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Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 3, leave out from ("Directors")") to ("are") in line 4
Dr. Howells: The amendments are concerned with the consumer council, and, in a few cases, the authority. There are three sub-sets within the group. The first set make arrangements for independent adjudication of disputes about the council's rights of access to information from the authority or from companies. The second group affect the council's powers to report on its investigations. Finally, a set of miscellaneous, minor amendments improves and corrects the drafting of the Bill.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): We are obviously in for a long evening because there is much important material in the Lords amendments. Fortunately, the House has a lot of time in which to deal with the Bill, in contrast with the last matter before us on which important changes to the rights of individual citizens were disgracefully railroaded through the House under a guillotine.
The Utilities Bill is not in the same category as the Football (Disorder) Bill, but it introduces important measures that require our mature consideration. I will not detain the House unduly on this group, nor will I linger on each amendment. It would be far from my mind to do that.
My eye has lit, however, upon amendment No. 38, the wording of which could give rise to worries under some interpretations. The Minister will wish to leaf through his notes to consider the amendment. Of course, he will already have done so, because he is doubtless well acquainted with every one of the amendments before us. We shall wish, over the next few hours, to tease out just how well he has read them. For now, however, I wish to ask only about amendment No. 38.
(a) that individual or body has consented to the publication;
(b) it is information that is available to the public from some other source; or
(c) it is not information the publication of which would or might, in the opinion of the Council, seriously and prejudicially affect the interests of that individual or body.
Paragraph (b) is more problematic, however. Real questions arise about "some other source". Wording so loose and general must give rise to some concern. There is no further definition, and no restriction is proposed. What if the other source were to be one normally bound by confidentiality?
Mr. Forth: I am grateful. We are discussing a duplication of effort, then. Information already available elsewhere will simply be rearranged and represented. That being so, one wonders how worthwhile the amendment is.
Dr. Howells: Let me try to help the hon. Gentleman. On this Bill, I have been constantly accused of including all sorts of Henry VIII powers and so on. With this amendment, I am trying to include the briefest provision possible, and am finding myself criticised for it by the hon. Gentleman, who is usually a fount of common sense in these matters.
Mr. Forth: I am glad to hear that--as I would have expected of him--the Minister has paid close attention to the matter, exercised his judgment and decided that, on balance, the amendment is acceptable if not actually beneficial.
As hon. Members well know, making available information, in particular about an individual or body, can be extremely prejudicial in many ways. If the body is a commercial business, it could seriously affect its share value, for example. In some circumstances, it could prejudice the degree of confidence that the public have in a public body. In the case of an individual, I do not need to tell hon. Members about the damaging or deleterious effect that publication of information about them might have. Almost daily, there are cases where the publication of information can be damaging to an individual.
Dr. Howells: As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, other parts of the Bill contain stringent provisions to ensure opportunities for appeal about the demand for information, in which case the decision would go to an adjudicator. In this case, the adjudicator will, temporarily, be the authority or regulator, who is paid a great deal of money to make such decisions.
Mr. Forth: I am only partly reassured by that intervention. The timing of these events is crucial. If the information is already in the public domain--about me, for example--and I then tell that highly paid adjudicator that I do not believe that it is right and he agrees, the damage has already been done. If the information is already in the public domain, what is the point of that highly paid adjudicator coming to my rescue?
Dr. Howells: The right hon. Gentleman has a good point, but as he said, it is all to do with timing. The adjudicator would adjudicate on the initial offering up of the information, not subsequent to it being offered up. If the information was delivered on request, the adjudicator would prevent it from being put in the public domain if he felt that it would be harmful to the company involved.
Mr. Forth: If the Minister is telling me that he is satisfied that there is a mechanism whereby, before the information is in the public domain, the individual or body would be apprised of the fact, that is sufficient.
Mr. Forth: I gather that that is what the Minister is telling me. If he is satisfied that mechanisms exist properly to protect individuals and bodies from potential damage, of course I accept his word. He has studied the matter and given it his mature consideration, and that is his view. Therefore, on that basis, I am prepared to accept what he says.
That brief exchange shows--I am sure that I do not need to persuade you of this, Mr. Deputy Speaker--the value and necessity of the scrutiny that we are undertaking. It is one thing for a Bill to go through all its stages in this House and to go to another place, it is another for the Lords to have amended it. It is equally essential, is it not, for us to have the opportunity to consider what has been suggested and to determine how appropriate it is?
I pay the Minister yet another tribute--he stands high in my regard anyway. At least with this Bill we are not being constrained by the usual jackboot of a guillotine motion. The Football (Disorder) Bill, which we have just considered, was a disgrace. However, the Minister is content for us to debate this Bill properly and to consider it. I pay tribute to him and, indeed, to the Whip on duty, who is also generously allowing the House proper time to consider the matter appropriately.
Lords amendment: No. 4, in page 4, line 17, leave out from ("matter") to end of line 20 and insert
("which relates to the affairs of a particular individual or body of persons (corporate or unincorporate), where publication of that matter would or might, in the opinion of the Authority, seriously and prejudicially affect the interests of that individual or body.")