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Duchy Of Lancaster

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 19 November 1997

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The Chancellor was asked—

Freedom Of Information

When he will publish the White Paper on freedom of information. [15090]

A White Paper on our proposals for a freedom of information Bill will be published shortly.

I thank the Minister for his reply. How does he propose to make the information that will become available under the legislation accessible to the ordinary citizen, not just to lobbyists?

It will be important to give a great deal of publicity to the freedom of information Act. The code has been partly ineffective because of inadequate publicity. I also believe that the amount of press publicity surrounding freedom of information will ensure that virtually everyone is aware of the legislation.

When the Chancellor of the Duchy publishes the White Paper, will he at the same time publish the advice that has been rendered to Ministers by officials about the scope of freedom of information and its method of application?

When we publish the White Paper, it will contain the Government's proposals for consultation. Part of the process of that debate will concern how we deal with information to Ministers. On the one hand we need to be as open as possible; on the other, we must retain the central confidences that will allow the business of good government to continue.

Will the freedom of information legislation apply to devolved government in Scotland and Wales? If so, will it be introduced via the devolution legislation or by a subsequent Act of this House?

The parts of public information that relate to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly will be matters for those authorities. How we bring that about will be a matter of detail that we will examine as we work through the consultation period.

As much public business today is carried out on behalf of the Government by contractors in the private sector, will the Chancellor of the Duchy ensure that the White Paper does not exempt such contractors from the requirements of disclosure that would be in place if the business were carried out in-house by the Government?

The right hon. Gentleman has a fair point. The nature of government has changed a great deal in recent years. With so much privatisation and contracting out, public business that would in the past have been carried out by Government Departments is now being done by private organisations. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt the Act, but this is the sort of issue that we are examining in the committee that is considering the White Paper.

Will the Animal Procedures Committee under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 be part of the freedom of information Act, thus ending the shabby secrecy that vivisectionists have been able to hide behind under the Tories?

I believe that that particular legislation is one of the 200 Acts which contain clauses relating to the release or disclosure of information. If my memory is right in that respect, we shall deal with it in the White Paper. If not, I shall write to my hon. Friend.

In the interests of freedom of information, will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House why he found it necessary to make trips to Australasia, the United States and Canada in order to study open government? In connection with those trips, as reported in The Times on 20 October, we on the Conservative Benches at least hope that it is not the case that a smear campaign is being conducted against the right hon. Gentleman by a senior colleague—not, surely, something that we would want to expect from an open Government.

We on the Government Benches take the view that, if we are to modernise our constitution, the freedom of information legislation is very important. We also take the view that we will probably have only one opportunity to put such legislation on the statute book, so we must get it right on the first occasion. Therefore, I felt that it was right and proper not to reinvent the wheel but to learn from experiences elsewhere. It just so happens that, whereas the Conservative Government did not have the guts to face up to that difficult issue, we are prepared to grasp the nettle.

I felt it right and proper to go to the United States of America, which has a long history of freedom of information, and also to go to those three Commonwealth countries, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which have introduced freedom of information Acts in the past 15 years, so that when we compiled our legislation, we could ensure that, we were using the best practices from the experiences in those Westminster models.

Departmental Appointments

If he will make a statement on the Government's policy in respect of appointments to the press and information departments of Government Departments. [15091]

All appointments to the permanent civil service—including those in press and information divisions—are made on the basis of merit through fair and open competition.

If that blameless description is true, and if there really is no politicisation of press and information appointments, as is widely reported, will the

hon. Gentleman explain why no fewer than eight senior civil servants in press and information departments have suddenly found an overwhelming desire to spend more time with their families?

First, the figure is seven, not eight. There are a variety of reasons for such changes. Bernard Ingham, in his memoirs, points out that, when Viscount Whitelaw returned from Northern Ireland, he was out of a job because Viscount Whitelaw brought his own press officer with him. It is a matter of public record that the chief press officer and the Minister without Portfolio have endorsed the impartiality of the press officer service within the civil service. That has been the case in the past, is the case at present and will remain the case in future.

Is not it rather rich of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) to complain about the Government in this respect when the Conservative party was responsible for pumping tens of millions of pounds into Government propaganda campaigns which masqueraded as Government information?

However much the Conservative party pumped into propaganda when they were in government, they signally failed on I May. The Labour party made it abundantly clear before the election that it would be an integral part of a Labour Government's modus operandi to present their case effectively and impartially. Not only is it necessary for the Government to do that: it is their responsibility.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the fact that seven press officers—:that is, about one third of the leading press officers in Government Departments—have found it impossible to work with the directives being issued to them by their Ministers makes it absolutely plain that what we are seeing is the politicisation by the Labour party of the civil service?

Needless to say, I completely reject that allegation; more important, so did Sir Robin Butler when he appeared before the Select Committee. It is perfectly in order that there should be staffing changes in press offices as elsewhere with the advent of a new Government. Indeed, without divulging the particulars of individual cases, there was a variety of reasons why people chose at that time to vacate their job in a Department.

Better Government Programme

3.

If he will make a statement on the progress of his better government programme. [15092]

We are making good progress in developing the better government White Paper, which will set out a vision for public service into the new millennium. Our aim is to make government simpler and more responsive to citizens. That will partly be achieved by using the latest developments in information technology to improve the services we offer. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set the target that one quarter of Government services should be deliverable electronically within the next five years.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the better government initiative should involve the talents and experience of those in local government, where a number of improvements in service delivery have already been introduced?

Yes. I think it essential that we involve ordinary citizens at every level of government. Ordinary citizens do not distinguish between tiers of government, whether central or local; all they are interested in is the quality of the service that they receive. The better government initiative aims to end the perception that government is only about queues and forms. I am determined that local government will be involved in the initiative because local government is involved in many exciting initiatives in service provision. In order to co-ordinate and learn from those experiences, I recently set up a working group as part of the central-local partnership initiative, so that we can look at the various pilots and try to spread best practice.

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he has told me in a written answer that it is not Government policy for Ministers to be accessible by e-mail? With all the talk about better government and information technology, would it not be a good idea either for Ministers to have e-mail addresses instead of handing out a sheaf of replies consisting of "I will reply to the hon. Gentleman as quickly as possible", or for him to tell me that Ministers have no intention of having e-mail addresses?

The hon. Gentleman does not understand my answer correctly if he thinks that I am saying that it is not my policy to encourage Ministers to have e-mail addresses or to use them. In fact, I do have an e-mail address and it is public. My reply to the hon. Gentleman was that the information is not held centrally and therefore I cannot provide him with the answer for which he asks.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the better government programme is absolutely essential if we are to bring government closer to the people, overcome some of the cynicism people feel towards government and take better decisions in the future?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We fought the last election on the issue of the regeneration of our country, economic, social and democratic. Part of that appeal was the democratic appeal and, through our better government initiative, it is our hope and intention to involve many more of our citizens in the running of their country.

Non-Departmental Public Bodies (Women)

4.

What measures he will be taking to increase the number of women on the boards of executive NDPBs. [15093]

All Departments encourage women to apply for public appointments and are committed to fair selection procedures. As part of that process, Departments are currently drawing up individual plans for the increased representation of women on public bodies. Those plans will include specific targets for each Department and will cover the period 1998 to 2001.

The Minister will be aware that, of those women who currently hold public appointments, the vast

majority are in unpaid, not paid, appointments. When drawing up his targets, will the Minister ensure that there is a target for equal representation of women in paid as well as unpaid appointments?

It is certainly the Government's policy to encourage women to participate at every level within what is commonly known as the quangocracy. The commissioner for appointments has set out a code of practice in which equal opportunity is a central element. In addition, the public appointments unit is actively seeking more women nominations to its list—it currently stands at 31 per cent. of its total—so that Departments have a ready reservoir of willing and-[HON. MEMBERS: Able."] That is not my word. I am talking about willing and well qualified women who are available for appointment to both paid and unpaid non-departmental public body jobs.

Will the hon. Gentleman consider looking at the staffing of foster homes, which are often privately run, many of which have been in the news lately for severe abuses of children? Does he agree that, if more older women were used to head those institutions, there would be less of the abuse that we keep reading about in our newspapers and which is such a disgrace? Older women would not have the wool pulled over their eyes in these matters.

I do not know if the hon. Lady is suggesting that the Government should nationalise private foster homes—I doubt whether she is. What the hon. Lady is suggesting is not within our remit, but I will pass on her comments to the appropriate Ministers.

Charter Objectives

5.

If Her Majesty's Government plan to provide for penalties or sanctions for non—compliance with charter objectives; and if he will make a statement. [15094]

We are committed to relaunching the charter programme so that it meets the needs and wishes of people who use public services on a daily basis. That is why we are currently consulting on how best to do this, including looking at issues of compliance. Details of the new programme will be published as part of the better government initiative.

Are Ministers aware that the patients charter, to which the Government are committed, says:

"From April 1995 the NHS is broadening the 18-month guarantee"—
that last word is in bold print—
"of admission into hospital to cover all admissions into hospital."
When the Government took office, there were 155 people for whom there was no treatment in 18 months and, yesterday, we learned that there were 818 people for whom there was no treatment in 18 months. As a result of the guarantee being broken, will there be compensation for the individuals affected, will they be admitted to hospital, or is the guarantee—it is much more important than a pledge—worthless in terms of guarantees about NHS treatment under this Government?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health in which he likened turning round the situation on waiting lists to turning round a super-tanker. The previous Government left a dreadful legacy, and that is why my right hon. Friend and the Government have taken immediate action, including the provision of £269 million this year. They have appointed a waiting list action team, led by Stephen Day, with task groups in each of the eight regions to ensure that by next March we have looked at that 18-month limit and are turning round the huge lists that were bequeathed to us by the last Government.

Quangos

6.

What representations he has received about changes in the working practices of quangos. [15095]

Over the past few years quangos have been roundly criticised for being too secretive, unaccountable and unrepresentative. Last week I published the "Opening Up Quangos" Green Paper, which addresses those criticisms and sets out our plans to make quangos more open, accountable and effective.

This is open to widespread consultation and I look forward to receiving the views of people from throughout the country.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. I welcome the Green Paper, which I am sure will shine light on the secretiveness and unaccountability of the quangos set up by the Conservative Government. Given my right hon. Friend's commitment to freedom of information, may I ask him whether quangos will be covered by a freedom of information Act?

We shall introduce a number of measures to open up quangos, including open annual meetings, publishing the minutes and annual reports. We are also, keen to encourage a wide cross-section of the community to become involved. The freedom of information legislation, as I said, will have wide coverage, right across Government. I cannot anticipate what the White Paper will contain, but I am pretty sure that my hon. Friend will not be disappointed.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the effectiveness of quangos essentially depends on who is selected to serve on them? When they consider that matter, will quangos refrain from selecting people purely on the basis of political correctness?

I am delighted that at long last the hon. Gentleman, and I hope his colleagues, have seen the light. We live in a pluralistic society, and it is important that quangos and other bodies that help to advise the Government represent a cross-section of our society. I believe that one of the reasons why quangos got such a bad name over the past 18 years was the manner in which the previous Government stuffed them with their own appointees.

Does the Minister recognise that most citizens are not interested in changing the working practices of quangos, but rather in bringing them under direct democratic control, especially at local level?

Nowhere do people feel more strongly about that than in Northern Ireland. What steps do the Government intend to take to restore democracy to the Province?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The document that I produced last week referred to the 1,000 or so quangos that are national, but in addition to those, there are thousands that have regional, provincial or local application. I hope that out of the consultation and the on-going debate on democracy and about our devolution proposals, we will find it possible for some of the local and regional quangos to be subsumed by local government.

Open Government

7.

What action he plans to take to increase openness in government; and if he will make a statement. [15097]

The White Papers on freedom of information and better government which I am preparing will both increase openness in government.

I believe that in a modern society, open government is good government. Our proposals will change radically the culture of government in Britain and the way in which public information is handled.

I am grateful for that reply, but who will decide what is to remain secret and what will not remain secret? Will it be the same civil servants who, as we saw during the Scott inquiry, are rather unenthusiastic about the concept of open government, or will there be an independent element in the appeals process?

It is important that any legislation on freedom of information includes a strong, fair and easy-to-use appeals system, and does not leave the individual helpless in his or her attempt to get information. There are various ways in which that can be achieved, but the Government are studying the model of an independent information commissioner.

The Government make much play about open government. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he considers that holding a referendum before publishing the Bill to which the referendum refers is no more than a crude opinion poll, not a referendum?

We had referendums in Scotland and Wales before powers were devolved, and we have made it clear that we will use the same instrument before we introduce regional government into England.

Non-Departmental Public Bodies

8.

How he intends to ensure the accountability of non-departmental public bodies. [15099]

The Government are determined to make quangos more open and more accountable.

In our "Opening up Quangos" Green Paper we set out ways to improve the accountability of quangos. I am inviting Select Committees to have greater oversight of quangos, by looking at annual reports and by being involved in the new five-yearly reviews. I also plan to introduce codes of practice and registers of interest to quango boards wherever possible.

I believe that these and many other proposals that we put forward will ensure that quangos become much more accountable to the people they serve.

I know that my right hon. Friend appreciates that the quango state that was created by the previous Government removed huge areas of public expenditure from democratic scrutiny, with boards meeting in private with members who were unknown to the general public. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, as part of his proposals for openness, the name of every member of every quango will be made publicly available, as will their register of interests, in a form that will be easily accessible to the average member of the public?

My answer is yes. At the same time that we published the Green Paper last week, we ensured that it was available on the internet. I intend to ensure that the internet includes the names of all quangos, their aims and objectives, and overall financial information. In addition, it is my intention to ensure that the names of all individuals on quangos appear on the internet, with the odd exception where one or two specialist committees deal with security or with the security of the individual, which might be at risk from publication.

Is the Minister able to give an assurance that it is his policy that henceforth all quangos will be subject to scrutiny by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee? Will he concur that the best way to deal with quangos is to abolish many of them and return their powers to democratically elected local councils? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, when he is replacing clapped-out Tory placemen, he will not simply introduce Labour placemen?

The hon. Gentleman raises some serious points. First, we are trying to examine the raison d'etre of every quango to ensure that there is a reason for that body continuing to exist. Secondly, I have already said that we see a future, when considering regional and local quangos, for discussion to ascertain whether these bodies could be incorporated into the local government structure. That is the sort of issue that will be raised when we introduce our central-local government initiative. We have already discussed that.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we recognise that we live in a pluralistic society. It is right and proper that people from all sections and strands of the community are represented on quangos.

Freedom Of Information

9.

If he will make a statement on progress towards legislation on freedom of information. [15100]

I intend to publish a White Paper on freedom of information shortly, and after a period of consultation this will be followed by a draft Bill.

Will it be seen that no excessive charges are made for accessing freedom of information, so that the information will begin to be readily available? As the process will take a while, with the publication of a White Paper and ensuing legislation, can things be done in the meantime to open up the secrecy of the state?

It is essential that costs should not be a deterrent when use is sought of the eventual Act. As my hon. Friend says, some time will pass before that Act is on the statute book. It is important that we continue our efforts as a Government to be more open. We shall be encouraging the flexible use of the code. I am encouraging my colleagues to be more proactive about the release of information. Right hon. and hon. Members may have noticed that yesterday we took an opportunity to show our commitment to openness by releasing MI5 documents from the Public Record Office.

Does the Minister accept that freedom of information itself is necessarily no panacea for better government? What arrangements does he intend to make for the advice that is given by officials to Ministers? Will that advice be subject to the same rules, or is he intending to alter them and thus make it likely that officials will restrain themselves in giving full and frank advice?

It is quite clear to us that open government is part of modern government and good government. I have already made the point that, at some time, one has to make a balanced judgment between openness, which informs our citizens, and confidentiality, which is essential to the workings of government. We feel that our responsibility is to provide good government, and we certainly intend to ensure that we get that balance right.

Special Advisers

10.

What are the principal provisions of the contracts of special advisers; and what steps he is taking to ensure that they do not undermine the integrity and impartiality of the civil service. [15101]

The model contract for special advisers sets out the terms and conditions under which they are employed. For the first time under this Government a copy was placed in the Library of the House in June. It distinguishes clearly the role and responsibilities of special advisers and reinforces the integrity and impartiality of the permanent civil service.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. What action is he taking to ensure that, where statements by special advisers are dishonest, misleading and inaccurate, disciplinary action is taken? I refer in particular to matters relating to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Is it not important that the traditional professionalism of the civil service is in no way undermined by the activities of special advisers?

It is absolutely essential that the political neutrality and integrity of the civil service is maintained. The draft contracts make that quite clear. They also lay out quite specifically the terms and conditions under which the special advisers operate, and make it quite clear that they can be more free in speaking to the press on political matters.