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'(1) There shall be an officer of the House of Commons called the Information Ombudsman, who shall be appointed by the House of Commons.

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(2) There shall be a committee of the House of Commons appointed, to be called the Parliamentary Information Committee.
(3) In this Act the Information Ombudsman is known as "the Ombudsman".'.

Mr. Hawkins: Although that was a long list of amendments, I am happy to be able to tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the House that I can be relatively brief.

Hon. Members who have been following these debates will realise that we are talking here about the belief of the Opposition--supported, I think, by others who sat on the Opposition side in Committee--that there should be an information ombudsman and a parliamentary information committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) spoke about this at length in Committee and I pay tribute to his work on the matter.

Parliament should have a say in ensuring that the public have access to information held by the Government and public authorities. The amendments would ensure that the task of enforcing the provision once it becomes an Act in some form or another--when another place has dealt with amendments such as No. 7, on which we recently voted--is kept separate from the work of the Data Protection Commissioner and the register. The two are distinct roles. One has the role of ensuring that personal information is not misused and the other has to ensure that as much information as possible is released.

In debates, the Government appear to have suggested that it would be unwise to give the Information Commissioner any more powers because of what has been caricatured as information override. In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), said that amendments that would allow the Information Commissioner the power to compel disclosure would


We think, however, that the arrangements should be based on the very important work that has already been done, which we seek to extend, with regard to the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee. We feel strongly that this House should have a say in ensuring that the public have access to information held by the Government and by public authorities. Ultimately, it should be notfor Ministers, but for Parliament to decide whether information should be released in the public interest. That is why we have tabled these amendments.

7.30 pm

In Committee, the Under-Secretary said:


There is a simple word to describe that very peculiar argument--oxymoron. The peculiar aspect is that it does not recognise the democratic deficit in the legislation. That may explain why the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department is responding to this debate rather than the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. We feel strongly that this House should have a role.

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The Government believe that Ministers and judges must have the final say. We say that the public interest--which is different from what the public are interested in, although the media constantly seek to confuse the two--should ultimately be determined by those who have been elected to office.

Even if the Minister cannot accept the amendment today, I hope that perhaps in another place, or when the Bill comes back to this House after its consideration in another place, the Government will decide that we are right. If the Government accept our proposals, they will, in the long run, have the gratitude of those who seek to use--

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I follow the thrust of his argument. Will he confirm that we believe that Parliament, rather than Ministers or officials, should exercise discretion in these matters, but that it would be quite wrong wantonly and recklessly to cede that discretion to the Information Commissioner in the way that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) seemed to advocate last night?

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend is right. If the Government are introducing what they call a Freedom of Information Bill--the number of Labour Back-Benchers who have just voted against the Government shows that they have not even convinced many of their colleagues--they should do it properly. Because the Bill gives the Secretary of State and, ultimately, officials the final say over whether information should be released, there is undoubtedly a democratic deficit. Our proposals in new clause 11 and the amendments are the logical progression to the code of practice on access to Government information, which we introduced when in office.

Many people, including the Campaign for Freedom of Information, believe that not only have the Government gone back on their proposals in the Bill and the White Paper, but they are now making proposals that provide less freedom of information than the previous Government's code.

Mr. Lock: The Government's proposal is to create a single Information Commissioner, who will take over the actions and duties of the Data Protection Commissioner and will have responsibility for both freedom of information and data protection. The amendments would keep the Data Protection Commissioner doing her job and create a parliamentary information ombudsman to police the freedom of information regime.

Two arguments--incompatibility and resources--have been made for that proposal. Frankly, neither stands examination. On compatibility, the commissioner herself says that data protection rights and freedom of information rights are complementary and mutually supportive in practice, and that she supports having a single commissioner. The Conservative proposal is in direct opposition to the view of those who will have to operate the legislation and are most intimately acquainted with it.

Secondly, the proposals ignore the balance between personal and public data. There has to be a balance between what is confidential and what should be revealed. Under the proposed scheme, mutually inconsistent decisions from two different bodies will define that balance. That is a recipe for confusion and disaster.

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Thirdly, the proposals ignore the effect on the public. The public need a single point of application if they want data. Quite often, they will ask for mixed personal data under the Data Protection Act 1998 and public data under the freedom of information legislation. Instead of having one body to approach, the Conservatives propose having two, so people would have to know in advance the precise structure of the legislation. It is a great shame that the Opposition spokesman cannot listen to the reasons why his proposal is not acceptable.

The point about resources is entirely false. Yes, it will take more resources to have a single commissioner, but to be honest, that expenditure has to be incurred anyway. The Opposition propose two bureaucracies, two sets of commissioners and two sets of investigations. Resources will be used much better if there is only one.

The Opposition's wish to divide the Data Protection Commissioner and the parliamentary Information Commissioner is, in one sense, unique. That course of action has been rejected in the common-law jurisdictions of Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. On this occasion, the Conservatives are going the Gallic way. They have been persuaded by the practice in France and are obviously moving further towards the practices of the European Union in this respect. This seems to be the one practice that they have chosen to adopt, having rejected all other aspects of French culture and nationality, and all the other attractions of France. I prefer the system in Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, which keeps the Information Commissioner and the Data Protection Commissioner under one roof.

The amendments would create a parliamentary committee for the exercise of appeal rights instead of the information tribunal that currently exists. That would lead to exactly the same problems as attempting to divide data protection and freedom of information responsibilities. It is constitutionally confused and inept. Such a committee would have to consider many individual cases in which individual pieces of information were being sought. Within the legal structure of the Bill, the committee would have a heavy work load, and would be concerned not with the policy, which is clearly a matter for Parliament, but with the application of that policy to Mrs. Jones who is trying to get information out of her local health authority. Policy is a matter for Parliament; individual decisions are a matter for a tribunal.

In any event, under the tribunal system, an appeal on a point of law will naturally go to the High Court. The Opposition ignore the fact that, if a matter comes before a committee that interprets the legislation wrongly, it will be invidious to ask a High Court judge to overrule a parliamentary committee. That, I am afraid, would be the effect of the process, or ideas, floated in this group of amendments. They simply will not work. There would be a data protection tribunal, which would set a balance between personal data and the disclosure of such matters, and a committee, often dealing with similar information but setting a different balance. The amendments will not work.

It has often been said that we should learn from the experience of other data protection regimes. Those that have succeeded, such as the ones in Australia, New Zealand and other common law jurisdictions, have recognised that the appeal structure in individual cases, rather than the supervision of policy, is a right matter for

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a tribunal. I agree that the supervision of policy and its practical operation are matters for Parliament and that they should be kept under scrutiny.

However, we were not elected to Parliament to sit on a committee to hear appeals from all over the country about Mrs. Jones who wants information from her local health authority. That would be a decision for a tribunal. The operation of the overall policy is a matter for Parliament. The amendments confuse the distinction between individual cases and policy. I therefore urge the House to reject them. I encourage the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), now that he has heard about the problems with the amendments as they are currently drafted, to reconsider them. If he wants to pursue the matter, he might consider tabling in another place amendments that avoid the complications that I have outlined.


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