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Mr. Rooker : It is not a good idea to repeat the canard that a groundswell has not been detected. I am constantly taken back to the day in 1978 when a Home Secretary, at the Dispatch Box, challenged the rest of the House, saying that he did not think that there were more than two or three people in any constituency who were interested in freedom of information. That brought the roof in on him. The myth is that there is no public demand for freedom of information, but people want it when it affects their safety or that of their families and communities. We should not repeat the myth simply because the evidence of demand is not on the front pages of the newspapers every day.
Mr. Trend : I accept the hon. Gentleman's last point, but the experience of other countries such as Canada and Australia, set out in excellent papers given at a conference earlier this month, shows that there was not a groundswell of opinion in favour of change there before their legislation was introduced. I am not saying that it is necessary to have that groundswell for there to be a Bill, but I am saying that there is not one. I am also saying that the change is desirable. The question that I ask of the Bill is a simple one : is it the best way forward at the moment?
While I share many of the central assumptions that lie behind the Bill, one being that it is ludicrous to restrict access to information simply for the sake of restricting it, I have difficulty in believing that the long and complex Bill is the best way forward. In particular, I regret that it would overthrow the Official Secrets Act 1989, which has only
Column 646recently been added to the statute book--in this, I agree with my right hon. and hon. Friends--and has yet to be significantly tested. My main contribution to the debate is to examine further how some other countries have fared with freedom of information legislation, in particular Australia and Canada. One of the main lessons that those involved in such legislation say that they have learnt is that their new laws have had much less effect than most people on both sides of the argument felt that they would have. There have been some dramatic uses of freedom of information legislation. Robert Hazell, in his article in Public Administration in 1989, pointed to the case of a Minister in the Mulroney Government who had to resign after the press discovered that she had
"spent five days in Paris at public expense in order to attend a one-hour meeting."
That came to light through use of the freedom of information legislation. Such sensational cases aside, the most remarkable thing about the introduction of such legislation is that many fewer people have applied for information than was originally thought likely. I contend that a groundswell did not exist before and that a torrent of demand was not released afterwards.
The possible effects of such legislation can be easily exaggerated. Justice Michael Kirby, the distinguished president of the New South Wales Court of Appeal, said recently, "there have been
disappointments." Why? I suspect that it is because expectations of freedom of information legislation far exceed what it can deliver. There are other, perhaps better, ways of achieving a more open society.
All the authorities whose views I have studied recently basically agree with the comments of Sir Douglas Wass in his Reith lectures : "More important, in my view, than any institutional changes is the need for a commitment on the part of all who work in the field of government positively to want an informed public. If this is lacking, little in the way of machinery will help."
John Grace, Canada's information commissioner, holds the view that a
"right-to-know law can only be meaningful if it serves as a catalyst for the emergence of a real openness."
That comes from a man who is at the heart of the Canadian freedom of information system. He says that a right-to-know law will not necessarily of itself lead to real openness. To that extent, he agrees with Sir Douglas Wass.
Is there a better way of achieving many of the desirable aims that the Bill seeks, without supporting the means that it proposes? The best chance of change in the right direction comes when the Government themselves signal a culture change to openness. That has been seen in Britain in the past few years and that is a welcome and rare development among worldwide parliamentary democracies. The present Government's record is better than that of any other, and continues a movement begun under the previous Administration.
Mr. Richard Shepherd: I suppose that the greatest signalling of a culture change or a change of intent was the Croham directive, but that did not seem to bring about the culture change for which it argued.
Column 647occurred in the past, but the wind changed and the ship of state sailed in its familiar direction again. In my concluding remarks, I shall say that if I do not feel that there has been a sea change, I shall be more inclined--probably definitely inclined--to support legislation.
Of the number of relevant measures introduced in the past few years, the Data Protection Act 1984 was a landmark, as was the Access to Medical Records Act four years later. This Government have increased their determination to secure more open government since the last general election. I cite the recent publication of the membership of Cabinet Committees, which I greatly enjoyed reading. I suspect that in years to come they will be used to gauge who is up and who is down--in the way that the annual ballot for the parliamentary Labour party's shadow Cabinet does.
I approve of recent initiatives to release more historical material, and they could be extended to other areas. Such developments are of a piece with the citizens charter. In an age when the most frequently heard response to all of life's problems seem to be, "The Government must do something"--meaning, they must continually jerk the knee on request--the greater subtlety that lies behind the citizens charter is easily guyed.
The House does not need to be reminded that the citizens charter movement is supported in principle by all the main political parties. Nevertheless, Opposition Members cannot resist making an easy jibe. Indeed, their position is even less logical, because by supporting the idea in principle but trying to ridicule it in practice, opposition voices decry the achievements that the citizens charter movement has chalked up, such as forcing schools, health authorities, local councils and other public bodies to publish details of their performance. That opposition is not a good start for those who profess to want freedom of information.
The citizens charter is proving a better way ahead for the people of this country. The charter, taken with other open government initiatives, represents a fundamental shift in the Government's attitude. Some may say that freedom of information legislation would push the movement towards open government ahead even faster. I tend not to agree with that view, because, although I would not want to exaggerate the effects that a right- to-know Act might have on how civil servants and politicians would seek to alter their procedures, I should like to think more carefully about this matter before proceeding to legislation.
Ours is a comparatively open system. Compared with what happens in many other countries, the doctrine of ministerial responsibility is a remarkably sophisticated idea. When Opposition parties and Back Benchers believe that they have not received a clear answer to a question, it is chiefly because they have not asked a clear question. We have only ourselves to blame if we cannot use our daily opportunities to best effect. In the end, the House can claim what information it wants. As a former Clerk of this House is quoted on saying on the first page of "Erskine May", "Who can stop it?"
Mr. Waldegrave : May I help my hon. Friend with some first-hand experience? I have been on the receiving end of questions from the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for 12 years. Being questioned by him is different from being questioned by other hon. Members. It can be done.
Mr. Trend : While we are dwelling on partisan matters, I might add that experience from other countries suggests that freedom of information legislation adds nothing to the political response that one might achieve by asking a direct question in the legislature. Most Members of Parliament in Canada and Australia are obtaining their information in that way, rather than using freedom of information legislation.
Mr. Flynn : My experience of the House of Commons cannot compare with the hon. Gentleman's, but perhaps he could refer to the evidence that was given to the Procedure Committee on the obstructions to receiving answers to parliamentary questions. I commend to him a letter from Dr. David Lowry that appears in The Guardian today. I asssure him that many diligent Back Benchers have found that, in seeking information in this place, they are up against a brick wall.
Mr. Trend : I have experienced that once in my brief career. By thinking carefully which information it would be impossible for the Minister not to give in reply, I thought my way round one flank, but I am afraid that the pincer movement did not quite work. I am saying that the power of hon. Members to ask a question is greater than any other power.
Mr. Jenkin : My experience in tabling questions led me into a conversation with a Clerk in the Table Office, who advised me that a change in the rules to which the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) referred is a matter for the Procedure Committee. The inability to extract information about legal opinions from the Government is purely a matter for hon. Members, and if hon. Members want the Government to lay legal opinions on the table they can compel them to do so.
Mr. Trend rose--[Interruption.] I should like to make a little progress. I know that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms. Jackson) is keen to speak and I am keen to hear her.
I do not subscribe to another claim made by some freedom of information enthusiasts that only through such legislation can rights be ensured. The same effect will occur as the Government move ahead with their own programme. Each area to which the public gain access becomes an area where there can be no going back. It is inconceivable that once parents have got used to knowing the examination results of their local schools they will be help happy to see that information restricted once again to the so-called experts. In that way, I believe that the changes on which the Government have embarked will become entrenched in our public life, which is to the good. I have outlined a number of reasons why we should not proceed with the Bill. I hope that I have pointed out some of the false hopes that such legislation could stir up and
Column 649have identified the remarkable culture shift which is under way in our own system of government, although it must go further. My aim would be to find the best way to reconcile the Westminster principle of ministerial accountability to Parliament with greatly increased public rights of information. I look forward to a time when many of the Bill's apirations are fulfilled, but I should not necessarily wish to see them brought into existence in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. The hon. Gentleman prefers the straitjacket of statute, whereas I prefer the more subtle, organic approach. I should, however, incline more to his way of thinking if I did not believe that the Government really were committed to open government.
The piecemeal approach can be just as profound--perhaps more so--than the statutory route. There is much to be said for taking people with us, step by step, and for educating the public at large about what could be of use to them from official statistics and other sources of information, but the will to do so must come from the Government. That is what Sir Douglas Wass meant when he pointed to the necessity "on the part of all who work in the field of Government positively to want an informed public".
Indeed, that is almost the classic definition of the scope and purpose of the citizens charter movement.
I am content to wait for the Government's White Paper before thinking again about this issue. I want to see what they suggest to take us further and faster along the path to open government. Although I do not feel able to support the Bill, I hope that one day some--perhaps many--of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central's wishes will be realised. I am very much in favour of shifting the balance of power from the state to the citizen and I hope that significant steps will be taken in that direction in the not-too-distant future.
Ms. Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) : I join other hon. Members in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) for introducing the Bill. I also join my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) in thanking the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) not only for the splendour of his speech but for allowing me to hear the phrase "we the people" uttered in the House--a phrase which, in its powerful simplicity, still causes the hairs to rise on the back of my neck, containing as it does the aspirations and hopes of all people who have ever believed in justice, equality and freedom and desired to make themselves free. It is a response which the words "citizens charter" do not produce.
I believe Britain to be a unique society in many ways but, for a nation that prides itself on being the mother of parliamentary democracy, it is uniquely secretive. Indeed, few democratic nations can have the same anachronistic attitude to what the public do or do not have the right to know. Most of our democratic neighbours and friends find it perfectly possible to protect their freedom and security without enveloping themselves and their political institutions in a cloak of impenetrable secrecy.
For example, in Sweden, a country which has enjoyed freedom of information for 200 years, citizens with only a
Column 650few exceptions have a legal right to see all official documents and correspondence. Indeed, it is possible for anyone to enter the Prime Minister's residence and ask to see the correspondence received that day. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on- Trent, Central is not suggesting that we all be given the right to traipse around to No. 10 and interrupt the Prime Minister's breakfast with demands that he show us his morning post, but the Swedish principle that Government information is information that belongs to the people is one which we should adopt. Even the United States, a nation which historically has been more paranoid than most about internal and external threats to its security, has freedom of information laws that are balanced towards openness rather than towards secrecy. Few of us would argue that there is not some information that must be retained to protect our freedom and to protect those who risk their lives protecting us, but it is equally clear that the national security argument has been used all too often as a means of suppressing information that is of legitimate public interest. Other hon. Members have cited examples of that excessive secrecy. My own favourite is taken from the Defence Select Committee meeting of 24 April 1991. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) asked Mr. David Gould, head of resources and programmes for the Royal Air Force, how many Phantom aircraft were based at RAF Wildenrath in Germany. He was told that the information could not be disclosed in public session. It was then explained to Mr. Gould that a recent treaty with the Russians had disclosed the number of aircraft to be 28. Mr. Gould replied that, although the information had been supplied to the Russians, he was not entitled to supply it to the British people. When information is being made available to potential adversaries, but is being withheld from the public, we are entering the realm of "Through the Looking-Glass".
Unfortunately, not all the implications of secrecy are as amusing. In 1957, a document entitled "Report On Track Pollution Problems" was commissioned as a result of public concern about the probable health hazards caused by undiluted sewage being flushed on to railway tracks throughout the country. Thirty six years later, that report has still not been published. It is a safe bet that the report has not been withheld because its findings were harmless.
The present rules governing secrecy would not be quite so bizarre if it were not for the fact that they are not adhered to even by those who so jealously guard them. Ministers who are prepared to vilify, to sack and, on occasions, to imprison civil servants who leak confidential information are the same Ministers who leak information daily to any Lobby journalist who is prepared to listen. If the secrecy laws were applied to Ministers as zealously as they are applied to the rest of the country, there is a distinct possibility that the entire Cabinet would now be languishing in the Tower of London. That may be regarded by some as a good argument for tightening the restrictions, but the manner in which information can be passed selectively if and when it suits those in positions of power is almost as dangerous as a complete ban on information itself.
The Prime Minister has often talked about his wish to create a classless society. That wish will never be anything more than an empty dream as long as our culture allows a minority of select individuals to obtain information and to withhold it from the rest of society. It is not enough for
Column 651the Government to publish citizens charters and booklets revealing ministerial regulations and then to sit back claiming that openness has been achieved. It is no help to my constituents for them to know what gifts Ministers may accept from visiting dignitaries, when they are not allowed to know what is in their own medical records. Only last month, the House debated another private Member's Bill which dealt with press responsibility. During the debate, the Government argued against stricter press controls which they regarded as a threat to democracy. The Prime Minister, in a leaked statement, said he was personally opposed to the Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill on those grounds. If the Government oppose controls on the press, they should also oppose controls on individual citizens. If nothing else, it is unacceptably arrogant for those who govern for the people to hide information from the people.
I began by quoting the phrase "we the people", which has come to us from across the Atlantic. I end with the words of Abraham Lincoln, who spoke of
"Government of the people, by the people, and for the people." My constituents have contacted me in greater numbers about their wish to see the Bill enacted than in respect of any subject other than their outrage at the Government's plans for pit closures. My constituents understand that it is the first duty of any citizen to be informed. They acknowledge the responsibilities that they need to exercise to enable the phrase with which I began my peroration to be something more than mere empty rhetoric. They equally acknowledge that they cannot be responsible citizens without accurate and wide-ranging information.
The Bill would provide my constituents, and every constituent in the country, with that information. For that reason alone, I will support the Bill. I hope all hon. Members will join me.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North) : It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms. Jackson), in whose constituency I was born. She made a capable and eloquent speech, and a valuable contribution to the debate. I must apologise for not being present for the entire debate. I unfortunately missed several of the speeches, but I was present for the opening speeches.
I am particularly sorry to have missed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). If the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate is correct and my hon. Friend's speech made her hair stand on end, I am sure that it is one--
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate made her position on the Bill very clear. She made it clear that its underlying principle is that the information possessed by public authorities belongs to the people. I shall discuss that point at greater length in a moment. I am not concerned about the general sentiments of the Bill for greater openness and accountability. My concern is that it represents a blunderbuss approach to a process which is already being carried on in the Government to extend openness and reduce secrecy.
Column 652The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) referred to the accountability of public authorities such as British Coal. However, British Coal was nationalised and the legislation that nationalised it is defective to such an extent that even Ministers find it difficult to extract information from British Coal because of its commercial sensitivity.
The privatisation of British Coal and the introduction of competition will increase accountability of the coal industry to its customers, to shareholders and to the public.The unsatisfactory relationship between the British people and British Coal is created by the fact that British Coal is owned by the Government but operates independently. I hope that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central will join me in looking forward to the privatisation of British Coal.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central raised an interesting and relevant point about the accountability of public bodies that are being moved to a more arm's-length relationship. We discussed that point at some length during the proceedings of the Civil Service (Management Functions) Act 1992.
Undoubtedly, direct accountability is reduced in arm's-length organisations like training and enterprise councils, which are limited companies that operate independently of the Government, although they are owned by the Government through the use of public money. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for having acknowledged that that is an issue. I look forward to the publication of league tables of the TECs, which will lead to greater accountability in respect of what they are seeking to do. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said that commercial confidentiality was likely to be the biggest area affected by the Bill. Commercial confidentiality was one of the prime boasts of anti-secrecy legislation in the other countries to which he alluded.
Mr. Jenkin : I think that the hon. Gentleman said that it was the area most likely to be tested. He alluded to Australia, where wide use is made of this provision. I contrast that point with the point made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate--that there was no right of public ownership to information which is owned by private persons and corporations.
Mr. Bennett : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that those are Committee points, and that it would be much better for him to sit down and let the Bill go to Committee, where they can be pursued? Mr. Fisher rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
Question put, That the Question be now put :--
The House divided : Ayes 168, Noes 2.
Division No. 159] [2.25 pm
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Column 653Bell, Stuart
Berry, Dr. Roger
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Body, Sir Richard
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Corston, Ms Jean
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)