Transcript of a tape recording
Thanks very much Neil. I thought you were going to say we come now to the case for the prosecution.
May I first of all thank the Campaign for Freedom of Information for sustaining their invitation despite an apparent slight difference of emphasis about the reception which ought to be accorded this excellent draft Bill. Also to offer my sincere and genuine congratulations to all of those who received the Awards today, because each of them have shown, in their separate ways, very great tenacity at providing information – as in the case of the Royal Commission and Hampshire County Council – and in obtaining information, as in the case of the other recipients; and in two sets of cases very considerable courage as well in pursuing their goals. I say this with great sincerity, because there are disagreements, and I shall come to those as well.
I would also like, if I may Neil, to repeat what you said by way of your commendation of Maurice Frankel’s work, because although I understand that some of you are not, you know, cheering every single page in this document. The simple truth is that we would not have got, you would not have got this far, without the single mindedness of Maurice Frankel and all those other people associated with your Campaign. I am not saying you are responsible [laughter] for this as a result, Maurice, but it would not have happened without you, so you ought to take credit where it is due.
Now I will come onto, James, your point about – well, I will deal with your point about – the Official Secrets Act straight away really because, as I said when you sat down, I thought you had made an arguable case about the rest but you spoilt it by going completely over the top. To suggest that what is in this document is in any sense comparable to what was in the Official Secrets Act 1911 is sheer nonsense. Those of you who know the history of that, and James touched on it, will know that it was put together in a panic as a result of a scare; that whatever else can be said about this document, and I will say a great deal about it, it is in no sense put together in a panic. It is the result of years and years of debate and discussion, and it remains a draft Bill, and of course, as ever on this as on other issues, we are open to argument.
The Prime Minister, when he was leader of the opposition, made a number of speeches, of which your quotation was taken from one, promising not only to change what government did, but also to change the way in which we as British citizens were governed, and we have set out down that path and we are delivering that. Our manifesto included radical commitments, which many doubted could ever be achieved. I have been in the saloon of disappointments on the left for so many years it is frankly boring and here we are again. Indeed, before the election the Constitution Unit at University College London, and I am glad to see Robert Hazell in the audience, said that we would be making good progress if we brought forward two pieces of Constitutional legislation a year. Well, I am sorry to disappoint everybody, but in fact we made better progress than was suggested at the time. In the first Parliamentary session alone we introduced ten pieces, ten not two, of Constitutional legislation and we are, already in this session, working on House of Lords reform and the establishment of the Greater London Authority. We have already created something which people said that we would never manage to do, though the disappointment brigade was lining up at the time; the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly to bring decision making closer to peoples lives. We have already passed into law an Act which I suggest in ten, twenty, fifty years, even a hundred years time, will be regarded as the single most important change in the relationship between the citizen and the state probably this century, as well as this Parliament, the Human Rights Act. That is in law, and we have already announced, as well, the date when that will come into full effect.
There is going to be a mayor and assembly for London, and on Thursday the first nationwide proportional representation system to elect the nearly ninety members of the European Parliament. The Bill going through parliament now will remove the right to hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords, something that has been on the constitutional agenda all this century. There have been a number of efforts to achieve that: In the 1910 Government; again at the end of the First World War; again under the third Labour Government between 1945 and 1951; again under the fourth Labour administration in 1968. Each of those fell even, on many cases, before legislation was through the House of Commons. We are delivering that change and a Royal Commission has been established to propose wider reforms. In the next few months we’ll be publishing draft legislation to clean up the system of party political funding which has remained untouched for so long. We have already legislated, again in this parliament, on Data Protection, better to protect individuals’ privacy and to place on the statute book better protection to individuals’ privacy than was required of us by the terms of the European Union’s Data Protection Act. On any measure this represents a substantial and hugely important set of reforms which is going to modernise and regenerate our Constitution and do what the Prime Minister said we are going to do to: change that relationship to give people a better sense of what it means in this country to be a citizen.
It is in this context that we have done two things. First we have brought forward plans to legislate to implement our long-standing promise for freedom of information legislation. But second we are already seeking to change the culture, not just by our words, but by our deeds. And, James, what profoundly irritates me is this sense which you purvey that Ministers in this Government are simply waiting to betray the principles on which we fought the election. That is what we must have been doing in the last two years, and yet if you are asking us to be judged by our acts, by our deeds, then judge us by the deeds that we already undertaken in the last two years; not a word of you from that. Yet, was I the only one to recognise the paradox of this criticism on the one hand, but on the other hand the fact that, and I have been delighted that there was an Award given to the Royal Commission on Long Term Care – that was a Royal Commission established by a Labour Government. We were delighted that the Royal Commission felt able to publish all its background papers, it did not happen by accident. Or the Award to Inquest. Inquest has been campaigning away for years to get necessary changes in the rights of relatives and friends of people deceased, who are subject to inquest, because the previous arrangements for refusing people information until they got, literally into the well of the court was unacceptable. Well, you mentioned briefly that the Home Office had agreed to change the rules. Yes, we did agree to change the rules. That did not happen by accident, it happened as a result of decisions by ministers that the rules needed changing and we did not wait for legislation. There are many other areas where we have sort to open up the process of decision making. It may come as a surprise for me to mention the consequences for freedom of information of giving the Bank of England the discretion to determine interest rates, but the consequence of that is not only justified in its own terms, in terms of detaching the setting of interest rates within an inflation target from politicians, which I think is an important in terms of improving the quality of government, but it has also provided openness for the first time on the process by which interest rates are set. Now those minutes are published – a very, very important part of information to people concerned, as all of us are indirectly, but many concerned directly, with how those decisions about interest rates are made. In my own area, in the Home Office, one of the very first things which I did was to ensure that the statistical series published by the Home Office, for example on crime, which had often been the subject – the dates of when they were going to be published – had been the subject of great manipulation by ministers, that the publication of those was put at arms length from ministers, detached from ministers, with independence built in. We have established new protocols to ensure that the Inspectorate reports of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Prisons, supposed to be independent, and is now independent, are published regardless of what ministers or the officials in the Prison Service ultimately think about them. There is now a very short period in which comments are exchanged between the Inspectorate, ministers, and the officials in the Prison Service, and after that the reports are published. When I came to office there were, I think, a dozen reports of the Inspectorate of Prisons sitting on the Secretary of State’s desk, some of which had been produced 16 months before. Well I happen to believe that this process of placing ministers under obligations in advance to publish reports like that is indeed an exercise in openness.
One of the crucial things, however, about this Bill is that the things I have described have happened as a result of discretionary decisions by ministers, and what we are proposing in this, is that for the first time every citizen will have a legal right of access to information held by bodies across the public sector. There will be a duty on public authorities to adopt a scheme for the publication of information about their work, a positive duty on authorities – I will come back to this point because James made much of it – even when they are not obliged to provide such information, to consider disclosure on public interest grounds.
A new Information Commissioner, together with a new Information Tribunal, to enforce the rights created. And under the provisions of the Bill there will be a requirement, for example, for police forces to give out information about the conduct of enquiries provided it does not prejudice law enforcement. But if you think for a moment, we are not dealing here with just one variable. There are three or more interests which we have to balance. On the one hand, the public interest in disclosure, on the other, individuals interests in the privacy of their own information, and on the third the public interest in there not – either sometimes being disclosure ever – but in many cases, its not being premature disclosure. And if, as a result, and it is almost a banal point to have to make, but I make it because it is necessary in the context of this meeting, if as a result of freedom of information legislation, criminals, suspects under investigation, could require the police to give information about the nature of those investigations, it would only be the most stupid criminal who ever ended up being convicted by a court of law, because people would always be able to be one step ahead of law enforcement. So of course, you have to have a provision that, yes, on the one hand requires the police to give out much more information than they do at the moment, and that is in the Bill, but also ensures that is balanced by a test to ensure that does not prejudice law enforcement.
We want schools to explain much better how they apply their admission criteria; health authorities to provide better details of how they allocate their resources between different treatments; the Prison Service to provide information on the performance of different regimes; hospitals and general practitioners to explain better how they prioritise their waiting lists; National Health Service trusts and health authorities to provide information on their administrative procedures governing Private Finance Initiatives. Those, of all the many other examples, will be guaranteed by the Bill.
Now it says here, “Of course, there have been some who criticise the Bill for not going far enough,” and I understand that some may be present in this room, but I just make the point that at each stage of what is a radical constitutional reform programme we have been accused of not going far enough. Every single Bill that has been brought forward, we have been accused of not going far enough. Take devolution: if you remember the debates, particularly, not only before the election but immediately afterwards, there were first of all those who said we never ever do it in the first session of the parliament. Well, we did. There were those who said that holding referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution represented a climb down, a dilution of our policy. But who would now argue that by having a referendum, and then setting up what are very powerful institutions, represents that dilution?
[Audience member: “When are you going to answer the points made by James about substantial harm? We are not interested in devolution, we are interested in FoI”
But the reason I say all this is just to put in context some of the complaints about this Bill. And I will carry on, and if you do not mind, I may have been the only person in the room who could have heckled James, but I did not heckle James, so I would be grateful if you did not heckle me, although I am happy to conduct the meeting on that basis if you really want to.
There were those who argued, and this is directly relevant to freedom of information, and much else, that incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights did not go far enough, that we needed our own tailor made Bill of Rights as well. But few will argue that the Human Rights Act will have a profound impact following its implementation next year.
Now I understand the arguments that many people here have made, that we do not go far enough. But it is the Governments’ responsibility to make decisions in the best interest of everyone, not just, to pick up a cue from Neil in his opening remarks, interest groups or those representing single interest lobby organisations, notwithstanding the important role which such organisations play in our society. Our duty is to ensure that legislation is coherent, robust and effective. Fundamentally, our constitutional reforms have to be workable. Workable for citizens, workable for interested pressure groups, and yes, workable for good government as well.
Now let me just deal directly with some of the complaints that have been made about the Bill. One of them is that the draft Bill has twenty-two exemptions in it while the White Paper mentioned just seven, and the Code of Practice had only fifteen. Well the suggestion that we have some how extended seven to twenty-two is nonsense. There are twenty-two clauses but the subject areas remain largely the same as those in the White Paper. [Interruption] Well, it is true. National security, defence and international relations, law enforcement, health and safety, personal information, information provided in confidence, commercial interests and policy advice. But as can be seen from that example, if you look in the White Paper, defence, security and international relations are simply down, as it were, in one clause; when it came to the drafting of the Bill they had to be put into three clauses. It does not mean that we have expanded the subjects in the White Paper.
Now let me come to the suggestion that the substantial harm test is a major dilution compared to what was proposed in the White Paper. Now what I say to the person who – I am sorry I cannot see but we have got this arrangement, which personally dislike, where only the speaker can be seen but not the audience, but there we are – that what I say to both you and others in the room, is look a little closer at what is being proposed. We all know, at least I hope most people here know, that the passage from policy to legislation means that language must be clear, both to those will be affected, and to the courts. What the prejudice formula delivers is the principle that the harm caused should be real, actual or of substance. That is a pretty substantial test which people, governments, will have to pass, public authorities will have to pass, in order to prevent information which would have otherwise been made public, from being made public. The Information Commissioner will have the power to make sure that organisations do not hide behind prejudice tests if they cannot make their case.
Now let me come onto the issue of policy advice. Interestingly enough, in most of the speeches I have ever read, including the one by the Prime Minister made in 1996, most people, particularly those familiar with the processes of government, have said ‘Yes of course you have got to exclude detailed development of policy from Freedom of Information, otherwise policy in government becomes impossible.’ And that is true. All institutions have to have some degree of privacy to develop their policy, and that also applies, by the way, to pressure groups, it applies to newspapers. The product of the daily editorial conferences which are held in every newspaper in the land are shown in newspapers, just as the product of government policy making emerges very quickly in terms of government announcements and bills before parliament. But the process by which newspapers reach their decisions about what goes in and what does not go in, what line to take, never reaches the public. I make no complaint about that because if they were to be made public, running the institutions of newspapers would become very difficult, if not impossible, and the same is true in terms of government. What the White Paper said is that, “Now more than ever, government needs space and time in which to assess arguments and conduct its own debates with a degree privacy. Experience overseas suggests that the essential governmental functions of planning ahead, delivering solutions to issues of national importance and determining options on which to base policy decisions while still maintaining collective responsibility, can be damaged by random and premature disclosure of its deliberations under Freedom of Information legislation.” That is true, and I just say to colleagues present here – if there are any colleagues present, and to everybody else – I will just say this, there has to be a fine balance here and I think we have got it right. I know that some people think we have not, but if you go too far and you end up in a situation where detailed policy documents, comments by ministers as collective decisions are being arrived at, where all of that is very quickly disclosable, you will not make government more accountable you will make it much less accountable, because what happens in other countries is what will then happen here. One of the members of the Select Committee on Public Administration said that when they went to one country which had FOI, they were cynically told by politicians and administrators alike, ‘Well there are two things we do, one is we wheel barrows full of documents into the cabinet room and have them declared cabinet documents so they can be exempted. The second is we use post-it notes all the time, so they can come off when there’s anybody seeking to find out how the decisions were reached.’ One of the good things, the very impressive things, about British Government is that so much is committed to paper: there is an audit trail. Friends I have in another administration abroad, say they do not put things downs on paper because it is too dangerous. If you do that you lose the very important, powerful, responsibility that ministers and officials have in our system.
Now it is very important too to understand that the existence of an exemption, this comes back to James’s point, does not mean that all information relating to government will be kept confidential. Under Clause 14 of the Bill there must be consideration by the public authority as to whether the public interest in disclosure outweighs the prejudice that will be caused by disclosure. Now I do not regard that, James, as some sort of risible test. It seems to me to be very sensible. Yes the disclosures under Clause 14 are discretionary. They are discretionary because they are additional to the disclosure required under the rest of the Bill, so by definition they are discretionary. But, as I already explained, the Commissioner will be able to ensure that such decisions are considered in the light of the public interest to disclose. If the Authority’s decision in the light of these facts is not reasonable, the Commissioner can seek a judicial review of that decision.
Now one of the more amusing aspects of publishing this Bill is to see people who damned the Code of Freedom of Information, the non-statutory code, suddenly say it is all fine, even though it has not been used very much, except by Computer Weekly. Certainly, in my experience, and I tried to use it once in Opposition, to get out of my predecessor a background document which I had actually been leaked, so it was in my hands anyway. I thought that there were about ten pages of it, which were about policy, which I thought, and I said, should not be disclosed, but the rest of it I thought ought to be disclosed. It was background information, which ought to have been in the public prints, and I hope that if there is any equivalent we are disclosing it from the Home Office ourselves, and that [request] was refused. Now, what I can say to you is that, that kind of document, under this provision would be the subject of scrutiny, because it is a background document, subject to scrutiny by the Commissioner. And in my judgement, on any basis, this Bill provides a much tougher regime than that provided by the Code, and I find it extraordinary that some people suggest that it is not.
Now let me go on, just to deal, before I close, listen to the applause for five minutes and then take your questions, with some of the complaints that have been made about this Bill, specific ones. Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer, a week on Sunday, said that the litmus test of information legislation was always going to be whether it would make less likely, and I quote “an arms to Iraq or Pergau Dam scandal, a mad cow catastrophe or a Poll Tax debacle,” and I believe that it would be difficult for a government department to justify to the public an argument that it would be reasonable to keep secret information which exposed wrongdoing in arms dealing, or misallocation of overseas aid or a serious threat to public health. I find it very hard to believe that in such circumstances a public authority would resist disclosure to the extent that it attempted to uphold secrecy in proceedings for judicial review. As to the argument that Freedom of Information would have prevented the Poll Tax, which is what Andrew was suggesting, I just say that is off the wall. The one thing that we were not short of – I was one of the people on the Labour front bench who fought the Poll Tax Bills all the way through – one of things we were never short of on the Poll Tax was information. We were awash with the stuff. It is quite important when you are making the case for Freedom of Information not to undermine your argument by ludicrous claims. There was no shortage of information whatever about the Poll Tax or its effect. The only problem we faced, was that we and – I use this in the inclusive sense – everybody faced, was that no one could persuade Margaret Thatcher that it was a bad idea. And there is no known cure to such situations, and certainly Freedom of Information does not have one, and I think that it is so important to hang on to that. We all hear a great deal about the United States experience. I think there are two sides to the United States experience, and they need to be borne carefully in mind. Certainly, I will just say two things about that. There is, on any basis, no evidence to suggest that the overall quality of public administration in the United States is higher than it is in this country, nor that citizens, particularly once we have got the Human Rights Act in force, are able in practice to exercise a higher degree of human rights than they will be able to in this Country.
The second thing is really to emphasise the first. On my desk, pour encourager les autres, I keep a book which is literally entitled “Understanding policy fiascoes”, and from time to time I waive it at officials to say I do not want their latest wheeze to be included as a further chapter. This is a serious work about policy fiascoes in the United States. Freedom of Information can do some things, but it does not stop bad policy makers making bad policy decisions. The other point I would make was just to pick some points made by Harold Evans in an article in the Guardian on the 31st of May, suggesting, and he had a long list of things which had been flushed out under the American FOI system, which he was implying, not quite saying, would not happen under our system. First of all, one of the things that is sometimes missed during the comparison, is that our system of parliamentary questions, the questioning of ministers, both on the floor of the House, more particularly through written questions and Select Committees flushes out much more information than happens in many other administrations.
Second thing is that in the list of things that Harold mentioned were body parts of executed Chinese criminals being used in being used in transplants, the forging of signatures by employees, criminals employed as security guards; these in my view would be brought to light under our proposals, if there are not brought to light already. And the thrust overall of the Bill is to increase openness. As James said, this is a draft Bill, but again it does make risible your suggestions that this is somehow like the Official Secrets Act, James, because if they had been working on the Official Secrets Act as long as we have been working on this the Official Secrets Act would not have even been on the Statute Book by the time the First World War began.
This Bill will be subject to extensive public and parliamentary consultation, including the Select Committee on Public Administration, and we will carefully consider all the comments we receive. I make no apology for anything tonight, not least for the fact I am committed to legislation that works in practice. And I am determined that the FoI regime that we have outlined will work in practice, and I welcome your help and your vociferous comments in making that a reality. Thank you very much indeed.
Neil McIntosh, Co-Chairman, Campaign for Freedom of Information
Ladies and gentlemen, I was just about to say that I agreed with the Home Secretary, that the lighting arrangements were not ideal, so I am glad that they have been turned on. The Home Secretary has been good enough to agree that he will answer your questions. Can you make them questions, please. I know that almost everybody in this room is capable of a twenty minute speech on this subject, but we do not have the time for them. Yes?
Home Secretary, it was reported in the Guardian a few months ago that there is a report that the Government is sitting on about the millennium bug in relation to international airports around world. The Government has declined disclose it. Can you give any explanation as to why it should not be disclosed?
Steve Bubb, National Lottery Charity Board
Whatever the arguments are about exemptions, I suspect a lot depends on the culture of government and local authority departments, and what is the Government going to do about encouraging officials, once the Bill is passed, to actually act in the spirit of the Act, in terms of encouraging openness?
Peter Roderick, Legal Adviser to Friends of the Earth
We have had freedom of environmental information legislation since the end of 1992, and at the moment we still do not know how that legislation is going to be affected by this legislation. It is proposed in the consultation document to abolish the Environmental Information Regulations. Do you accept, Home Secretary, that there will have to be a radical amendment to the draft Bill to ensure that the Environmental Information Regulations are not unlawfully repealed, in other words in breach of the EC Directive?
Let us take those three shall we?
Jack Straw MP
Okay. I am sorry, I did not catch your name.
Deborah King. I am an airline passenger.
Jack Straw MP
Right okay. [audience laughter]
Not on the 31st of December probably.
Jack Straw MP
I do not know the answer to your question, because I do not know the answer to the question. But if you give me your name but also if you give my private secretary, who is over there, your address, as I leave, I will get you an answer.
Stephen asks, makes what is an important point, about the importance of encouraging a change of culture in government, and what are we doing to secure that. Well there will be a huge amount of work to do that. In terms of not only encouraging a change of culture by the officials, but also by people making use of government. To draw a parallel with the Human Rights Act, what we have done there is, we have got the Bill on the statute book, we have got the Act there now, we have now got a task force under Gareth Williams, and that is not only doing the important bit about how this legislation will work, but also what cultural changes are needed – and they are very, very substantial by the way, of very great importance. A similar thing is going to happen on FOI. Let me say, I worked in Government twenty-five years ago. Sir Patrick Nairne, who was then the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health and Social Security, can confirm this because he is sitting in the back of the room. One of the striking things, coming back to government after a period of twenty-three years, was to see that the obsessive secrecy, which really was obsessive, which was there in the seventies, had – on the whole – gone. I mean there is still, some people may say too much, confidentiality, but in the Home Office where we have, where we genuinely have secrets and things that cannot, for reasons of life and death, cannot see the light of day, a very large proportion of the stuff that I deal with, I mean outside of what is the secret bit of Government – I mean the genuinely the secret, to do with national security and some aspects of law enforcement – is not classified at all. And that is good. Loads more consultative documents, background documents, are published and that is good. I think that, if I may say so, my critics whoever they are, underestimate the degree to which the culture will change simply by putting on the statute book a clear legal right of information.
Peter from FOE says, ‘Do I think that radical amendments will be required?’ I am not sure, but obviously you are, so you need to get in touch with us. We have no intention, by the way, of using this Bill to put ourselves in breach of undertakings or legal commitments in respect of the European Union, and you may not have seen a table, as I had recently, in an obscure German treatise on German foreign policy, which I have the English translation, but I need to give it a wider audience, because the United Kingdom actually has the best record, bar only a couple, of ensuring that directives are carried through. It happened that the point that they were making, by the way, was that Germany had the worst record. But again if you want to write to me – I mean write to me – pick up the invitation from now so that I see the letter, rather than it going into the big machine called Home Office letters. I will very happily give you an answer.
Marlene Winfield, National Consumer Council
Home Secretary, many Freedom of Information Acts have what they call “sunset clauses” which limit the time for which an exemption order or exclusion will apply. You seem to imply, in your speech, that there would be time limits, but there is no provision in the Act for any time limits. Could you say why that is?
I am a non-practising barrister. You mentioned parliamentary questions as an example of getting information, enabling citizens to hold Government to account. The Code, at the moment, sets the standard by which written answers are prepared, subject to a resolution of the House. How will the Bill, as proposed in the consultation document, affect answers parliamentary written questions?
Guy Dehn, Public Concern at Work
You said that when you were in opposition you unsuccessfully applied for documents under the Access to Government Information Code, and you yourself had already received a leaked copy of the same document. If, under your Bill, there is information which is exempt information, and someone has applied to your department for it, and in the discretionary provision it is not supplied, but you subsequently discover it has been leaked to your shadow, and you find out who the civil servant was, could you tell me what action you would take?
Jack Straw MP
Yes, I will. I think Marlene asked about “sunset clauses”. This fits in, basically, with the existing structure with respect to public records. Which is that, I know it is a very long sunset, by the way, but so far as Cabinet documents are concerned, the thirty-year rule applies to those. Either information is available under this provision, or other discretionary provisions, or it will be available under the normal public records arrangements, and there is some dovetailing which is described in the draft Bill and consultation document.
Tim asks about PQ’s. Again, what we sought to do, was to dovetail the FOI regime and PQ regime together. You have got to do that, or otherwise, you would end up with a situation where, either individual applicants could get information where Members of Parliament could not, or MPs getting information where individual applicants could not, and that would just be silly. So they fit in together both in terms of conditions, and also in terms of cost. There is a limit on the cost of any one enquiry, and that has to be the same for similar reasons.
Guy asks what I would do if it turned out that someone had leaked this information to my shadow. I just ought to explain in my defence, by the way, that the sequence of events was that this document was leaked to a newspaper, which shall remain nameless – it begins with “G” – and I subsequently received the information, so by the time I got the information I was not the prime source of the leak. I received many, quite a number of, leaks about which I did nothing, because it would have been damaging if they had gone anywhere in respect of the Home Office. It would depend, the serious answer to your question, it would depend on what had been leaked. I mean, if it was simply embarrassing for a short period I would be irritated and I would want to know what who had leaked it because it represents a break down in confidence, with a small “c”, as just as any of you would. If it was seriously damaging then I would be very cross about it, but as I say, it depends on the nature of the leak. Can I just take three more?
Yes, okay, just three more. Standing at the back there yes.
Home Secretary, I would like to say, as someone who has always welcomed the promise of legislation and welcomed the promises you gave in opposition, said you would deliver on them, was never a game player – and here we are with a Freedom of Information Act – that it seems to me that the tragedy is that you are not delivering on the spirit of these reforms. You are delivering, so to speak, on the formal aspects. The aspect that I would like to ask you about, in terms of the draft Bill, which seems to me to symbolise this withdrawal from the spirit of the thing, is clause, as I read it, clause 44(7), which appears to say that if a public authority thinks that information would lead to prosecution if it revealed that information, it does not have to show that information, even to the Commissioner. There is no gloss, in the introduction, where you explain what the various clauses mean. It is interesting that this particular one is not glossed, and it appears to read as if in fact you are giving a blanket exemption to public authorities not to give information on wrongdoing.
Charles Medawar, Social Audit Limited
My background is in consumer protection, and I have got a particular interest in medicine safety and medicines control, and I certainly count myself among those who would very much prefer to continue to use the voluntary Code of Practice rather than the Bill, to obtain basic information. For example, which members of the Committee on the Safety of Medicines declared conflicts of interests over the discussion of a particular drug. But what I want to ask the Secretary of State was, you acknowledge that this Bill has caused a good deal of disappointment, universally condemned by the press, and the word betrayed has been used by an extremely moderate man, and I myself feel deeply disappointed. You gave no sense of understanding that this disappointment was anything than misconceived.
I am sorry that I am going to disappoint quite a number of you because this is the last question. The gentleman there.
Andrew Herxheimer, Drug & Therapeutics Bulletin
What will happen to the Medicines Control Agency, the blanket ban on confidentiality in the Medicines Act under your Bill?
Jack Straw MP
Anthony Barnett said that his concerns were about not delivering on the spirit of the reforms, and just to pick up Charles’ point, I am not dismissive of the criticism, far from it, but I happen to have opinions of my own which do not happen to fit with some of the criticisms, but I have said already that we will take on board detailed points made, which will now include 44(7) by the way.
This a draft Bill, it is a consultative process. I am not seeking credit for this, but there is a real difference between having a draft Bill which can be discussed over many months, and having a Bill of which you get two clear weekends; it used to be three to be hanged and two to consider a Bill, and that is it, and then it goes into Standing Committee and often it could be guillotined. This is a long running consultative process, and I am not suggesting, for a second, to both Anthony and Charles that we have got everything right in this Bill. I recognise that it is different, although in some respects goes further than the White Paper, and in other respects less far that the White Paper. But what irritates me is not the fact that various people are suggesting that they have come to a different point of view than us, but the suggestion that somehow we set out to betray people on this, which is utter nonsense, and it is no truer in respect of this than it is in respect of that long litany of constitutional reforms which, in turn irritated somebody in the audience and called them to cry out for the substantial harm test to be discussed. But I mentioned those as proof of the fact that we are delivering on range of constitutional issues, as Anthony has been generous enough to recognise, and it would be, to say the least, eccentric if we had decided not to deliver on this. Because we have not decided not to deliver on it. We put forward proposals, and they are being discussed, and if we think that they need to be changed, we are persuaded by the arguments, and that will include Parliament, who has the duty of “we propose, they dispose” and that is how it has to be, then we will change it. I have had a quick look at 44(7) Anthony, I understand, I mean I do, I acknowledge your slight surprise at its text and will look at it.
I have answered Charles, and Andrew Herxheimer asks a question about – [Interruption] – Well I understand that is your view, but it is not my view, and it is my job to try, once the Bill becomes law to prove you wrong, all right? I have a slightly sceptical audience here tonight [laughter]. I have got that point, and I will take away that message. But I also say that I – and you may say ‘Well what is he saying?’ – that I have been here before, before sceptical audiences thinking we would not deliver, and we have delivered. And then of course what happens is that people always up the demands so you can know that people are never satisfied, but some of us are used to that too. Thank you very much. On the Medical Control Agency, I do not know the answer to that, sorry. I will have to write to you, a direct answer, but I will do so.
Okay, I think – I am sorry there are many other people who wanted to ask questions – I think we are going to leave it at that. I agree with one other thing you said Home Secretary, and that is that there is a tendency in single issue pressure groups always to say that you have not gone far enough. We came very, very close with the White Paper to saying you had gone far enough. That is my only comment.
I turn now to Godfrey Bradman who is the President of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, who has been involved also from the start, to give a vote of thanks.
Godfrey Bradman, President of the Campaign for Freedom of Information
Home Secretary, we are extremely grateful to you for joining us tonight. You have given us a robust defence of the Governments proposals on Freedom of Information, and we expected no less. As you may gather, one or two of us here my not be entirely persuaded to your point of view, and you may have expected no less than that. We thank you very much indeed for coming.