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Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. However, it is pitiful to observe him being obliged--as I suppose he is--to spout such transparent nonsense in opposition to the new clause. Does he not agree that the fact that the interpretation of

will vary from case to case does not invalidate the notion that the Bill should include an obligation to take all reasonable steps? Is not the hon. Gentleman arguing that he is in favour of public authorities taking all reasonable steps to assist so long as they are not statutorily obliged to do so?

Mr. Lock: I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman calls for a burden of regulation to be imposed on small authorities. We argued that the burden of regulation should be flexible and appropriate to the individual authority, not that it should apply uniformly to all authorities. If the hon. Gentleman understood the nature

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of the imposition of statutory duties, he would realise that it is far more effective to ensure that the right amount of regulation is applied to authorities--an amount appropriate to their size and resources. That can be undertaken properly and flexibly only through a code of practice, not through a uniform statutory duty applying to all authorities in any circumstances.

Mr. Fisher: Will my hon. Friend clarify this matter for the House? Is he saying that the code of practice will specify the reasonable steps in each case--for a general practice, a primary school or the Health and Safety Commission? That would be a most voluminous and impossible document. Surely all we need is a duty to assist. We can argue about whether it is a code of practice or a statutory obligation--by now, my hon. Friend will have a clear idea of which direction the House wants the Government to take--but he cannot seriously be telling us that the code of practice will specify the degree of duty to assist for every authority of the 200-plus listed in schedule 1. That cannot be true. Before he digs a deeper pit for himself, I beg him to reconsider.

Mr. Lock: The code of practice will give broad guidance on what public authorities of different sizes and with different resources and obligations are required to do to give practical effect to the rights afforded in the Bill. That is a more flexible, appropriate and balanced way to ensure that those rights are enforced. I urge my hon. Friend to accept that that is better than imposing an all-embracing duty such as that set out in new clause 3.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Will the Minister imagine that he is a first-year A-level student who is asked to state the rights and duties that flow from the Bill? If we consider clause 1(4), for example, we see that an answer cannot be given without huge complexity. Clause 1 includes a statement of rights, but there is no statement of duty. Will he reflect on the fact that the new clause offers a statement of the duty on public authorities? That could then be illustrated in the lovely code of practice, which everyone could have as an extra Christmas present.

Mr. Lock: I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, the important point is that there are duties on authorities to comply with requirements and requests and that the authorities should ensure that they open themselves up. There is a statutory right to know and a duty on local authorities, schools and health authorities--all public authorities--to comply.

The narrow question between us is whether the duty to assist in all circumstances for all the authorities covered by the Bill is better expressed flexibly through a code of practice or through an all-embracing, one-size-fits-all statutory duty in the Bill. We may disagree on that point. However, even though the hon. Gentleman may not agree with the route, I hope that he will accept that the outcome--by virtue of the commitments made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and me--will be the same, and that it might be in a form that is slightly better for all types of authority to handle.

Amendment agreed to.

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Clause 6

Public authorities to which Act has limited application.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I beg to move amendment No. 33, in page 4, leave out lines 12 and 13.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment No. 34, in page 4, line 14, leave out "or amending".

Amendment No. 35, in page 23, line 7, leave out clause 43.

Government amendment No. 63.

New clause 5--Power to remove exemptions by order--

'.--(1) The Secretary of State may by order provide that--
(a) information of such description as may be specified in the order is not exempt by virtue of any provision of this Act as may be specified in the order;
(b) any provision of this Act specified in the order by virtue of which information is exempt shall be repealed or shall apply only in relation to information of the description specified in the order;
(c) any provision of this Act specified in the order by virtue of which the duty to confirm or deny does not arise shall be repealed or shall apply only in relation to such information, or in such circumstances, as may be specified in the order.
(2) An order under this section may make different provision for different cases.
(3) No order shall be made under this section unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.'.

Mr. Heath: This group is extremely important. The amendments and the new clause deal with a provision that crept into the Bill rather late; it gave the Minister extraordinary powers retrospectively to exempt information from the Bill.

The House might think that the Bill was carefully considered in Committee; that is certainly the view of those hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee. We may hope that the Bill will be given proper consideration on Report and during its subsequent stages; that its checks and balances will be carefully examined and that there will be a consideration of what information should and should not be exempt.

However, if the Bill's current provisions remain, all that scrutiny will have little long-term effect, because it will be open to a Minister--to the Executive--to say, "We heard what Parliament said; we know what was included and omitted from the schedule, but we have changed our minds and we want to amend the measure by order." That might occur not only if circumstances change since the measure's inception, but as a response to a specific request for information. A Minister could say, "I don't want that information to be made available, so we shall now make it exempt". Amendment No. 33 would remove the power, in effect, to exclude any information from any organisation listed in schedule 1 by order.

Amendment No. 34 deals with a similar point. A Minister might want to ameliorate the Bill, not by removing a current exemption but by amending the measure. Again,

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the capacity exists to invent a whole new protocol for a specific area of information, and to do it by order rather than to take what I believe is the right view--that, if a certain category of information is no longer appropriate to be exempt, it should simply not be exempt. The exemption should be removed.

7.30 pm

In Committee, the Minister came up with no convincing argument as to why the Government should have the power to amend. He seemed to imply that the provisions were simply a matter of good housekeeping and that they would keep Bill's operation tidy. He said that, in any case, a benign Government and a benign Minister would judge what it was appropriate to amend, and asked why anyone should be concerned. I have real concerns, because I do not believe that every future Government and every future Minister are necessarily benign in their intent.

More importantly, I believe that the Bill is constitutionally important. We do not have a written constitution, so we must rely on legislation such as the Bill to provide our citizens with what rights they have. Those rights should not be fiddled around with at a later stage by a diktat from Government that would receive scant parliamentary attention if it ever came to the Floor of the House at all.

I want a one-way process of amendment. I accept that there will be occasions when information which it seemed right to exempt from the Bill will no longer appear as though it should be exempt. That is fair enough, so let us have a provision that allows a Minister to remove categories of information from the Bill. Let us have a semi-permeable membrane and a process of osmosis in one direction. Let us not have the capacity to tighten up a Bill whose provisions for genuine freedom of information are already far too unhelpful. If such a provision were available to a Minister, it could make the situation that pertains at the moment worse.

Amendment No. 35 deals with clause 43. We debated the clause in Committee and the tenor of the argument was, "We are all good chaps. We know how to operate these things. We can have substantial powers to amend legislation retrospectively because we will do the right thing, won't we? You will certainly know about it if we don't." I am sorry, but I think that clause 43 is bad. It will be slightly improved by Government amendment No. 63, which is a response to a point that I made in Committee.

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