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Volume 732: debated on Thursday 10 November 2011

Motion to Take Note

Moved By

My Lords, I beg leave to move the Motion standing in my name. I have to point out to your receding Lordships that, had things been different on Tuesday, I would now be moving a Motion for Papers and nobody outside this Chamber would have had any idea what on earth I meant. Now, following acceptance of Proposal 8 of the Leader’s Group on working practices, I am simply drawing your Lordships’ attention to something, and the rest of the world can understand what we are doing. Your Lordships are therefore already taking part in a miniscule footnote to a small sub-paragraph of history: a micromove in the direction of transparency; a tiny part of a much larger tide. Incidentally, the very next day, the House agreed the proposal from the Privileges and Conduct Committee to amend the code so as to remind Members that its underlying purpose is to provide openness and accountability.

Openness and accountability are not the same, and neither on its own produces the other. In an admirable report to the Cabinet Office on privacy and transparency, Kieron O’Hara points out that the,

“transparency philosophy contains two separate and independent agendas”.

He calls them,

“the accountability agenda … and the information agenda”.

The first, the accountability agenda, is gradually providing the means by which formal internal systems of maintaining accountability are supplemented by informal external means. This means that, as well as Permanent Secretaries breathing down the necks of Deputy Secretaries, the public are increasingly looking over the shoulders of both. The language in both cases is strictly figurative.

The wealth of information now available to the public —by the “public”, I mean principally the electorate—makes them increasingly able to judge the performance not only of the government machine but of Ministers who are driving it. So the coalition Government’s early commitment to what I regard as a breathtaking acceleration in the move towards transparency and openness in government was courageous. It was consciously courageous. They said:

“The Government believes that we need to throw open the doors of public bodies, to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account”.

They claimed that, by so doing, they would also secure,

“significant economic benefits by enabling businesses and non-profit organisations to build innovative applications and websites”.

The economic benefits of this appear to be part of the second O’Hara agenda. I shall allow that to distract me from the intricate, fascinating and sometimes opaque subject of central government transparency to which I am sure my noble friend will do ample justice in her reply. Some of us were a bit doubtful whether what emerged from the mill of transparency would lend itself readily to the sort of process, or have the sort of effect, that the Government expected. Sceptics remained doubtful when, at the Centre for Public Scrutiny conference a year ago, my noble friend Lady Hanham said that,

“releasing the data in its rawest state”—

your Lordships should note “rawest state”—

“will enable businesses and non-profit organisations to build innovative applications and websites which will make the data easier to understand”.

Did not the Treasury have to hold seminars for financial journalists on how to understand and interpret COINS before and after the publication of those data? Government, it seemed, was to produce data much as a mill produces flour—it would be for others to turn it into bread and cake.

We waited—really not very long at all—and they did. What is more, they made them easier to use as well as easier to understand. To take a small example: the Department for Transport’s parking database was not citizen-friendly material when it was published, but, today, if you put Transport Direct into your web search engine, you can find the nearest car park wherever you are on this island. That is useful not just if you are a holidaymaker; it saves time and therefore money if you are a retailer trying to find somewhere where customers arriving by car can park and get to your shop and spend money there. The same website has brought in data from other sources, both public and private, with a view to making it a tool to plan every aspect of a journey by road or rail, by public or private transport.

That example is outside the accountability agenda, so let me turn to one that falls within it. I quote the Prime Minister, who wrote in the Telegraph on 7 July that,

“five years ago, it was made far easier for the public to access, understand and use data on survival rates following heart surgery. And guess what happened? Those survival rates rose dramatically”.

In that case, transparency easily outperformed formal internal systems of maintaining accountability. Death rates for some procedures fell by 20 per cent or more. That is a figure to remember. The NHS extended publication of outcomes as a result to more areas of surgery and, today, it estimates that we avoid 1,000 deaths every year by doing so and acting on it. Opening the professionals up to the public also opens them up to each other. In any trade or profession, this identifies best practice and spurs emulation. Spread across the medical disciplines alone, results such as this can bring enormous benefits not only to patients but to the Exchequer and, eventually, to our own pockets and purses. Spread across the whole spectrum, not just of central and local government activity but across amenable private enterprises as well, they may well achieve the savings and the growth, predicted at £90 billion by some, expected of them.

Transparency can be a double-edged weapon. The protection of confidentiality disappears as completely as a net curtain disappears when the light is turned on in the room behind it. However, confidentiality is often both desirable and necessary. The patient who wants to know why his operation went wrong and who would benefit enormously if the outcome of all similar operations could be aggregated and published on a database is the same patient who very much does not want his personal details to appear on a public website. There are difficulties here, not just in deciding where the border between confidentiality and transparency should lie, but in retaining the confidentiality of anything that it is decided should remain behind it. Data on huge numbers of those operations can be aggregated and anonymised, but anonymising processes can be reverse engineered, and techniques for this keep evolving, because there is a market for the sort of personal information that we wish to keep private. All data sets are subject to this potential risk. Getting it wrong could have pretty dreadful results. I would be grateful if my noble friend could tell us what response the Government are giving to the 14 recommendations of the O’Hara report on this subject—perhaps not individually, as it would take too long, but in general.

From Monday’s debate on Amendment 20 to the Health and Social Care Bill, the Minister will be aware of the anxiety in this House over the balance between benefit and risk when it comes to imposing, for instance, a duty of candour on hospitals. There are major transparency issues also in the Localism Bill, which is also before the House. The public should take comfort from the energy and thoroughness with which this House examines these changes before deciding whether or not to accept them, and in what form. Had there been fewer people getting up at Question Time, I would have drawn attention to that when we had the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, a few moments ago.

I spoke of the coalition’s early commitment to a breathtaking acceleration of this move to transparency. That was no exaggeration. In 2010, 2,500 government data sets were made available. This year, the number is already 7,500. That is a 200 per cent increase. I understand that this country now has more government data accessible to the public than any other country in the world except the United States of America, and they keep ahead of us only because they have a vast surface area and they count all the maps as data sets.

The move to transparency is an international phenomenon. A very important aspect, and one in which Great Britain has taken the lead, is the introduction to transparency in the giving of overseas aid—transparency not only at our end of the transaction, but at the recipient’s end as well. To get transparency at the recipient’s end is the present aim and is only just beginning. The International Aid Transparency Initiative —IATI—was launched in 2008 and started by establishing a common format of published accounting for aid programmes. In January this year we became the first country to publish DfID’s aid information entirely in this form. At the next meeting of IATI, in Busan at the end of this month, will Her Majesty’s Government be pressing other Governments to join the eight organisations now publishing in this format?

Next Tuesday, the first international aid transparency index will be published. We should be among the top three of the 58 donor countries included. We now want to establish the same procedures in recipient countries as we have here, a move which has been recommended by Transparency International among others. To that end, will the Government exert themselves to secure from the EU early legislation to make it mandatory for oil, gas and mining companies to publish in common form all payments they make to foreign Governments, disaggregated by project as well as country? Like Tearfund, I believe that there should also be a requirement to publish production volumes, pre-tax profits, employee numbers and labour costs. The people of countries from which immensely valuable commodities such as oil, copper, diamonds and so on are extracted by foreign or international corporations are often exceedingly poor. By these means we can, for the first time, bring to them the benefits that transparency is already beginning to bring us. When that happens, I will gladly seek once again to draw your Lordships’ attention to Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment to transparency.

I have touched only the surface of the subject. I look forward to your Lordships contributions, especially that of the noble Lord, Lord Gold. I beg to move.

My Lords, I would like to remind your Lordships that all Back-Bench contributions are limited to eight minutes and that when the clock shows eight minutes, time is up.

I welcome the contribution that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. I will pursue the topic in a different way, but will take up his opening remarks on accountability. He wanted to look at how Ministers are driving such a policy and will judge them on that. I want to address my remarks to that point on transparency. We can all agree that basic legislation has been passed by all Governments to move in this direction. Indeed, my own Government, in which I was in the Cabinet, introduced the Freedom of Information Act, which was probably the most important piece of the legislation to which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, referred. Alongside that, there are other factors, such as the register of interests and the register of lobbyists—all these things play an important part in transparency and accountability. There is general agreement on that.

The one difference between this Government and my own of course is that we were able to pass legislation; this Government have been in office only 18 months, so we have to give time to see their legislative framework. We know already that the commitment to the register of lobbyists has not yet come about, although there is some talk that they may introduce that. We will wait and see. In all these matters, I am particularly concerned whether those who are driving this policy in this Cabinet are actually doing what they believe. The Prime Minister has said he wants to see a revolution in transparency. Why did he find it so difficult to tell us how much taxpayers’ money he spent on a kitchen and bathroom? I do not deny him that, but it is about transparency over taxpayers’ money. When he has his regular meetings with the Murdoch operation—not a company known for transparency—a meal becomes a private meal and we are not entitled to know what was discussed. That seems to set some of the tone.

Looking at other members of the Cabinet who are leading and driving this policy, the Secretary of State for Education, Mr Gove, had to admit that he was using private e-mails to avoid having to report under freedom of information rules. He was a Cabinet Minister, avoiding saying what he was doing. The Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Fox, has now gone but he certainly was not showing a great deal of transparency in his actions in pursuing a separate foreign policy. The latest example is the big argument between the Home Secretary and a senior civil servant—three inquiries are under way but there is a great big argument about transparency. That indicates there is not a great deal of commitment to be open in the information being made available about the action of those Cabinet Ministers.

The one I want to address my attention to is Mr Pickles —the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He almost makes himself the champion of disclosure of information, but, as we know, quite recently he had a meal in the Savoy Hotel with Bell Pottinger and some other people involved with planning. He said, “Oh, I don’t have to declare that”—and he did not. He did not declare it in the register of interests, he fended off the Ministerial Code and he also declared in those cases that it was a private affair, as did the Prime Minister, Mr Cameron. We have found a new argument for non-disclosure—provided it is private, you do not have to disclose it. More important is what is discussed and said—that is what transparency is about. It undermines the credibility of those who say they believe in greater transparency. Bearing in mind that he makes this point about spending on a private meal, Mr Pickles has also gone out of his way to make clear that I was apparently spending money—something that the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, also made a great deal of comment about—on a meal that I had in a casino in Australia. The Government at that time, in 2004, were looking at casinos as part of regeneration, and we insisted that we paid the bill. We used the government credit card. By the way, despite what the press implied, I have no credit card from the Government. I understood that Ministers did not have credit cards. It is the accountability officer who is in charge of those matters.

Nevertheless, a great deal of play was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, by Mr Shapps, the Housing Minister, and by Mr Pickles—all three of them party officials, either head of their party, vice-chairman or previous chairman. It seems to me that they are politically motivated people. Years ago I was accused of that and fought a Labour Government who claimed that I was politically motivated. I put my hand up; I was proud to be that. These three people should ask themselves whether they were not acting in a political way in making their statements about that matter. That is my concern, and I want to justify it by making this point.

All the headlines of the Tory press, working with the Tory Ministers, made the point that Prescott was gambling. I have never gambled in my life, except in politics; I have done a lot of that but I have not put money on things. The implication was that I was spending taxpayers’ money. That was a lie, untrue, although the words were carefully used. I could have taken action, but it was my department. It was as if I was handling my department’s expenditure card. My question is: what is the Government’s position on these expenditures? Currently it is not necessary to reveal information for sums below £500, only above £500. With the help of the Library, I have found that in recent announcements by the Cabinet Office and the Departments of Energy, of Health and of Justice, when asked whether they had a record of expenditures below £500, they all said, “No, because it is too expensive to find that kind of information”. Furthermore, they said that they cannot go as far back as 2007-08. Yet this department goes back to 2004 and 2006. If you consider every bit of expenditure, of course it is not too expensive.

I do not know whether the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, looked at that information, but it actually said that I spent that money in a restaurant. I admit that the department did spend money in the casino. However, if she is concerned about waste, as she often claims, why did she not investigate the figures to see that £2,000 was spent on that credit card for watches? Why the hell would anyone want to spend that sum buying four watches on a government credit card? Why did that not arise and cause concern? Apparently it did not. In those circumstances, why was it not investigated? The Government gave their own answer in July, saying that the evidence was that the cards were cloned. Why were they so eager to bring attention to me when they knew that the cards had been cloned? To me, that seems a pretty political operation. Given the evidence of cloning, why did they not carry out an investigation? Why did they not look into those circumstances? That is what concerns me. Other departments have said that they cannot go below £500, yet this department could go right back to 2004, with all the expense necessary to do it, and, when asked why it did not fully investigate, it said that it was too expensive. Then why did it go back to 2004? I will be answerable for whatever I have done, but it is the political motivation that worries me about these things.

It is quite right to look at expenditure and it is proper for Ministers and Members of Parliament to be accountable. However, if it is politically oriented, and if other departments are not following the same criteria as that department, and if they do not investigate the obvious problems, which they admitted probably came from cloned cards, please forgive me if I think it is political.

I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, will tell us whether she did investigate properly. I have asked the Cabinet Minister to do a proper investigation. Only if there is honesty can we have proper transparency. At the moment, it looks to be more politically motivated, and that is what concerns me. It has all the smell of hypocrisy. So let us be a bit more honest about it.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for securing this extremely important debate and I look forward with great interest to hearing my noble friend Lord Gold’s maiden speech.

Transparency and accountability are vital when companies are in receipt of public funding. The creative industries receive public funds in the form of grants: theatres, museums and art galleries receive funds from the Arts Council, and investment in films comes from the BFI. The commercial broadcasters obtain their revenue on the basis of lucrative licences awarded by Ofcom. Therefore, it is reasonable that the public should be entitled to expect these organisations to be accountable and transparent in all areas, including their equality and diversity policies, and to expect the funders and regulators to enforce this transparency on their behalf.

Unfortunately, they have fallen short on this. The Arts Council requires equality monitoring of the funding recipients but keeps the results secret, as does Ofcom of the companies which have been granted licences. Both merely publish sector-wide summaries. Before the BFI took over, the UK Film Council required equality monitoring of applicants for funding but did not require or collect data for productions when they went ahead. All that means that the public cannot find out what progress has been made in our creative industries regarding diversity and equality.

All major political parties recognise that the influence of broadcasting on society is so great that it should have higher standards with regard to equality and transparency, and be held to greater account. There is separate legislation covering the BBC and all parties in government have ensured that the BBC continues to have a strong equality and diversity remit. Previous Governments also ensured that the same practice applied to commercial broadcasting. The Broadcasting Act 1990, which established the Independent Television Commission to regulate commercial terrestrial television, includes Clause 38 which states:

“Any Channel 3 licence or licence to provide Channel 4 or Channel 5 shall include conditions requiring the licence holder … to make arrangements for promoting, in relation to employment … equality of opportunity between men and women and … persons of different racial groups”.

This clause was expanded to include disability in the subsequent Broadcasting Act 1996.

The ITC included in every licence a contractual obligation to carry out equality monitoring of staff and management, and this data was published annually. The public was able to see how well the licence holders were reflecting the diversity of the audiences they served and allowed those broadcasters who were making good progress to be congratulated.

The Communications Act 2003 extended this clause across cable, satellite and radio, and provided transparency and accountability on equality and diversity across commercial broadcasting. But in 2005, Ofcom, the successor to the ITC, decided that it would no longer enforce this clause. It chose instead to encourage “a climate of compliance” and concluded that allowing the public to see the licence holders’ equality monitoring data might discourage broadcasters from sending it in. This move clearly set back diversity and equality in commercial broadcasting. The 2009 report on equal opportunities published by Ofcom showed that the employment of women and people from culturally diverse backgrounds fell and that 16 companies had no information on whether any of their workforces had a disability.

There have been suggestions that the Equality Act 2010 on its own is sufficient to cover the broadcasters and that Ofcom should have no role with regard to promoting equality among the licence holders it regulates. But the Equality Act places no greater responsibilities on broadcasters than any other industry in the private sector and will not ensure the level of transparency that is absolutely essential in our extremely influential broadcasting sector.

The coalition Government have made clear that equality in employment is a priority. They have said:

“We need concerted government action to tear down these barriers and … build a fairer society”.

It also set out several clear commitments to transparency, such as:

“We will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis”.

The Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt, has made statements in favour of transparency and accountability for what is spent on behalf of taxpayers.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, said:

“For too long those in power made decisions behind closed doors, released information behind a veil of jargon and denied people the power to hold them to account. This coalition is driving a wrecking ball through that culture—and it’s called transparency”.

The Government’s commitment to equality and transparency should mean that all public bodies, including regulatory bodies, should be doing all that they can to promote equality and diversity, rather than taking the view that it is not their responsibility.

I believe a simple amendment to Section 27 of the Communications Act, to clarify what steps the regulator should take to promote equality of opportunity in employment by those providing broadcasting services, would demonstrate how well the mainstream media is succeeding in reflecting diversity and equality. For several years, the broadcasters have sent this data in for each qualifying licence, so this is not an additional proposal. This approach costs virtually nothing and will permit the greater accountability and transparency that has been lacking for the last six years. I urge the Government to take note of this suggestion. It will send a positive signal to young people from diverse cultures, who often feel excluded, that the coalition Government understand the additional pressures that they face, and are determined to insure that their voices are heard in the public sphere.

I ask my noble friend the Minister whether the Government will ensure that organisations which receive public funding, or are in receipt of licences, are made to publish data fully demonstrating their commitment to transparency and accountability in the areas of equality and diversity.

My Lords, I add my welcome for this morning’s debate, which is on a theme of daily importance to the relationship between the state and the citizen. I, too, keenly look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Gold. I shall concentrate on a specific, though crucial, element of the question before us: access to public records—the paper exhaust trail left by successive Governments. I shall focus in particular on those contents of the state’s archives deemed too sensitive to be released until at least 30 years have elapsed since pens were put to paper, minutes taken, memoranda composed and the typewriters, in those days past, rattled into action.

I must first declare an interest, as president of the Friends of the National Archives and professor of contemporary British history at Queen Mary, University of London.

A key aspect of the coalition’s transparency agenda that deserves an unqualified welcome and the hosannas of a grateful historical profession is the announcement, on 7 January 2011 by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that from January 2013 a 20-year rule for record release will replace the old 30-year rule created by the Public Records Act 1967 and brought into force in January 1972. The plan is that each year, starting January 2013, two years’ worth of archive will be opened at Kew until the 10-year gap between the old and the new rules has been closed. I am confident that this fresh documentary flow will fructify quickly in the form first of undergraduate, masters’ and PhD theses, and then in a fascinating new wave of well sourced books of contemporary British history which will swell through the bookshops.

Why am I so confident? Because this is exactly what has happened over the 19 years since the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, then Minister for Open Government in the Cabinet Office, announced what contemporary British historians came to call the Waldegrave initiative. The noble Lord instructed departmental record offices across Whitehall to re-review those files of interest to scholars which had been held back longer than the 30-year norm to see if they could now be released. The staff of the Whitehall records community and the National Archives rose magnificently to the task. When counting the yield finished in 1998, 96,000 files had been re-reviewed and declassified. I am sure that the total now must be double that.

The Waldegrave product amounted to a new currency with which historians could trade. Much of it embraced once ultra-sensitive Cold War material dealing with nuclear weapons policies, programmes and release procedures, civil and home defence, intelligence and security and transition-to-war planning. To open the World War III war books that had been declassified was to peer into Armageddon.

A stream of richly documented theses and well sourced books has resulted from the Waldegrave initiative. Of course, the documents by themselves are not enough—they never are. Whatever the policy area that gave them birth, their contents must always be blended with the personalities and backgrounds of those who wrote and read them, and the context of the times in which those readers and writers lived and breathed. The files must be revisited, too, with a sympathetic awareness of the hopes that lit the minds of their creators and the fears that darkened them. The historian must always avoid what Edward Thompson once called the “enormous condescension of posterity”. One goes back to the archives to understand the minds behind those memoranda, not to sneer at them.

The old files are an indispensible part of national transparency—our theme this morning. They are a very special phenomenon, a kind of frozen history. The scholar needs to apply a touch of the cryogenicist’s craft to them: you warm up the cold papers a little bit until their limbs begin to twitch; the files then start to breathe a bit—then you can begin to talk to them, ask them questions, bring them to life for yourself and your readers.

The time may well have come, as Whitehall cranks itself up to implement the new 20-year rule, to set in train what might be called “Waldegrave II”—to set in motion another trawl for files, which it was felt in the 1990s were too hot to be released, to see if they can now be transferred to the National Archives for public inspection. If the Government in these times of fiscal constraint were to mount such an initiative, building on the great success story associated with the name of the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, it would not only receive another loud hosanna of gratitude from the historical community but add lustre to the coalition’s transparency policy.

Still more might that policy be burnished if the Government accepted the Pilling report on official histories, which urged that new histories should be commissioned when funds allow, and the associated Hamilton report on the better marketing of official histories, once that is produced.

Catch-up history is a retrospective form of delayed freedom of information. A confident democracy such as ours should uncover its state paper trail as fully and swiftly as it can, warts and all. Such good practice is an antidote to conspiracy theory and the hijacking of our recent past for the purposes of crude political partisanship. The pursuit of such a policy of transparency is one of those rare activities that result in unalloyed benefit to scholars, the reading public and the quality and integrity of the state that enables it to happen.

My Lords, I begin by thanking your Lordships for the warm and generous welcome that I have received since entering the House in February. I would particularly like to thank all the officers and staff here who have assisted me greatly, not least by helping me to find my way around. As I regularly get lost, I fear that their help will be required for some time yet. I also wish to thank my supporters, the noble Lord, Lord Brittan of Spennithorne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone, for their guidance on the day of my admission.

Following my admission, I decided that before making my maiden speech I would fully familiarise myself with the work of the House and perhaps pick up some debating tips from noble and experienced Members. That was my first mistake. That is not to say I did not receive tips—I received many. But as I sat listening to debates, I realised what a task lay ahead of me. The quality of debate, the thoroughness of preparation, the skill of delivery, the humour from many noble Members—the passion, as we have seen from the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, this morning—all made me reflect upon my own skills, or lack of them, in this area. My second mistake was not to realise that the longer I delayed, the greater would be my trepidation at the thought of speaking here for the very first time.

My first appearance in this Chamber was not in February this year. In fact, twice before, I appeared as solicitor to counsel who, wearing a long-tailed wig, silk stockings and buckled shoes, addressed the Law Lords from the Bar of the House, trying not to be distracted by Members of your Lordships' House who just wandered in from time to time to see what was going on. It never crossed my mind then that one day I would have the great privilege and honour to be permitted to cross the Bar and take my seat here.

I was not the first member of my old law firm, Herbert Smith, to be made a Peer. In fact there are now three former partners and one former articled clerk in the House. My noble friend Lord Hart of Chilton sits on the Benches opposite. My noble and learned friend Lord Collins of Mapesbury, will take his seat on the Cross Benches when he returns from the Supreme Court, and my noble friend Lady Shackleton of Belgravia—she is the former articled clerk and she has done quite well since leaving Herbert Smith—sits with me on this side of the House.

The firm has not yet managed to recruit anyone to the Liberal Democrat Benches or, indeed, to the Bishops' ranks, although for some reason there was a steady flow of solicitors who, perhaps having seen the error of their ways, left the law to become clergymen, so perhaps there is still a chance.

On 31 August last year, as part of its plea bargain with the US Department of Justice, I was appointed for three years as corporate monitor of BAE Systems plc to ensure that the company was operating in a compliant and lawful way. In taking up this role I followed in the footsteps of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who had been appointed to undertake an inquiry into the way in which the company conducted its business. The noble and learned Lord made 23 recommendations for improvement and change and I have been monitoring the company's progress in advancing these recommendations. I am pleased to say that, with just a few minor exceptions, where work continues all recommendations are now in place.

I mention this work not just to inform but more particularly because it has brought very much into focus the importance of transparency when conducting business, particularly international business, both as to the manner in which that business is conducted and in relation to a company's dealings with its customers. Competition is fierce and, regrettably, sometimes our British businessmen find themselves competing against others, operating to a different code of conduct, who seek to gain market advantage by unfair means and are sometimes assisted in that through a lack of transparency in the way in which other countries operate.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, has stated that this Government are committed to extending transparency to every part of public life. If I may respectfully say so, that is a commendable, if somewhat ambitious, objective. In his letter dated 7 July this year, the Prime Minister wrote:

“We recognise that transparency and open data can be a powerful tool to help reform public services, foster innovation and empower citizens. We also understand that transparency can be a significant driver of economic activity … with open data increasingly enabling the creation of valuable new services and applications”.

I fully agree with that view. Greater transparency results in Governments being more accountable. If we know how money is spent, we are better able to improve controls on spending and reduce costs. More particularly, companies will have a better opportunity to compete if they have access to public sector contract and procurement data that enable them to make informed decisions.

While there remains a considerable way to go before this society is truly transparent, this aspiration is one by which we here in the United Kingdom can provide a lead to the way in which other countries should operate.

With the passing of the Bribery Act 2010 this country is already leading the way in setting a benchmark for honest trading and dealing and, pleasingly, some countries appear to be emulating our example. I know from my work with BAE Systems that there are many international customers who have truly welcomed this approach to open and honest business. Many countries are raising their standards and demonstrating that they will award contracts to the business that truly deserves to win on merit, not as a reward for bribes or other improper behaviour.

I regret to say that there are some who feel that the Bribery Act goes too far and that for British industry to compete internationally it must be permitted to bend the rules a little, as allegedly happens elsewhere. Nevertheless, I hope and believe that this negative view will be proved wrong. If international companies stand firm against corruption, there will be progress even in those countries where corruption is thought to be rife.

So, just as the Prime Minister sets out what he and the Government want to achieve here, I respectfully suggest that we should be seeking to encourage our international friends to follow our lead and embrace transparency in the way in which they conduct public life. In this country we have many innovative and ambitious businesses ready to compete internationally and able to take advantage of such a change of attitude. Working together, major companies and this Government can achieve a great deal in this area. We should aim to create a new international code of conduct for trade that encourages transparency and outlaws corruption. The assistance that this will provide to British industry and businesses seeking to undertake international trade will be substantial.

My Lords, it is a pleasure and a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Gold, in his maiden speech. He comes to this House with a most distinguished career in the law and his speech today demonstrated to all noble Lords what an asset he will be to our debates. I understand that when he stepped down as senior partner at Herbert Smith, the law firm that he mentioned, a note was circulated to staff saying that,

“he has brought his own special type of magic to everything he has done since he walked through the doors of Herbert Smith”.

I am sure that all noble Lords who have heard his speech today will be looking forward to seeing more of that magic in this House.

I join previous speakers in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on securing this debate on such an important issue. Transparency is crucial in the securing the accountability that is fundamental for the health of a democracy. I also congratulate the noble Lord on what to my ears sounded like a most cogent case for transparency. I declare my interest as a member of the advisory council of Transparency International UK.

I start my substantive remarks by congratulating the Government and the responsible Minister, Mr Francis Maude, on their commitment to transparency through the open data programme. That was started by the previous Government, and was a particular project of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. I am sorry that in an otherwise compelling speech the noble Lord, Lord Elton, did not acknowledge that fact. On this point, I was also sorry that such a distinguished historian as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, in congratulating the Government on bringing in the 20-year rule, somehow omitted to mention that that rule was legislated for by the previous Government. Airbrushing history in this way is the opposite of transparency.

My Lords, I take the noble Lord’s stricture on the chin. He is absolutely right, it was an omission, but it was inadvertence rather than malice.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for setting the historical record straight.

I congratulate the Government on the way in which they have taken on the open data programme with real determination and vigour. I was going to rehearse some of the merits of it but the noble Lord, Lord Elton, did it far better than I could. This promises significant immediate constitutional benefits in transferring power to citizens and less immediate but potential longer-term benefits in improving value for money in delivering public services through greater engagement of users. It will also encourage innovative developments by not-for-profit organisations and businesses. Again, the noble Lord set out just how quickly people can take advantage of all the opportunities opened up by this programme. Confidence in the ability of the programme to deliver results must be increased by the setting up of the Public Sector Transparency Board and its distinguished and experienced membership, some of whom I had the privilege of working with when I was a Minister with an interest in this area in the previous Government.

While the Government should be given credit for their achievements in this area, elsewhere their commitment to transparency is not quite so clear. We have already heard from my noble friend Lord Prescott on one aspect of this, but I want to focus on the Freedom of Information Act. When I raised this issue in your Lordships’ House, the responsible Minister, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, responded to my criticism by accusing me of rewriting history because:

“There has been an absolute tsunami of transparency. My right honourable friend Francis Maude has been frightening the life out of Whitehall and his ministerial colleagues by the way he has been forcing through transparency”.—[Official Report, 10/10/11; col. 1455.]

That is perhaps not the most fortunate choice of image for those of us who believe in the benefits of transparency but, more importantly, his response wrongly conflates the work on open data and on freedom of information. They are not the same. There is one critical distinction between them: the open data initiative, for all its considerable merits, is a top-down programme. The Government decide what data sets to release. In contrast, the Freedom of Information Act allows the citizen to decide what information they want to have, and then there is an established process that decides what should be released and what withheld.

Those are twin approaches to securing greater transparency and they ought to be complementary. However, there is an asymmetry in the Government's approach, with enthusiastic progress being made on open data while freedom of information has more or less stood still so far—in fact, in some key areas it is actually going backwards. We are a year and a half into the lifetime of this Government and so far they have done virtually nothing to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act beyond the actions already set in train by the previous Government.

I have been criticising the Government about this for many months so, after all these criticisms, I was delighted to see just this week that an exchange in the other place suggested that the Government are at last consulting on extending the Freedom of Information Act to other organisations. I hope that those consultations will be followed by action in the near future, and another 18 months or so will not be allowed to pass before anything happens.

On its own this lack of progress to date would be disappointing, but what is worse is that two landmark Bills brought forward by this Government, both referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, actively restrict the scope of the right of the citizen to secure information under the Freedom of Information Act. The Localism Bill envisages that a growing proportion of local authorities' functions will be carried out for them by other bodies under contract. As it stands, that will significantly weaken the right of the citizen to make freedom of information requests about those functions. I tried to help the Government to remedy what I hoped was an unintended consequence of their legislation by submitting amendments both in Committee and on Report, but all were rejected out of hand. As a result, far from increasing transparency as the coalition agreement promised, the Localism Bill decreases it.

That is not all. Under the Health and Social Care Bill, NHS work will be performed in future either by NHS bodies or by independent providers. Although the independent providers will not be directly subject to the Freedom of Information Act, they will be subject to a contractual obligation to co-operate with the commissioning bodies in answering freedom of information requests. So far, so good. However, the disclosure clause applies to information held on the commissioning body’s behalf,

“for the purposes of this Agreement”,

and the standard NHS contract goes nowhere near covering the full range of information currently available under the Freedom of Information Act from public authorities. It appears, for example, that any request for the provider’s correspondence with suppliers whose products have proved to be substandard are likely to be met with the response that this is held for the provider’s purposes, not the commissioning body’s, and therefore is not subject to disclosure.

It gets still worse. The shredding offence in Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act applies when an authority or a member of the authority’s staff deliberately destroys, amends or conceals a record after it has been requested in order to prevent its disclosure, but if a contractor shreds a record in order to avoid having to pass it on to the commissioning body to answer an FOI request, the contractor commits no offence. Again, if a public authority claims that it does not hold requested information, the Information Commissioner can investigate whether this claim is true; but if a contractor claims that it does not hold particular information, there is no mechanism for validating that claim. The contractor would not be subject to the commissioner’s jurisdiction. In fairness to the Government, they have not ruled out addressing these issues; they have simply pushed them into the long grass, beyond post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act, and there is no guarantee at all that even then they will take action.

In the mean time, which may stretch on for years, citizens will be denied access to information that they currently have about areas of potentially great concern to them, covering all the range of local authority services and what could turn out to be matters of life and death in the NHS.

In conclusion, the report card on this Government’s commitment to transparency and information is mixed. Where they remain in control of the data released to the people they serve, the commitment should be applauded. However, where the citizen is more in control, then this Government have been pedalling backwards in crucial areas. Sadly and regrettably, this tarnishes their record.

My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Elton for moving this Motion. As he has said, the Government are committed to open government and transparency. The Prime Minister has set out a series of transparency commitments to be delivered within our key public services, including health, education, criminal justice, transport and government financial information. The open data consultation closed on 27 October and I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us something of the responses received and of the White Paper which will follow.

My noble friend Lord Elton referred to the report on privacy and transparency produced for the Cabinet Office by Kieron O'Hara. He stated that privacy is extremely important to transparency, but that they are compatible only as long as the former is carefully protected and considered at every stage. He came up with 14 recommendations, but there are still questions that I pose to the Minister. When does public interest outweigh privacy? Who makes these decisions? What happens when data held are out of date or incorrect? How will this be rectified?

Here in the House of Lords we have, through Written Questions, Oral Questions, debates and our Select Committees, opportunities to hold the Government to account. If we feel that the explanations given are inadequate, we can rephrase the question. Sometimes, however, the answer will be that the information requested is not held centrally or could only be answered at a disproportionate cost. Again, who decides? I hope that this Government's programme for transparency will ensure that this type of response will not be overused.

Personally, I have grave reservations about the way we use computer systems to achieve our goals and particularly the way in which we cede supremacy to them. I give an example: Defra's single farm payment system has been a nightmare since inception. For many farmers and parliamentarians, transparency in dealing with the Rural Payments Agency has been totally absent. Farmers have been heavily penalised for simple, explicable errors in their returns, while the computer systems have proved incompatible, partial or downright wrong. More than once, I and others have had to refer fairly simple solutions to these problems right to the top. Similar problems exist in other departments, and news items over the past 10 days or so have referred to both HMRC and the MoD, for example.

I ask the Minister what operating guidelines are given to government departments and to other arm’s-length bodies to make their work more transparent. Does she feel the present guidelines are adequate and if not, when will the situation be rectified? Clearly there will be other sections of Government where restrictions must remain. I think of our security services and the work of the police force, which could be compromised if unsuitable material came into the public domain. However, this does not mean that nothing needs to be improved. There are aspects which could be made better. The way in which CRB checks are applied needs to be carefully reviewed to ensure that those cleared for working with young children and older members of our community are not thereby freed from all normal scrutiny.

Although nobody else has mentioned it, I cannot be alone in wondering whether we have moved too far in the use of tick-box forms to replace observations and questioning of behaviour. It is very hard to obtain a sensible response when computer data indicate that all is well. Even when examination of those data confirms that there is a problem, it seems to be more normal to tweak the system than retrain or replace the person responsible. Will the Minister confirm that transparency will not remove the normal sanctions for inefficiency?

It is crucial that greater transparency works everywhere as it has already done successfully in some areas. My noble friend Lord Elton referred to the help and development that has come from sharing information in the medical system. Perhaps I, more than most, have reason to be grateful for all those who helped me. It is just a year ago since I had a triple heart bypass. Six years ago, British heart surgeons decided to publish data on how successfully they treated patients. They compared their results and methods to increase the quality and effectiveness of their work. Survival rates have improved by as much as 50 per cent. Sharing of expertise has brought huge benefits.

If greater transparency improves outcomes and helps people to find the right doctor, the right school for their children or benefits them in their daily life, it surely must be welcomed. Open data should bring greater choice. They must hold public service to account and, as we heard earlier, could help to stimulate innovation and enterprise through the sharing of knowledge. However, they could also be irrelevant, out of date, inaccurate, intrusive and an opportunity missed. I hope that this will prove not to be the case.

Might I also make a plea for those who live in rural areas? For all of us who live in urban areas, access to computers and information is readily available, but I remind the House again that there are huge swathes of this country where that access is just impossible at this stage. I hope the Minister will pass this plea on to other colleagues within those departments.

My Lords, I, too, would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for opening this debate. I echo his comments about the modest contribution that your Lordships’ House can make to this. I also refer him to the decision in the last Parliament in the other place to establish Public Bill Committee procedures for legislation. The open evidence sessions that take place before a Bill is considered in Committee and gone through amendment by amendment is a welcome introduction.

I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Gold, to your Lordships’ House. He made an excellent maiden speech and his point about transparency in international business affairs was important. It echoed the point of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, about transparency in international aid. By definition, more transparency in international affairs will lead to better governance and perhaps more democratic processes. There are some signs of that. Perhaps in what has come to be known as the Middle East spring, there is an indication that greater transparency can have a beneficial effect.

The previous Government, of which I was a member, committed themselves to transparency and like my noble friend Lord Prescott I am proud of the freedom of information legislation. As far as transparency and good governance are concerned, the House of Commons Committee report of 2008-09 on good governance made the point that transparency is a vital prerequisite for any stem of ethical regulation and is the best way of ensuring that office holders have the broader public interest in mind when they spend public money or perform other public duties.

I welcome this Government’s commitment to transparency. However, it is one thing to say that you are committed to transparency; the question is, do you actually do transparency? I have to say that this is open to question. For example, in the case of the Public Bodies Act, which has closed down many public bodies and brought functions back into central departments, transparency is being lost. We are moving from public bodies with open board meetings, where a lot of information comes into the public domain, back into government departments. Transparency will be lost. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ludicrous proposal to abolish the Youth Justice Board. The idea that the protection of young people in our prisons is best done by officials, rather than by a board that brought focus, accountability and transparency, is to be very much regretted.

I was very interested in the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, relating to diversity and equality in the Arts Council and Ofcom. She asked the Government whether they would agree to an amendment to the Communications Act. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, will be able to be positive on that point. I also hope that she will accept the invitation from the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, to establish a new project—the second Waldegrave project or the first Warsi project. It seems well worth having a further trawl through the papers that were not released under the 30-year rule. I am glad that the noble Lord acknowledged the previous Government’s efforts in relation to the 20-year rule. I reckon that means that the ministerial office of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, was covered by the 30-year rule but this means a speed-up. I am sure he will be delighted that all his actions will come into the public domain very soon.

My noble friend Lord Wills made a very important point on the Freedom of Information Act. The Government have been slow to make further progress with FoI legislation. We are now told that there is a consultation. I should like the noble Baroness to say when she expects improvements and reforms to be made. I hope we will not go into a two or three-year consultation period before any change is made. I hope the Minister will answer my noble friend on the issue to do with the Localism Act and awarding contracts to other bodies. If we are moving to a situation in which, essentially, local authorities become enabling authorities but cease to run many services themselves, it is essential that the bodies to which they contract are fully covered by FoI legislation.

It is the same in relation to the Health and Social Care Bill. I will come to the decision announced today about Hinchingbrooke. It is clear that we are moving into a situation where many more private sector providers will be providing services to the NHS in the future. It is also clear, as my noble friend said, that the current Bill does not allow much information about that to come into the public domain. I am sure that my noble friend will table an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill; I certainly hope so. It is not good enough to say that we will simply wait to see how the legislation pans out. By the way, I can tell the Government that I know how the legislation will pan out: it will not pan out very well for the NHS or its patients.

On the NHS, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, about the outcome information that came from the initiative taken by heart surgeons, led by Sir Bruce Keogh, who is now medical director at the Department of Health. There is no doubt that it had a hugely positive impact in improving the outcome of coronary care services. What concerns me about that is how few other specialists in the health service have followed that example. We need to ask some of the other specialties why they have not followed the example of their cardiac colleagues.

I welcome the Government’s intention to institute a duty of candour on the NHS. I am the chair of an NHS foundation trust that has just opened its board meetings to the public. It is invigorating and means that real issues about staffing and quality are out there. I welcome that; it leads to a much improved relationship with our public and, incidentally, our staff. However, I come back to the issue raised today by my noble friend Lady Thornton. Why did the noble Earl, Lord Howe, not answer her Question about contact between ministerial circles and the company involved in the Hinchingbrooke contract? It was a straight question. If this Government were really transparent we would get an answer.

My noble friend Lord Prescott mentioned the personal e-mail addresses used by Mr Gove, the Education Secretary, and his staff, bypassing FoI rules. What about Dr Fox and the grey area over ministerial meetings with lobbyists? What about the delay in setting up a register of lobbyists? Clearly, my noble friend Lord Prescott has identified this problem of a redefinition of private activities by Ministers to get around the rules. I hope the noble Baroness will be able to respond to the points that my noble friend put to her.

In thanking the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for securing this debate, I do not know whether he is happy with how it has turned out. It has certainly been very interesting. We welcome the Government’s commitment to transparency. However, I fear that their message to other parts of the public sector is, essentially, “You be transparent but we as Ministers will exclude quite a lot of our activities from the public domain”. I hope the noble Baroness will be able to respond to that.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Elton for tabling this debate, which has proved to be wide-ranging. I also thank the other noble Lords who have made contributions today, raising important points, challenges and even kind plaudits. This is a timely debate because we are at an important milestone in our journey towards transparency and open data. I will briefly remind noble Lords of the background to this agenda and then give a quick round-up of progress to date. I will then deal with some of the specific points raised in the debate and cast a forward look towards the Government’s ambitions for transparency, which will be set out in a White Paper to be published in the spring.

In opposition we developed plans for a more open way of doing government. We envisaged a time when people knew that they could easily and quickly find out: which parts of government and which initiatives cost what, whether on a regional or national basis; who in government, whether a civil servant or a special adviser, did what and what they were being paid; which government contracts were coming up, and so on. We had a vision that people could choose public service provision using the same customer feedback techniques that so many of us are now used to when, for example, researching hotel options or flights on TripAdvisor, or shopping on Amazon.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, gave the example of the Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery, which reported that mortality in coronary surgery had fallen by a fifth over five years. The professional body attributed this result to the public reporting of outcomes. We are not just talking about cost accountability; we are talking about data that save lives through the spread and adoption of best practice. As I said, it is a journey. Open data are the means and open government is the end.

Since the election we have ensured that we progress on this journey at great speed. In May of last year, just two weeks into the coalition Government, the Prime Minister sent a letter to all Secretaries of State, setting out the Government’s specific commitments on transparency. Much of the data that we released initially were about Whitehall, Westminster, people and money. However, important though this is, the example of cardio surgery shows vividly that there is more to open data and transparency than accountability. Following the success of the previous year’s data releases, on 7 July 2011 the Prime Minister publicly set out a second series of further open data commitments, targeting key public services, including health, education, criminal justice, transport and more detailed government financial information.

Today we have an astonishing amount of data on, with over 7,500 data sets, more than any other comparable transparency service in the world. Much of this is big, complex and not necessarily accessible to the public. In many cases it is used by the professionals, whether that is the surgeons I described earlier or local authority commissioners, NHS managers, school authorities or welfare services.

We are also seeing data being repackaged and released for citizens to use. For example, FixMyStreet helps users to find the right telephone number or form to report local problems, ranging from dog fouling to broken street lights to pot holes. Since its launch, FixMyStreet has received more than 90,000 citizen reports. The website allows users to use offences reported in their locality by entering a street name or a postcode. It includes a range of offences such as theft, shoplifting and criminal damage and has received more than 430 million hits since its launch. By May of next year this website will show what has happened after a crime has been reported to the police and you will be able to track that crime’s progress through the courts.

We can also use public data to build economic value, stimulating innovation and enterprise in the UK’s knowledge economy. A growing market place has already sprung up in the health sector as a result of open data and transparency. Companies such as Dr Foster and CHKS are at the front of this growing industry with an estimated total value of around £50 million per annum. Estimates of the total potential growth contribution of open data-based markets vary from about £16 billion per annum to about £90 billion per annum.

The Chancellor’s and Business Secretary’s growth review on 29 November will contain a series of commitments to liberate new data to support enterprise and growth in sectors as diverse as life sciences and digital technologies. In addition, a public data corporation will bring together data from government bodies such as HM Land Registry, the Met Office and Ordnance Survey into one organisation, providing easily accessible public information as well as driving further efficiency in the delivery of public services.

I will now respond to some of the specific issues raised by noble Lords in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, raised the issue of the recommendations of the O’Hara report and the outcome of the open data and public data corporation consultations. These issues are being seriously considered and are broadly welcomed by the Government. We are positive about the specific recommendations and we will respond in a White Paper, which is due to be published in spring.

In relation to international aid, the Government believe that greater aid transparency is essential to efforts to improve results from development to co- operation worldwide. The Secretary of State will be seeking agreement by donors to implement the aid information standard developed under the UK-led International Aid Transparency Initiative.

A question was raised in relation to EU-level action to improve transparency in the extractive sector to match the standards being set in the UK. The Government are supportive of that.

My noble friend Lady Benjamin raised an extremely valid point. It is amazing to see how shining a light on the decisions that people make can have a positive impact on behaviour, including behaviour around the employment and engagement of people from diverse backgrounds. I will write to her in relation to the specific amendment that she proposes.

The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, raised yet more benefits of a drive towards transparency and data release. I will ensure that his comments are seriously considered.

I welcome the comments of my noble friend Lord Gold and congratulate him on a both humorous and thought-provoking maiden speech. His work for the Conservative Party is hugely appreciated; he brings much wisdom, calmness and sound judgment to his role as chairman of the Conservative Party disciplinary committee.

I am sure that my noble friend listened carefully to the substance and style of this morning’s contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Prescott. I am disappointed that the noble Lord feels that disclosure has been somewhat political; the public have a right to know and the Government are committed to openness. He raised a specific question about the level of £500, which was established as a minimum requirement for departments to release information. DCLG, in line with its past releases, chose to release information on transactions lower than £500. The point that the noble Lord made about the casino dinner was released in response to a Parliamentary Question to DCLG, which was answered factually. Sir Gus O’Donnell has received a letter from the noble Lord, and DCLG will respond directly to him in the next couple of days.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is encouraged by the Government’s consultation on extending the Freedom of Information Act. The Government have introduced provisions in the Protection of Freedoms Bill to extend the Freedom of Information Act to companies wholly owned by multiple public authorities, whereas currently the Act applies only to companies wholly owned by a single public authority. This will bring more than 100 more bodies within the scope of the Act. We are not stopping there. We are currently consulting on the possible inclusion of more than 200 bodies within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, on the basis that they provide functions of a public nature—these include harbour authorities, exam boards, the Local Government Group and the NHS Confederation, to name but a few.

Before the Minister leaves that point, can she answer the question asked by my noble friend Lord Hunt about when the Government will take action on the consultation that she has just mentioned?

The Government’s recent open data consultation consulted on an extension to the types of organisations to which the open data policy could apply. The Freedom of Information Act will also be subject to post-legislative scrutiny to see how it is working in practice. Further policy in this area will be developed. At this stage I do not have a specific timeframe, but I can write to the noble Lord once I have further information.

My noble friend Lady Byford asked some important questions about how what we are trying to achieve appears to be hindered by how we achieve it. The Government are committed to achieving the very benefits that she highlights and will give serious consideration to the challenges she raised, which could stand in the way of those benefits. She also raised an important point in relation to privacy, and I can assure the noble Baroness that we will not extend transparency at the expense of privacy. Personal data will be handled in accordance with the provisions of the Data Protection Act.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, raised some important points about politicians. All politicians, all of us who are in the public sphere, must be committed to the very basis and essence of this agenda; otherwise, we will be accused of hypocrisy, not just by each other across these Benches but by the public. I can assure him that all those in this Government are committed to that very basis of transparency and openness. Our goal is for participation and engagement—

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am glad she said what she said, but does she accept that if Ministers redefine some of their meetings as private that is not being transparent?

I completely take the point that the noble Lord makes. I repeat that we all bear the responsibility to make sure that what we say is what we do. I hear what he says, and indeed comments made by other noble Lords, and I will make sure that they are heard by all of us who are in this Government.

Our goal is for participation and engagement from an engaged society that knows it has a role to play in shaping the world in which we live. This is what open government means. Noble Lords may remind me that this is not a new idea, but what makes it a timely one is the increasing focus on how society works and how public services are actually delivered. What makes it achievable is the continuing democratisation of technology, with almost 80 per cent of households now having access to the internet. The fact that some households do not have internet access was raised in this morning’s debate and I will take that back.

Providing easily accessible data allows people to choose what services are right for them, localities to determine what their communities need and the public sector monopoly on provision to be opened up. This is a sea change in the relationship between the state and the individual. We are moving from a “We give, you get” approach to public services, to an “I choose when and where” approach.

This Government have every intention of putting into practice the ambitions they stake out on the global platform of OGP. We have an obligation to continue to lead this agenda and to use our successes to bring others with us. I hope that I have whetted noble Lords’ appetites in relation to our joint chair of the OGP, for the role we have to play in the growth review later this month, for the White Paper due in the spring and for what I think is an exciting and fast-developing agenda.

I conclude by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for his earlier remarks and for giving us the opportunity to discuss the range of possibilities that our transparency agenda offers to all of us.

My Lords, I understand from the Table that the change in the nature of the Motion does not deprive me of the opportunity of replying briefly to the debate. I should like to start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Gold, on a most interesting and excellent maiden speech, in which he confirmed Herbert Smith’s reputation as a formidable nursery of nobility and brought to our attention the importance of transparency in commercial, as well as national, transactions.

I will not pick up all the points everyone made, but I must reply to the noble Lord, Lord Wills. I readily accept that I should have been more courteous in accepting the efforts of the previous Government, but I remind him that what I actually said was not that the present Government invented transparency but that they started an acceleration of the movement—a breathtaking acceleration. I was careful to give 2008 as the date of clarity being brought to the surgical procedures to which I referred. I acknowledge that this movement is not new, but it is very much better and stronger.

Three specific points were raised that are worth following: the possibility of Waldegrave II; the need to look again at Section 27 of the Communications Act; and the importance of accessibility to transparent information if some of our citizens are not to be disenfranchised.

The noble Lord, Lord Prescott, made a forceful contribution, in which his expression was shared between his voice and his hands—the latter not always as courteous as his voice. However, his point was taken on board by my Front Bench, I am sure.

I conclude by saying that the purpose of this debate was to draw attention to the Government’s commitment to this breathtaking acceleration in transparency, and to point out that it has effects that spread through the whole polity and economy of this country. It raises highly sensitive issues of privacy, which have been discussed and raises the question that was central to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Prescott: what actually is private? As I said at the outset, drawing the line is very tricky and technical, and it is important that it should be drawn impartially.

In their present initiative, the British Government are world leaders, as we have already seen. They are extending the benefits of transparency to disadvantaged countries in the world, which is entirely admirable. In the process, the Government are releasing an enormous possible gain for our economy—up to £90 billion, we are told. I therefore congratulate my noble friend Lady Warsi and the right honourable Francis Maude for the part that they have played in pushing forward this initiative.

Motion agreed.