17 January 2002

S1M-2274 Freedom of Information (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr Murray Tosh): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S1M-2274, in the name of Jim Wallace, on the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Bill.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The debate has been entertaining and informative and I intend to bring one or two new points to it.

A desire to keep information is always an expression of someone's self-interest—generally someone in public service. Given that, David McLetchie missed the point. At present, all information is retained unless a decision is taken to release it. We are moving to a new start, whereby information will be released unless it is decided to keep it secret and in the system. Such decisions will be accountable, auditable and kept under review.

The present system and its practical implications harm individuals, companies, the national interest and, on occasions, democracy. I will give a particularly ironic example that extends back to the 1960s and 1970s and which came to light in 1997. To be fair to my Labour colleagues, that happened because of the Labour party's commitment to freedom of information, which the SNP has shared for a long time. My example relates to what appears to be a technical subject, but it is important in the modern world. The subject is cryptography. Although that statement woke up almost no members, cryptography is important technology that protects information. It is at the heart of the modern economic miracle, which came through electronics, and it underpins the security of nations. Cryptography secures a person's transactions from an automated teller machine as much as it secures a multinational company that makes a large electronic payment for a multibillion-pound oil rig.

Where did the technology come from? The conventional history begins with Whitfield Diffie and his colleagues Hellman and Merkle, who developed the asymmetric key idea. They developed something that, curiously enough, Mary, Queen of Scots used to converse with her lovers. However, there is no time for that story, even in an extended debate.

Gordon Jackson: That is a shame.

Stewart Stevenson: I will tell Gordon Jackson the story over a coffee after the debate.

In 1977, the mathematicians Rivest, Shamir and Adleman apparently developed the mathematics that made the idea possible. That was a case of Americans leading the way with technology that is integral to the modern world and which protects our commercial and security interests. The reality was very different and became apparent only at a conference in November 1997. Government Communications Headquarters developed the technology, but, because of the culture of secrecy, the world became aware of that only in 1997. James Ellis, who was employed at GCHQ, developed the public key concept in 1969; Clifford Cocks developed the mathematics in 1973; and in 1974, Malcolm Williamson completed the development with a key distribution system. That commercial asset is worth not hundreds, thousands, millions, or even billions of pounds; over the life of the technology, it will be worth—

Brian Fitzpatrick: Zillions.

Stewart Stevenson: No, the next figure is probably trillions of pounds. A culture of secrecy denied this country the rights to that technology. It is thanks only to Phil Zimmerman and the different climate in the States that the matter was brought into the public domain.

I have a point about costs. In the Justice 1 Committee's deliberations on the bill there is reference to the Data Protection Act 1984, which was a way of securing and protecting data, which gave citizens the first statutory right of access to data and introduced a charging mechanism. Typically, the cost was around £10. The interesting thing is that even with that quite modest charge, the access requests to large commercial companies with large databases are numbered in single figures.

I suggest that in considering the bill we take a genuinely radical step and make public access by individuals free and charge only for commercial access. If it is necessary to protect the integrity of the inquiry system, let us make it a criminal offence for a commercial operation to purport to be an individual.

Let me give John Farquhar Munro a little glimmer of hope. The parliamentary draftsmen may have opened a little crack on PFI. I refer to section 6(2)(a)(ii) of the bill, which states that a company is wholly owned by the Scottish Ministers if it has no members except

"persons acting on behalf of the Scottish Ministers or of such companies."

We can take that to mean that if a PFI company is established solely for one contract—and I am thinking of BEAR Scotland Ltd in particular—it is acting wholly and exclusively on behalf of the Scottish Executive. For the purposes of the bill, it is therefore a public body. I do not imagine that that is what was intended, but perhaps we could brush up on that little part of the bill and ensure that that is its practical effect.

I am cognisant of the answer that the Deputy Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning gave to Andrew Wilson on 14 January in response to his question about Amey Highways Ltd and BEAR Scotland Ltd. There is a willingness to be open on that subject.

In conclusion, Jim Wallace said that sensitive information must be protected. I am going to be radical and say, "No, Jim, it is precisely—in the generally understood sense of the word sensitive—sensitive information that must be available." We are currently denied the sensitive information.

As my colleague Alasdair Morgan indicated, we are debating a change of law, but we must also bring with that a change of culture and practice.

I say to Murdo Fraser that the mindset of Sir Humphrey Appleby is alive and well. I think that Francis Bacon said that he who hath a secret to keep must keep it secret that he hath a secret to keep.


Stewart Stevenson
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