Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Health Care Standards for Elderly Persons

Mr. Paul Marsden accordingly presented a Bill to amend the National Health Service (Primary Care) Act 1997 to prohibit the refusal or delay of treatment or the provision of an inferior standard of care on the basis of age and to establish an inquiry into the extent of age discrimination in the provision of health services: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 21 July, and to be printed [Bill 103].

4 Apr 2000 : Column 830

Orders of the Day

Freedom of Information Bill

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.


4.37 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I beg to move amendment No. 100, in page 1, line 7, at end insert--

'.--(A1) The purpose of this Act is to facilitate public access to information held by public authorities.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 1--Purposes--

'.--(1) The purposes of this Act are to extend progressively the right of the public to information held by public authorities to the maximum extent possible, consistent with the need to protect interests specified in exemptions, so as to promote--
(a) the accountability of public authorities;
(b) informed public debate on public affairs;
(c) public participation in the making of decisions; and
(d) public understanding of the powers, duties and operation of public authorities.
(2) This Act shall be interpreted so as to further the purposes specified in subsection (1) and to encourage the disclosure of information, promptly and at the lowest reasonable cost.'.

Mr. Lidington: It gives me real pleasure, and almost a sense of nostalgia, to participate for the first time in the House's deliberations on the Freedom of Information Bill. I recall that one of the very first Standing Committees on which I served as a newly elected Member, in 1992 or 1993, considered the Right to Know Bill, which was a private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). At various times in his parliamentary career--under Governments of red, of blue and of palish pink--he has been a doughty champion of the public's right to know and of greater access to information.

I think that there is a growing consensus both across the country and across the party political divide that a characteristic of a mature democracy is that we trust the people, and that that trust includes trusting people with access to information that previously might have been kept within the charmed circle of Whitehall and of parts of Westminster.

Amendment No. 100 seeks to establish a clear purpose to the Bill, by including in it a statement of aims that should govern the decisions of those who, when the Bill is enacted, will be charged with its interpretation and implementation. We believe that that is important because

4 Apr 2000 : Column 831

the Bill includes a considerable number of tests that have to be applied to categories of information that, either wholly or partially, are exempt from the presumption that they should be disclosed. There should be a clear statutory direction from Parliament to those who will have to assess individual applications for disclosure that the overriding purpose of the legislation is to enlarge and enhance public access to official information.

The Conservative Government introduced the code of practice on access to Government information in 1994 and strengthened it in 1997. Although it was not a statutory document, it required public authorities to make information available, subject to a limited number of exceptions. The purpose clause was a significant element of the code. It was located at the beginning of the document and set out clearly that the approach of public authorities must

The Bill is deficient in having no clear statement of its purpose. Our amendment would ensure that its principal objective was to give the public the right of access to information held by the Government. New clause 1 approaches that deficiency in the legislation from a different angle, using different language. It is a matter of fine judgment as to which form of words one prefers. We see no harm in the new clause. Those who have tabled it are approaching the issue in the same spirit as the Opposition Front Bench.

The debate is not simply about the Conservative Opposition pointing to deficiencies in a Labour Government's Bill. The Public Administration Committee report in July 1999 said:

That view was also expressed by the Data Protection Registrar, Mrs. Elizabeth France, who is due to become the first Information Commissioner under the Bill. In her response to the consultation document on the draft legislation, she argued that a straightforward purpose statement in the Bill would be helpful to all, especially those making decisions about disclosure in relation to any exemption.

The Government responded to the Select Committee report with two minor amendments that changed the title of the draft Bill and made the clause on the right of access to information the first clause. The Select Committee, with its Labour majority, was not satisfied with those minor concessions. In a further report, the Committee concluded that there was still no presumption in favour of disclosure.

A purpose clause was included in the non-statutory code of practice on access to information. Purpose clauses are common in overseas Freedom of Information Acts, including those of New Zealand and Australia, and they have been used in United Kingdom legislation, including the Arbitration Act 1996 and the present Government's Crime and Disorder Act 1998. I can see no persuasive reason why the Government should resist the introduction of a purpose clause. Even at this late stage of proceedings in this House, I hope that Home Office Ministers will listen to the united call from Members of all parties and from distinguished people outside the House with an interest in these matters and will conclude that the Bill should be amended.

4 Apr 2000 : Column 832

4.45 pm

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) is entirely right to say that the issues adumbrated in amendment No. 100 are also central to new clause 1, which has been tabled in the names of hon. Members of all parties. We are seeking the same objective, which I should have thought would conform with the Government's stated wish to ensure that the enactment of the Bill will effect a climatic change in the business of administration. There should not be an adversarial procedure between those who seek information and want to open matters up, and those who hold that information and want to keep it back.

The Government's objective--enunciated in the White Paper preceding the Bill and in the statements by the Home Secretary and other Ministers--is to ensure that the public right to know is recognised in the code of practice and in law. In order to change the climate, it is very important that the Bill's purposes be set out clearly. That should not be done in narrow terms, or with a picky, legalistic approach to language. It should be done broadly, with the aim of carrying forward the right to know.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury described how the issue had been treated in other countries. The legislation in New Zealand and Australia has been established for quite a long time and contains provisions similar to those proposed in new clause 1. It has proved to be helpful in those countries, and I draw particular attention to the experience in New Zealand, which I think was in the mind of the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who originally brought forward the Government's policy on this matter. The provision has been invoked by the New Zealand courts in seeking to interpret the law, and that seems to be a very practical use of a declaratory principle in legislation.

The language of new clause 1 closely follows the Australian legislation, which has been tried and has not been found wanting. The new clause goes slightly further than amendment No. 100, in that it spells out in some detail the purposes of the Bill under four headings. Those purposes are to promote

Those objectives are all consonant with an open democracy.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Has the provision often been invoked by the courts in New Zealand? I simply do not know, but it is an interesting point.

Next Section

IndexHome Page