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Freedom Of Information

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 19 November 1997

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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.