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Government Documents: Disclosure

Volume 591: debated on Thursday 9 July 1998

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3.31 p.m.

Whether their policy of more open government enables secret departmental information to be disclosed to people with a commercial interest in it.

My Lords, of course not. Disclosing confidential official information that would give someone an improper financial advantage is a serious disciplinary offence, and in some circumstances it may be a criminal offence.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer so far as it goes. Can he inform the House why there have been so many leaks and premature disclosures of government documents in the past 12 months? Does he agree that the time has come for the Government to insist that civil servants and others in their employ should at last honour their contracts of employment?

My Lords, of course the Government insist that those in their employ honour their contracts of employment. Yesterday the Prime Minister said:

"I have instructed the Cabinet Secretary … to revise the rules that we inherited that govern such contacts and to strengthen them in any way that he thinks fit. In particular, there can be no circumstances that ever justify either passing confidential or inside information to a lobbyist, or the granting of any improper preferential access to, or influence on, Government. These rules will be strengthened and they will be published. Anyone found breaching them will be out on his ear".—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/98; col.1065.]

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House when the proposed freedom of information Bill is to be introduced which is the supposed flagship of the Government's policy of openness? Can the Minister say whether it will lead to redundancies among spin doctors on the one hand and lobbyists on the other?

My Lords, the noble Lord well knows that the preparation of a freedom of information Bill is well in hand and will be available for introduction next Session, if it is included in the Queen's Speech.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that they have brought many of these woes on to their own head? Has the attention of the Government been drawn to the excellent first letter in The Times yesterday by the director-general of one of the major trade associations which states that the way in which the Government now formulate and announce policy, in many cases bypassing normal civil service channels, has given rise to this new industry that has brought such wrath upon their heads?

My Lords, I have read that letter, which is as unspecific as the second question of the noble Lord, Lord Renton. If the noble Lord wishes to ask me about any particular example in which information has been given other than to Parliament I shall gladly answer, but it is very difficult to answer generalised allegations.

My Lords, I should declare an interest as a director of a company that has a public affairs division. Will the Government respond to a united call by the industry for a proper register in Parliament of those who act as lobbyists? Does the Minister agree that if the Government set standards perhaps by a return to more formal decision-making in Whitehall, backed by a freedom of information Act and a register, that will do a great deal to restore public confidence?

My Lords, as the noble Lord well knows, some of the allegations that have been made in recent days relate to firms that are members of the professional organisation to which he refers and some that are not. Clearly that raises the question of whether official recognition should be given in the form of a register to a proper professional organisation. I have no doubt that my colleagues will consider that. The noble Lord is also right that the Government's freedom of information proposals which so far are only in the form of a White Paper will contribute to a proper relationship between government and the outside world.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, although the word "lobbying" has become somewhat discredited in recent days, there are perfectly proper uses of lobbying represented by the many national charities with which Members of your Lordships' House are connected?

My Lords, it is proper that public sector organisations, charities and businesses should seek to have their views represented to government. It is essential for government business that those interests should be represented in a proper and responsible way.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the Government should listen rather less to the coterie of lobbyists and advisers who make up the inner circle of those close to the Prime Minister and Ministers and considerably more to your Lordships' House, in particular the wise advice that this House gave to the Government on Tuesday of this week? Furthermore, will the noble Lord make available a list of all contacts between Market Access, the company that employed the hapless Mr. Draper, and Ministers since 1st May last year?

My Lords, the noble Lord is trying his luck if he asks me to deal with the Teaching and Higher Education Bill in response to the original Question. The answer to his second question is, of course not. It would be utterly absurd for the Government to list contacts between Ministers and outside bodies. Once one started to do that one would spend more time recording than making policy.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a freedom of information Act might make matters worse? Is it not better to strengthen the Official Secrets Act?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that the Official Secrets Act is very narrow. Since I signed it many years ago it has been narrowed so that now it covers only intelligence, defence and international relations. There may be some point in extending the scope of the Official Secrets Act. I acknowledge the force of the point that the noble Lord makes. But that is certainly not an alternative to proper freedom of information legislation, which is the intention of the Government.