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Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 5 to 7, 18 to 35, 51, 97, 107, 132 to 137, 141, 143, 168, 178, 180, 197, 227 and 239.

Dr. Howells: The amendments to clause 6 in this group are designed to tidy things up, if you do not mind my saying so, Mr. Deputy Speaker. They are concerned with the provision of information to consumers and others. Therefore, I commend them to the House.

Mr. Forth: Amendment No. 143 caught my eye in this group. Interestingly, it would insert after clause 102 a new clause entitled, "General restrictions on the disclosure of information", which follows somewhat in the spirit of our previous debate, and it runs to two and a half pages. One would have thought that under normal circumstances, an item of such gravity, substance and scope would have encouraged the Minister to say a little more about his views, given that it covers important and wide areas.

Even right at the beginning, the new clause states:


we are in the same territory as for the previous group of amendments about which we had a brief exchange--


That could raise several questions--although not about the lifetime of the individual, which is a fairly open- and-shut and definitive matter. The phrase


requires a little more exploration. I shall assume that, for these purposes, the word "business" is used in the generic sense and that it covers public and private companies, and presumably even partnerships and so on.

Might the business be brought to an end voluntarily--wound up or put into liquidation? The business might be temporarily suspended. My hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) and the Minister are far more expert in such matters than I could

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ever be. There are several different ways in which the business might cease to trade. The new clause uses--unusually--the more colloquial phrase


Does that form of words hold water? Its accuracy and usefulness bear examination. The question requires a brief response from the Minister.

The question of consent arises under subsection (2), which states that:


Does that imply that only one person is involved in carrying on the business? Surely it cannot do so. Does it imply that only the consent of one of the people carrying on the business is needed? In normal circumstances, more than one person would be involved in carrying on a business and thus consent should be required from all or a majority of them, or from someone who has been given legal power to give such consent. The provision does not make that clear, although I am sure that real substance and meaning lie behind it. It would be useful if the Minister would clarify the matter before the Bill makes much more progress.

The new clause notes that subsection (1) does not apply to disclosure in a large number of circumstances; for example, if


or--


Matters become complicated when we reach paragraph (d) which states that the subsection does not apply to disclosure if


By the time one reaches that stage, matters seem to be at arm's length and second hand. I assume that the provision is watertight, although the details make me wonder about that.

Subsection (4) gives a detailed list of provisions under which subsection (1) will not apply. The most worrying is paragraph (h). Knowing me as he does, the Minister will not be surprised that I mention that paragraph in passing--indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton might also be worried about it. It states that disclosure of information under subsection (1) will not apply


I assume that that means a European Union obligation.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): The right hon. Gentleman will have to wash his mouth out.

Mr. Forth: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to provoke me; he is much too nice for that. I am merely wondering about the wording. Is it legally watertight? I was elected to the European Parliament in the good old days when it was an institution of the European Economic Community. I was relaxed about that. I became more worried when it passed through various ghastly transformations into, first, the European Community--dropping the word "Economic", which worried me as much as it worried many others--and then

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the European Union. Where does this Community thing come in? Is it "the Community"? The word begins with a capital, which makes it rather grand and important. Why is the body not described as the European Union? Is the Minister trying to hide something? Is there a sinister plot?

The serious point is that I need to know whether the word "Community" is being used correctly. If so, what does it mean in this new clause? What does it cover? Is it the European Union in all its manifestations? Is it all the arms, branches and bodies of the EU? What exactly is a "Community obligation"? Is it only a directive or could it be something else? It certainly cannot be anything to do with the European convention on human rights. Many people get confused about that, but I know it cannot be the convention because that is a matter for the Council of Europe.

Will the Minister give us some help to interpret this seemingly innocent provision? It may be inaccurate, useless or even misleading. I want to know the extent of the obligations that arise from that, albeit rather loose, wording of "Community". We need to know much more about that.

Subsection (5) contains a long list of some very important people. It talks about


and about


Presumably, that means any and all Ministers of the Crown--we know that they are omniscient, omnipotent and ubiquitous. I want clarification on whether that does indeed cover, as a generic term, Parliamentary Under- Secretaries of State as well as Ministers proper--Ministers of State and Secretaries of State.

The subsection then lists the Competition Commission and all sorts of directors of very important things. Then, rather oddly, it says:


Out of that seemingly innocent element, a couple of intriguing questions arise as to whether the local weights and measures authority is suddenly thrust to the same level of prominence and competence as Ministers of the Crown on one hand and the Civil Aviation Authority on the other.

More intriguing is the inclusion of the term "in Great Britain." I assume that it was included advisedly, and I just want to ask in passing what happens outside Great Britain and why those who are not blessed to be in Great Britain are not to be given the benefits of the provision. It would help me to know, before I give my approval to the amendment, whether people outside Great Britain have some other means of being satisfied by these provisions.

I do not want to delay the House unduly. I could have picked up many more of what I consider to be anomalies and slacknesses. We shall go into a lot of other things in more detail as required--I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, on the Front Bench, is itching to get his teeth into all this nonsense--but I think that I am really asking, given the extent to which the Government are prepared to accept these amendments from another place, whether they are really satisfied that the amendments are tightly drafted,

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that they are viable in terms of the law, that this whole thing holds water and that we shall not be creating even more trouble for ourselves than might already exist.

That is the general thrust of my remarks. I just wanted to take a few detailed examples to give what I said a slightly sharper edge, but I have probably cited enough to give a flavour. I am asking the Minister, in his usual charming but competent way, to put our minds at rest, to take us through the matter, and to display his mastery of the material, as he usually does. If he did, I would find that very satisfying.

Dr. Howells: Flattery will get the right hon. Gentleman everywhere. I thank him. I think that I referred to him as the hon. Gentleman earlier; it must have been because I had dashed into the Chamber, and was clearly the result of a rush of blood to the brain.

Lords amendment No. 143, which the right hon. Gentleman is very concerned about, is, as he knows, part of a larger group of amendments which carry forward the well-established convention that it should be a criminal offence to make an unauthorised disclosure of information obtained under legislation that empowers public authorities to require information from individuals and businesses. That is already the case under the Gas Act 1986 and the Electricity Act 1989, but the sections in those Acts differ slightly from each other. The amendments repeal both those sections and substitute a single regime which will apply to both Acts, as is appropriate where a single licensing authority operates aligned licensing regimes.

The new clause which, essentially is Lords amendment No. 143--the right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that it is a long amendment--prohibits disclosures and then defines certain exceptions where disclosure is permitted. That is a complicated process, and the right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight it. As a rule, the exceptions are for disclosures between regulatory authorities to facilitate the performance of the receiving authority's statutory functions.

The publication powers conferred on the authority and the council elsewhere in the Bill are generally exceptions to the prohibition on disclosure as well. Each is usually subject to its own harm test, limiting, in other words, what may be disclosed without the consent of those to whom the information in question relates. The new clause will also apply to information obtained under the Bill, for example, by the Gas and Electricity Consumer Council under clause 24, with which I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is familiar.


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