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Freedom Of Information

Volume 115: debated on Wednesday 6 May 1987

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4.9 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to repeal section 2 of the Official Secrets Act and institute a right of access for citizens to information related to the workings and decisions of government, with certain specified exceptions; and for connected purposes.
It is, of course, peculiarly appropriate, in the light of the statement that we have just heard from the Prime Minister, that we should he discussing this issue today, of all days. We have been powerfully reminded this afternoon of the intensely secretive nature of the British governmental apparatus and the arrogance of power that has affected this Government above all others. We need to open up the workings of Government to the maximum legitimate public scrutiny. At present, the presumption is that everything is secret unless the Government graciously decide that the public should be allowed to know. That is the wrong way round. The assumption should be that everything is in the public domain unless there are genuine—I stress genuine—security reasons why it should not be. My Bill seeks to secure precisely that change.

Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act has become notorious. It is absurd that secretive legislation should cover every action and every item that crosses civil servants' desks. The catch-all absurdity of the legislation alone should ensure its repeal. However, the situation is, of course, much more dangerous than that, because section 2 can be, and has been, used by Governments of all political persuasions to cover up political embarrassment rather than for reasons connected with real national security issues. Why did this Government prosecute Sarah Tisdall and Clive Ponting? Why did they use section 2 to obtain warrants to ransack the offices of the NewStatesman and the home of Duncan Campbell? Why have this Government made greater use of section 2 than any other Government in our history?

The 12 ordinary men and women who acquitted my constituent Clive Ponting two years ago threw the Government into considerable confusion. Effectively, the jury challenged the Government once and for all to draw the line between matters of political embarrassment or advantage and matters of genuine national importance. The Government have failed to draw that line, and today's statement by the Prime Minister has simply confirmed that fact.

My Bill, coming at the outset of what may be a general election campaign, seeks to challenge all parties in the House to state where they stand on this issue. Do they stand for over-secrecy, which is what we have at the moment, or for the fullest possible openness in Government? In a democracy, surely the answer must be crystal clear. Citizens must have the fullest possible access to information about what the Government and the governors are doing. The British people do not have anything approaching such access at present; they should have it. My Bill is a small step towards ensuring that that happens at long last.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Chris Smith, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Mr. Robin Cook, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Tarn Dalyell, Mr. Alfred Dubs, Mr. Tony Lloyd, Mr. Ian Mikardo, Mr. Peter Pike and Ms. Jo Richardson.

Freedom Of Information

Mr. Chris Smith accordingly presented a Bill to repeal secion 2 of the Official Secrets Act and institute a right of access for citizens to information related to the workings and decisions of government, with certain specified exceptions; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 3 July, and to be printed. [Bill 1501