CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

BUSINESS QUESTION – ABUSE OF FOI ACT – 10 February 2005

Dr Julian Lewis: May I tell the Leader of the House that his responses on the Freedom of Information Act 2000 sound almost as though he is auditioning for the future role of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster? He certainly gave the sort of answer that we get from the present incumbent of that post.

We need a debate on freedom of information. Of course, the Government introduced the Act, but the question is whether they did so to enable the even-handed disclosure of information or for partisan political advantage. When he says that Civil Servants decide such things, he should bear in mind the Civil Service advice that was leaked, which advised that certain aspects of the Exchange Rate Mechanism papers should not be revealed because they might "read across" and be used by the Conservatives to insist on answers to some of the questions that we have asked. They are answering the questions that are helpful to the Government. Why are they not answering questions that would be helpful to the Opposition?

[The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr Peter Hain):  I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting in a reference once again to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – he is absolutely expert at doing so.

On the substance of the hon. Gentleman's point, no, the Freedom of Information Act is very clear. Ministers are under an obligation to respect its terms and to implement it in full in response to requests, and we are doing so. I realise that the Conservatives have an interest in getting up some kind of process story about it because of their embarrassment at the disaster of Black Wednesday and the negative equity, the bankruptcies and the collapse of the economy that it heralded. That is their history – that is what they must live with – but they would take us back to that kind of situation if they were re-elected. I entirely reject the suggestion that there is one law on the release of information about the past Conservative Government and another law for the Government. We are operating the Freedom of Information Act absolutely even-handedly.

Mr Oliver Heald: Ha ha!

Mr Hain: The Shadow Leader of the House says, "Ha ha!", as he is inclined to do. Are he or the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) suggesting that the Permanent Secretaries in charge of Whitehall Departments, who are ultimately responsible for giving advice on these matters, are operating in anything other than an even-handed way? If so, they should get up and say so.]