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House of Commons Hansard
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Historical Cabinet Papers
19 January 2016
Volume 604

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the annual release of Cabinet papers to the National Archives.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I am delighted that this important debate has been called today, as it gets to the heart of this Government’s record on transparency and accountability.

The relationship between those we elect to govern us and ordinary people does not have to be built upon unbroken, uninterrupted trust. In fact, a healthy scepticism that challenges, scrutinises and protests is the hallmark of a democracy in good health. In order to do that, however, the scales needs to be as evenly weighted as possible between the people and the Government and between the institutions of the state and those who use them.

We have seen in communities up and down the land the consequences of secrecy, cover-ups and a breakdown in trust—put simply, the consequences of too much power in the hands of too few. In Liverpool, an entire community was shouting alone for justice for nearly two decades against institutions and a police force that felt that it was not for scousers to be questioning its version of events—a version of events that has been proven to be falsified, in order to protect the police at the expense of the truth.

Or take what happened on 18 June 1984 at Orgreave and the charges of police brutality, perverting the course of justice and misconduct in a public office—among the most serious offences that can be found in a country that upholds the rule of law, and yet they have still not been properly investigated to this very day. When secrecy in Government institutions prevails, the health of our democracy and the rights of our citizens pay the price. I am sorry to say that this Government’s record on transparency and accountability has been anything but exemplary.

Plans to water down the Freedom of Information Act 2000 have been cloaked in the grizzled words of Ministers, who talk darkly about journalists unacceptably abusing the Act to generate stories—something that many of us call journalism. Last year alone, such journalism uncovered remarkable details of hundreds of dangerous criminals on the run, how many times our data have been breached online, what police knew about child sexual exploitation, and details of Conservative party donors making millions in housing benefit. Those were not fanciful, frivolous requests, but stories very definitely in the public interest.

What about being held to account? We have seen the Trade Union Bill and the gagging Act. There is the strangling of the finances of political opponents, in contravention of decades-old convention. The Human Rights Act is seen as nothing but an irritant. There is the NHS weekly bulletin, which was due to begin publication late last year, but which no longer includes figures on four-hour waits. There are the new rules revealing that hospitals had effectively been banned from declaring major incidents—all that from a Prime Minister, who said airily just before entering high office, let “sunshine” be “the best disinfectant”. However, there is some cleaning up to do, because, put simply, this is a Prime Minister and a Government who do not like being challenged. This is a Prime Minister and a Government who do not like scrutiny.

It was with depressing familiarity, therefore, that we learned over the Christmas recess that the Government had stopped the long-standing practice of releasing a comprehensive historical account of discussions and decisions made by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet under the 30-year rule—or, now, the 20-year rule—at the turn of the year. Instead, there was only a frankly pitiful selection of files cherry-picked from the Prime Minister’s office. For the first time in 50 years, a Government have not released official files in full. Although long-standing convention has seen some 500 files released simultaneously from the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister’s office at the turn of the year, this year just 58 files were released.

The Government try to reassure us that further files will be forthcoming throughout the year but as yet there is no timetable for release or any indication of whether that will be comprehensive. Will the Government choose to release them on Budget day, for instance, or perhaps on the day before the summer recess, so as to avoid scrutiny? These may seem like hypothetical musings, but Ministers already have a track record of doing that. On the day of the Christmas recess, the Government released 36 ministerial statements and 424 Government documents in one day. That was surely done in the hope that hard-pressed lobby journalists would miss—in the thousands of pages of data—revelations from the Department for Work and Pensions that three quarters of those affected by the hated bedroom tax have had to cut back on food, or that there has been a 45% increase in homeless families living in temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

I would like to press the Minister on a timetable for the release of all public records and on whether that release will be comprehensive, as required under the Public Records Act 1958. It would also be helpful to the House if he could explain the contents of a somewhat cryptic answer that the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). He stated:

“Cabinet papers for the period 1986-1989 have already been transferred to the National Archives.”

The answer does not clearly indicate whether all those Cabinet papers have been released to the National Archives. As the Minister knows that would include, in line with precedent, some 500 files released from both the Prime Minister’s office and the Cabinet Office. Can he assure the House that all those files have been comprehensively released to the National Archives? If they have, and given that, as the Minister knows, it is procedure for the National Archives to release all files transferred to it as soon as possible, on what basis was it decided that some files would be released and others not? Was that decision taken by the National Archives, which does a fantastic job, or was it taken, as we expect, by Ministers?

On that point, how many applications have the Government submitted to the National Archives to retain documents for any reason under section 3 of the Public Records Act? Given that the use of these instruments of retention by the Government are not always publicly available, will the Minister at least confirm how many documents the Government have submitted instruments of retention for?

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I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate, given that Ministers have so far failed to come and give a statement to the House on why the Cabinet Office papers have been delayed. Does he agree that it is particularly important that the Government are open and transparent about the documents they retain and release because, as of December 2015, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport now has the responsibility to approve the retention of documents on advice from the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives? Therefore, two advisers to the then Thatcher Government—the right hon. Members for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) and for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale)—are now responsible for both the release and the potential retention of information relating to matters pertaining to that Government.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is exactly right: these questions matter because the period covered was one of profound political sensitivity and because Ministers responsible for the release of these files were in the thick of it at that time as advisers to senior politicians.

In 2014—the last time there was a comprehensive release of Cabinet papers—we learned that the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had lied to the public about the extent of the pit closure plan, her attempt to influence police tactics, and the involvement of MI5 in spying on officials of the National Union of Mineworkers. That information demonstrated the extent to which the Government can use the institutions of the state against ordinary people. It is good for our democracy that the information was released, and it helps the ongoing fight for justice in the coalfield communities. This year, however, with such a small selection of files released, issues of political importance such as the discussions on the poll tax and the black Monday stock market crash have remained secret. Those were decisions that senior Ministers in the current Government were directly involved in.

Thanks to previous releases covering 1985-86, we know that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) advised the then Thatcher Government to use Scotland as a testing bed for the hated poll tax, but there the information, sadly, dries up. We do not know how this young adviser, in the teeth of powerful Cabinet opposition, managed to force through one of the most politically catastrophic and socially toxic policies in post-war history. Not only is that of historical interest, but it gives us an insight into the ideology and motives of the Prime Minister’s senior policy chief. We see a clear progression from the right hon. Gentleman’s policy formulation in the 1980s to policy implementation under the current Government.

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On that point, is my hon. Friend aware that in the 1980s the right hon. Member for West Dorset authored an extreme pamphlet for a think-tank that offered suggestions on exactly how to privatise the NHS? Two of those suggestions have now been implemented by this Conservative Government. Does that not prove the direct link between policy formulation under that Government and the policy being implemented by this one, and further emphasise the need for transparency?

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I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is right, and I am glad she has drawn the House’s attention to the extremist past and, I would say, the extremist present of some of those in such an ideological Government. The pamphlet she is referring to is “Britain’s biggest enterprise”, in which the right hon. Member for West Dorset called for a health insurance scheme and charging across the NHS. Thankfully, those shameful views have not been taken up by the current Government—yet. His views on increasing the use of joint ventures between the NHS and the private sector very definitely have been implemented.

This goes to the heart of the matter. If previous Cabinet releases have detailed damaging revelations about senior members of this Government and their ideology and motives—motives that have been carried into the current Government—why has this year’s release been so dramatically curtailed? What detail is in those approximately 450 files that have not yet been released? Did the right hon. Member for West Dorset, who is now a Minister in the Cabinet Office—the Department with responsibility for the release of these files—have any say in that?

Apparently, the Government have managed to find a way to water down the accountability of two Conservative Administrations in one go. The Government promised to be the most transparent in the world, but we increasingly find that their rhetoric does not match the reality. The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, the man charged with upholding the public’s right to information, boldly warned that the Government should not return to the dark ages of private Government. The Government should heed that warning. We all should.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) on securing this debate. I start by saying, as he did, that this Government are committed to being the most transparent ever and take their commitment under the Public Records Act seriously.

A key plank of our commitment to transparency is our work on releasing files after 20 years, rather than 30 years as was previously the case. I acknowledge openly that this is a really big, major challenge for the Government, which unfortunately we fell short of in December 2015. I hope it will be helpful to the hon. Gentleman and others here today if I respond to their points by setting out first how the Cabinet Office is working to meet its obligations under the Public Records Act, which sets out how and when Government records should be transferred to the National Archives, and explaining why some may sometimes need to be retained.

The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 shortened the period before which files are released from 30 years to 20 years. This means that for a transitional period, two years of files are being reviewed each year, a doubling of the information in scope. In this process, each file undergoes a series of detailed checks to protect, for example, national security and sensitive personal data. This in no way lessens our commitment to transparency but takes time to do properly. This is a significant challenge for all involved. For Departments, it is a doubling of the workload, and the same considerations need to be made before papers are sent to the National Archives.

The National Archives are meeting these challenges head-on, which means extra papers coming through to them with high public demand as the subjects covered are relatively recent. By 2023, this process of reviewing two years of records in one year will be complete.

In December, we transferred a number of 1987 and 1988 files and this formed part of a press event arranged by the National Archives. We will be transferring more shortly, with the aim of completing the transfer of our 1987 and 1988 files as soon as possible. Files up to 1990 will be released throughout the year.

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I am a little confused. The Paymaster General wrote to me a couple of weeks ago saying the delay in the release of Cabinet papers was due to a change in policy by releasing some earlier in 2015, some in December 2015 and some at an unspecified date later this year. Now the Minister is saying that it was due to lack of resources or an increased challenge. Will he confirm whether it is due to a specific change in policy that will occur next year, or lack of resources?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. If she will bear with me, all will become clear because I will set out in painstaking detail the process by which we are handling the matter.

The Cabinet Office was due to transfer all information from 1987 and 1988 by the end of 2015 but, as is clear, we did not manage to do so. Both 1987 and 1988 were eventful years, as we have heard from the hon Gentleman, and this impacted on the Department’s ability to get these files reviewed as quickly as we wanted. Each file is painstakingly checked before transfer, which is not about withholding secrets and covering up inconvenient facts, as the hon. Gentleman alleged. Let me inform hon. Members about the sort of information that must be checked.

Files emanating from No. 10 will cover the whole range of issues that the Government deal with, from benefits to defence spending, overseas trade, support for community groups and a whole host of other things. They will include things like personal information relating to individuals involved, even home addresses, and everything to do with relationships with other countries and national security. On every appearance of such information a careful consultation process takes place, which may result in documents being redacted or retained.

The transfers that have already taken place mean that nearly 70,000 Cabinet Office files or volumes are held by the National Archives, an amazing repository holding over 1,000 years of iconic national documents, which the public can access free. Its online catalogue is the single point of access to 32 million descriptions of records. In 2014-15, there were approaching a quarter of a billion downloads from its collection.

When files reach the National Archives, a number of processes are involved to make information available to as many people as possible—for example, through digitisation. This means an inevitable time lag between the Cabinet Office transferring files to the National Archives and their appearance in the collection. This is why the Cabinet papers for 1987 and 1988 have not yet appeared in the public catalogue although they have been transferred to the National Archives. Another factor is that files are not always transferred in the year that one might expect as they are not assessed for transfer until the date of the last paper on the file. This explains why papers sometimes appear in the National Archives later than expected.

We are aware of the changing landscape of records management. The National Archives, as trusted experts in information and records management, will help to ensure that in an age when more and more of the Government’s records are born-digital, we open more records to the public as soon as possible. To that end, our intention is now to release files more frequently throughout the year, rather than in a single annual event. This means that, from later this year, we will start to release records from 1989 and 1990 in advance of the traditional release at the end of December. Cabinet Office officials are working closely with the National Archives to strengthen the entire process of how and when Cabinet Office files are released to the public.

Throughout 2016, there will be a number of releases from the Cabinet Office to the National Archives, catching up on the 1987 and 1988 records and then working through the 1989 and 1990 papers. I believe this is consistent with our overall transparency objectives, and that the regular releases will be a more effective way to work, particularly in the context of a doubling of the amount of information in scope.

The hon. Member for Leeds East asked several questions about the Cabinet minutes for 1987 and 1988, and papers from the Prime Minister’s Office for the same period. The Cabinet Office has transferred the Cabinet papers and minutes for the period 1987-88 to the National Archives. Some of the Prime Minister’s papers are already with the National Archives, including those made available at the press event in December. Our aim is for the remainder of those that can be transferred to be with the National Archives as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman asked about freedom of information, and he mentioned Hillsborough in his opening comments. No Government have done more than this one to shine a light on the truth, after 13 years of a Labour Government who failed to do what was necessary to open up the facts of Hillsborough to the public in the Merseyside area who were demanding access to them. He said that the Government were pushing for a review of freedom of information. Actually, I think the first person to push for such a review was Tony Blair, who mentioned in his autobiography that he was keen to change freedom of information.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the series of statements that appeared at the end of the last Session. I have to remind him that it was a Labour special adviser who, when the party was in government, described a particular day as

“a good day to bury bad news”.

I hope he remembers that phrase; it certainly did not come from the Conservative Government. I know that there is a new Mulder and Scully “X-Files” series out, and I do wonder about the conspiracy theories that sometimes run riot around this place, because in this case, there are no conspiracy theories to be had.

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The Minister has mentioned conspiracy theories. One of our main conspiracy theories is about the advisers that have been involved in both Conservative Governments, whom the Minister has not mentioned. He mentioned a consultation process. I wonder whether the right hon. Member for West Dorset is involved in that consultation process, and whether he has any say over the documents that are retained or released.

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I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. The consultation process is one that officials handle. As far as I am aware—I think I am as aware as I can be on these matters—I do not believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) has vetoed any of the files that I think the hon. Lady is referring to in her question. But if there is more information that we can provide her with, obviously I would be very happy to write to her to update her.

I will move on to some comments about freedom of information. Freedom of information remains at the heart of transparency and accountability, and it goes hand in hand with the Public Records Act. The Government fully support freedom of information, but after more than a decade of the process in operation, we think it is time that it was reviewed to make sure that it is working effectively for hard-working taxpayers while allowing free and frank advice to be given to decision makers. That is why we have appointed an independent panel to look at the issue and assess how the practical processes of freedom of information can be improved. The commission will publish a report, as the hon. Gentleman knows, as soon as possible after its oral evidence sessions have been conducted. It would not be appropriate for me to pre-empt its work by getting into discussions today about the relative merits of the different parts of the Act.

I will end by making a few comments on the broader question of transparency. The Government take great pride in the fact that the UK leads the world in transparency and open government. I am not the only one who says so. The World Wide Web Foundation’s open data barometer and Open Knowledge’s global open data index ranked the UK No. 1. Over the past five years we have opened up more than 20,000 Government datasets to the public. We publish an unprecedented amount of data about everything from procurement to the gifts received by Ministers, and we continually strive to go even further.

Releasing open data makes the Government more accountable to citizens, helps to improve the efficiency of public services and drives social and economic growth. We have made expenditure data covering more than £188 billion of Government spending available for public scrutiny, and through our renewed Government data programme and our leading role in the international Open Government Partnership we will continue to be one of the most open and transparent Governments in the world. Those are not insignificant achievements, and we want to go even further. In our next Open Government Partnership national action plan, which is due to be published in the summer, we will develop an offer on transparency—including freedom of information—that strengthens the Government’s commitment to open government overall.

In conclusion, this Government are the most transparent Government ever, and we are a world leader in the quantity of information available from a range of sources. I acknowledge that, in common with other Departments, the performance of the Cabinet Office in transferring papers from 1987 and 1988 has not been perfect, as I said at the outset. I am, however, confident that more of that historical information will be available to the public shortly, including the Cabinet Office papers that have already been transferred to the National Archives and will be available very soon. The aim is to complete the transfer of the 1987-88 papers as soon as possible. In future, we will move to release files more frequently throughout the year rather than in a single annual event. That means that before the end of the year, there will be 1989 and 1990 papers in the National Archives.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.