problem with that argument is that it amounts to saying that it is necessary to keep certain fictions intact if the traditional theory of the constitution is to be maintained.
The root fiction and deceit is the way in which the doctrine of ministerial responsibility is marshalled to defend the politics of secrecy despite the fact that effective responsibility, the promise of the doctrine, is thereby undercut. In other words, a doctrine is invoked in the service of its direct opposite. The truth is that Ministers, the monopolists of information, decide what to disclose and what to conceal so that the extent of secrecy becomes the greatest secret of all.
A further truth pointed out by the hon. Member for
Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is that the ability of Parliament to compel the Executive to lay papers before the House was much greater in the previous century when the role of government was more restricted than in the party-dominated big government of this century.
A doctrine of responsibility that denies access to the sources of information required to make responsibility effective, stands matters on their head. It also sustains a series of further fictions about Ministers having responsibility and civil servants not being involved in the policy process.
The arguments that are today being used in some quarters to oppose the Right to Know Bill were exactly the sort of arguments about the threat to ministerial responsibility that were used when the ombudsman system was established in the 1960s. If one reads the debates of that time, one sees the same sort of arguments used. It was claimed that it would be a threat to ministerial responsibility and would undermine the constitution.
Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West) : How much thought has my hon. Friend given to the fact that we are dealing with a moving target--the relationship between what those who are being governed need to know and the way that the Government hog the information? We are not merely discussing the relationship between a Minister and a civil servant. We are talking about the use of quangos where the "civil servants" are not actually civil servants and do not sign the Official Secrets Act. Where the Government and the quango want to cover up a major scandal they use the gagging clause. They force someone to retire early, and pay him an extra year's salary in return for his signing the gagging clause--the non-disclosure agreement. Therefore, it costs the taxpayer more money to assist the Government to stop the taxpayer discovering the scandal that results in the sacking, because the Government want to avoid embarrassment. That happens in the health service, universities, museums and other publicly funded institutions, where people cannot find out what went wrong.
Dr. Wright : My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which I wish I had time to develop. We have seen the privatisation of government, arms- length government, next steps agencies--what some people have called the new magistracy of appointed people who run our public services. The resulting lack of accountability makes it more important to build in an information requirement so that we know what is going on.
The constitutional doctrine is increasingly implausible and threadbare, but it is used to maintain the veil of secrecy over the political process and the operation of government. The costs of that process, both in democratic terms and in terms of its effectiveness, are considerable. Policy advice and options are not open to official scrutiny. One such example may interest the Government. If they had revealed to public view the Rothschild report on the coal industry when they were limbering up to privatise it and first floated the idea of a massive contraction in the industry, the arguments could have been tested in Parliament and by the public. As a result, the Government might have saved themselves the debacle and humiliation of the past few months. There is abundant evidence of major policy decisions--the stuff of democratic choice--being taken by Governments without Parliament or the people knowing the facts.
There is a further choice to be made by those who are persuaded of the need for greater openness. Many hon. Members have said today that they have been so persuaded, including the Minister. That choice is between nudging Governments--or even Governments allowing themselves to be nudged--into letting a little more light in here and there or seeking to effect a more structural change in the architecture of the constitution. That is the main argument over the Bill.
The nudging approach has advantages to its credit. The Minister and the Government are right to emphasise the extension of information provisions during the past few years. The access provisions in the ombudsman and audit systems are all examples of that extension, but more can be achieved and more is promised--such as the powers available to Select Committees and the revision of the internal civil service code, of which the Minister spoke. Such pressure is likely to, and should, increase, if only to stave off demands such as those made in the Bill for more fundamental changes. Governments must continue to
Column 644respond, although it is clear that the Minister is finding it more difficult to respond than he thought it would be. The problem with that approach is that Governments will continue to respond on their own terms. The Executive will still decide how much information and of what kind to give their citizens and Parliament. That is why it is necessary to reverse the relationship between Government and people on the matter of information. If the present relationship accurately reflects a constitution in which the Executive has always been dominant, an altered relationship should be seen as an essential element in a democratic remodelling of that constitution. The presumption should be in favour of openness. Governments should have to make a case for not disclosing certain information, rather than, as now, disclosing only what they choose. The shift in onus is crucial and lies at the heart of proposals for freedom of information.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) : Does my hon. Friend agree that one little bit of information that could usefully be made public is when a public servant, such as a civil servant, a magistrate, a councillor or a Member of Parliament, is a member of a secret society? When my Secret Societies (Declaration) Bill is called, Pinky and Perky on the Conservative Benches will shout, "Object" and the Minister for open government will sit with a smile on his face. Does my hon. Friend agree that that area of darkness is long overdue for a little exposure and that, irrespective of whether the Bill addresses it, the issue should be examined in the near future?
Dr. Wright : That was an interesting and not entirely unexpected intervention, but I am delighted to agree with my hon. Friend. The issues of onus and presumption are crucial. The resistance to legislation is not narrowly technical, although that is how it is sometimes presented. That was the thrust of what the Minister said. The issue is constitutional and cultural. The absence of freedom of information is rooted in a larger democratic deficit and the acquisition of provisions would herald a wider shift in the political system.
The Bill presents a moment of truth for the House and, more widely, for our democracy. It is not a choice between information and no information, but a matter of the terms on which access to information is to be had. Are we to continue with a system in which the Government will continue to decide the information that Parliament and the public should know, even if they do that in the generous, expansive and emollient way that the Government have now adopted? Conversely, is Britain to become the kind of democracy in which there is a presumption of openness and access, with Governments having to justify non-disclosure? That is the issue of principle which the House must decide and the Bill provides the opportunity for Parliament to choose. If we make the wrong choice, respect for this place, which, as we have heard, is not high, and the way in which we conduct politics will decline still further.
Some hon. Members spoke about making a brave choice, but I would call it a confident choice and it could provide the moment for the process of democratic and constitutional renewal to take a decisive step that will have benefits for every citizen.
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Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor and Maidenhead) : We have heard some fairly extravagant claims about the supposed tyranical powers of government, and the efficacy of a right to know Bill, so I shall begin by setting the Bill in context. Although I do not feel that I can support the Bill of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), there is a great deal of value in it and I hope that many of its ends will be achieved soon--that is not just a ritual claim.
The right to know has a good ring about it. Who could gainsay it? I have a right to know, he has a right to know, she has a right to know, it has a right to know. Surely that is a self-evident truth? The answer is, up to a point. We have here one of those slogans that seem to enshrine a deeply felt public demand. Curiously, while many hon. Members have said that they have received hundreds of cards, I have not. I have had more about whales, lambs or calves. I have not seen the massed ranks of our citizenry marching up Whitehall screaming, "The right to know or death!" In short, I do not detect the groundswell of public opinion for freedom of information legislation that some of its proponents suggest.
The debate about freedom of information encourages extravagant claims and has a narrow base. Moreover, I suspect that some who take up the campaign just because they see in it an opportunity to bash the Government would not be so keen on the cause if they suddenly came to power and had to forgo the luxuries of opposition. It is easy to bash away at Government practice and procedure, but then to find that one has got nowhere. It is much more difficult to find a way to encourage Governments to reform their practices, but often that is more rewarding.
I have said that I do not detect a groundswell of public opinion in favour of change, but I agree that the time for a change in openness has arrived.