Previous Section Index Home Page


The Minister of State was asked—

Freedom of Information

20. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): How many freedom of information complaints have been
17 Oct 2006 : Column 726
made to the Information Commissioner; and how many relate to Government Departments. [94022]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): Since the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act in January 2005, the Information Commissioner’s office has received 4,292 cases, of which 30 per cent. have related to central Government Departments and Agencies.

Mr. Turner: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. However, she gave the number of cases that the commissioner’s office has received rather than the number of complaints, so perhaps she does not know how many complaints have been received. Does she expect there to be a reduction in the number of complaints, given that the Government propose to reduce the cost threshold, which will mean that fewer applications will be answered? When officials decide that Ministers may have something to hide and that they should push an application up to ministerial level, the cost of a Minister considering that application will be included in the cost threshold.

Vera Baird: The proposal is not quite as the hon. Gentleman describes it. When deciding whether the £600 threshold has been reached, officials will take into account the time taken to read and consider an application, rather than just the time taken to make a search. That is surely a matter of common sense. In that process, Ministers’ time is priced at £25 an hour, just like everyone else’s. That shows that the engagement of Ministers in the process is pretty cheap—much cheaper than the equivalent in my previous job used to be. The involvement of Ministers will not necessarily mean that the process will cost more. Ministers do not get involved only when a matter is controversial—for instance, a Minister might get involved because the question is about him or her personally. Moreover, good governance under section 36 requires that Ministers get involved from time to time, so I think that the hon. Gentleman is making a number of false links.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): A real problem is the number of public services that fall outside the FOI provisions. What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that non-commercial decisions made by publicly funded bodies that provide public services—such as Stockport’s Sports Trust, for example—fall within the remit of the Act?

Vera Baird: My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Constitutional Affairs Committee has said that the FOI Act has been a significant success so far, and we agree. It has made available to the public thousands of pieces of information from more than 100,000 public bodies, but that does not mean that that is as far as we need to go.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The most worrying feature of the Government’s response to the Constitutional Affairs Committee’s report is the proposal that Departments should be able to aggregate requests from a single source. That provision would be wide open to abuse by Departments that do not want
17 Oct 2006 : Column 727
important public interest issues raised and made subject to FOI requests. Will aggregation decisions be subject to appeal to the Information Commissioner?

Vera Baird: The short answer to that is yes. The appellate process will remain in place, and every time there is a refusal, there will be an appeal all the way up from the internal review to the commissioner and to the tribunal. The right hon. Gentleman will know, however, that there is already a power to aggregate similar requests from the same inquirer—the BBC has been extensively referred to in the publicity, for example. That is a power, however, not a compulsion; sometimes it is used, and sometimes it is not. What is being proposed is an extension—we are going to sound out where the extensions should take place—to enable the aggregation of non-similar requests. Serious serial users account for about 14 per cent. of requests, and they are very expensive. In particular, they take up a lot of senior officials’ time. I have said that we price their time out at £25 an hour, but it costs us a good deal more than that. So this proposal is an attempt to strike a balance between an appropriate level of information being delivered and public service delivery, which is what our officials are mostly about.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): But is not the problem that a lot of the people whose requests are likely to be aggregated are the people whose job is to hold the Government to account? That includes political parties, the media and particular newspapers. The decision to allow aggregation across a range of different questions will give rise to particular risks. Furthermore, it was announced today that the Treasury will continue to refuse to release information about the true cost of identity cards under the Freedom of Information Act. It has been ordered to provide that information but, no, it is going to appeal. How does the Minister square that Government attitude with the Labour party’s pledge in 1996 to end “scandals, sleaze, patronage, secrecy” and to

Is not this just another example of good intentions but very poor delivery?

Vera Baird: I cannot help noting that, during the Tories’ 18 years in government, they chose not to introduce a freedom of information Act. They preferred to cleave to secrecy during all that time. There was not much evidence of letting sunshine in to win the day there, was there? Or of any other chinks of light being shed on the secrecy of the hon. Gentleman’s former colleagues.

The Treasury must be asked about its own approach, but it is entitled, like everyone else, to go through the appellate procedure, and that is exactly what it is going to do. If we wanted to make a serious attempt to curtail or limit these requests, the way to do it would be to levy a flat-rate charge. That would reduce by about 44 per cent. the time spent processing the requests, but we have expressly chosen not even to consult on that option. The impact of our proposal will be to reduce the most expensive requests while preserving the right of the vast majority of people to get absolutely free information. The hon. Gentleman almost suggests that the way in which we are proposing to go forward—

17 Oct 2006 : Column 728

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I suggest to the hon. and learned Lady that it might be appropriate to send some information to the hon. Gentleman via a letter? Her answer is very long.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): I have listened carefully to what my hon. and learned Friend has said. Will she tell me how many Members of Parliament have used the Freedom of Information Act? Some of us find it rather disheartening that, when we ask for information on sensitive subjects from the Department of Health, for example, we are given so little. In those cases, we have to prepare freedom of information applications to get the information that we need.

Vera Baird: I do not have the information on the number of Members of Parliament making such applications, but if my hon. Friend wants me to get it for her, of course I will do so. She has raised the analogy of parliamentary questions, and it is interesting to note that there is no guidance that says that the time used for reading and consulting is not aggregated in when considering the upper time limit for parliamentary questions. It is entirely sensible that the Freedom of Information Act requests should be aggregated.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Does not the Government’s response to the recommendation of the Constitutional Affairs Committee show that, in office, they are going cold on the commitments that they made when they were in opposition? Is not the reality that, if they put up the charges and give regular, serious users fewer opportunities to use the Act, they will reduce the total number of people using it, and reduce the ability of the most investigative—and potentially the most difficult—customers to get the information that the Government are least keen to divulge?

Vera Baird: Once again, the hon. Gentleman makes a false elision. The aggregate users do not necessarily produce the embarrassing facts. They embark on extremely wide, sweeping inquiries that take hours and hours—indeed, weeks sometimes. Of course, there is a duty on every Department that refuses a request for information under the freedom of information legislation to try to advise the inquirer how better they can bring their inquiry within the terms of the Act. There is plenty of scope for applications that are refused on the new basis to be resubmitted under a different name 60 days later. That will not deter the rational, quite honestly.


21. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): What mechanisms are in place to ensure value for money is obtained when consultants are employed by her Department. [94023]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): The use of consultants is governed by policy and practice laid down in guidance to managers. Mechanisms include a requirement to assess the need for consultants, taking
17 Oct 2006 : Column 729
account of skills and experience within the Department, financial approval, development of clear specifications in terms of outcomes and key milestones, and a responsibility on managers to manage performance against the contract.

Keith Vaz: The Minister will be aware that, on 4 May, the Minister of State said in reply to a parliamentary question that I tabled that she could not give me information about what the consultants were used to accomplish, because of the cost involved. Bearing in mind the fact that the Department spent £700,000 on consultants in 1997, and that last year it spent more than £10 million on them, is it not time that Ministers got a grip on the issue and told Parliament and the taxpayer what the consultants are being used to accomplish—especially the gentleman who was paid £2,100 for each day of work? [ Interruption. ]

Vera Baird: My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State says that the person must have been a barrister, but it was not me. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) has written a piece of work on the subject, which I trust, as it will soon become a Hollywood movie. Managers keep records. The Department has changed significantly in past years. For example, there has been the merger of magistrates courts to create Her Majesty’s Courts Service. The Department has grown bigger and it has to integrate. It is reforming all the time. For instance, we have distanced ourselves from involvement in the appointment of Queen’s counsel, which was successfully accomplished under the new system yesterday. We have distanced ourselves from the appointment of judges, too. We have started to engage in the subject of social exclusion, and have taken a number of excellent measures that I know my right hon. Friend supports, such as encouraging the Judicial Appointments Commission to embark on the recruitment of a more diverse range of people to the judiciary. Those changes have been supported by consultants, and that is a perfectly reasonable use of their services.

I understand that the gentleman whose cost per day was referred to had particularly specialist skills— [Interruption.] I certainly hope that he did. He was apparently dealing with the way in which the courts handle the £5 billion of public money that they must invest while it is in their custody. That was a high-risk issue for him to consider, and I hope that he did that well.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): According to press reports, the Department spent almost £750,000 last year on life-coaching programmes. What did those programmes involve, and were they value for money?

Vera Baird: I am sorry to say that I did not take part in one of the programmes myself—I am gratified to say that there was no need. They were for officials. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with as much detail as I can summon, if he has a genuine curiosity about the matter.

Family Cases

22. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): How many family cases were brought to court in each of the last five years; and if she will make a statement. [94024]

17 Oct 2006 : Column 730

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): There were 400,000 applications to the family court in 2001; 408,000 in 2002; 412,000 in 2003; 407,000 in 2004; and 381,000 in 2005.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for her reply. Can she tell the House a little about the role of mediation in family cases brought before the court in trying to keep the parties together in the event of a marriage breakdown? What role does she believe that the family court should play in the eventual remodelling of the Child Support Agency?

Ms Harman: Two roles are envisaged for mediation. One is for couples who want to stay together and want help to maintain their relationship. The other is for couples whose relationship is over, but for whom mediation is important so that issues relating to finances and, above all, the care of the children can be agreed on instead of battled out in court. The Government are working to ensure that there is a great deal more mediation to avoid unnecessary court disputes. For example, 400 couples got publicly funded mediation in 1997 and the figure is now 14,000. It is still a small number. Anything that can be done by mediation rather than slugging it out in court is much better for everyone involved, especially the children.

I do not think that there is particularly a role for mediation and the family courts in relation to the Child Support Agency, so I am afraid that I cannot help the hon. Lady on that one.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the Government’s proposals to introduce fixed fees in family law cases are intended to be cost-neutral?

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The answer is yes. I work closely with the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), on the question of public funding for legal services in the family courts. We want to have the very best family court services, and part of that is high-quality, properly trained legal representatives. Obviously, we do not want cases to get to court unless they absolutely have to, but when they do, we must make sure that the public funding is there and that the supply of solicitors and barristers to do that important work is available.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): But is it not the case that hundreds of family lawyers across the country maintain that the new Government fee structure for family lawyers is uneconomic and unsustainable? Is it not the case that our network of high street family solicitors is rapidly dissolving? What do the Government intend to do about it?

Ms Harman: My hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary is discussing the proposed changes that arise from the Carter review. She is in discussion with those providing important family services in towns and high streets and is well aware of the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. We are concerned to
17 Oct 2006 : Column 731
ensure that the supply of solicitors and barristers is there, but above all we want to make sure that mediation is available as well so that cases do not have to go to court unless it is absolutely necessary.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome what my right hon. and learned Friend has just said, but when I met members of the Sussex Law Society some two weeks ago many of them expressed grave concern about the continuing availability of representation for vulnerable people in family law cases. Will she give due consideration to the representations that I have forwarded to her Department on behalf of members of the Sussex Law Society?

Ms Harman: Absolutely. My hon. Friend’s points are well made. Perhaps it will be possible for him to arrange a discussion with his local law society and my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary, who has departmental responsibility for the Carter review.

We are absolutely determined to ensure that we have the right sort of legal services in the family justice system, and we want to work with the profession to ensure that that is the case.

Oxfordshire Coroner

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): if she will make a statement on the meeting between the Oxfordshire coroner and her departmental officials in August 2003. [94025]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): Following the announcement of the Hutton inquiry, the Lord Chancellor indicated that he was minded to invoke powers to ask the coroner to adjourn the inquest into the death of Dr. David Kelly, pending the outcome of the inquiry, unless there was an exceptional reason why he should not do so. The coroner met officials from the Department for Constitutional Affairs on 11 August to discuss how he might briefly resume the inquest to admit further evidence of the cause of death so that the cause of death could be accurately recorded by the registrar, and that then happened.

Norman Baker: Why was that meeting taking place when the coroner, having been replaced by Lord Hutton, was officially off the job? How could he legally resume an inquest when Lord Hutton had been given the powers to deal with the matter in place of the coroner? Is not the Minister concerned about the backlog of more than 100 inquests into the deaths of British military personnel that has built up under the coroner, dating back to 2003? Does she share my disquiet about the way in which this particular coroner is undertaking his duties?

Ms Harman: We have been very concerned about unacceptable delays in the inquests into the deaths of servicemen and women in Iraq. I am working with the coroner, together with additional coroners who have joined him, to help with the backlog. I would like to thank him and also Selina Lynch, Andrew Walker and Sir Richard Curtis, who are determined to ensure that bereaved relatives get questions about the deaths of
17 Oct 2006 : Column 732
their loved ones promptly answered. We are getting on with ensuring that the backlog is dealt with as it should be. As I said, the delays are unacceptable.

As to the meeting with Department for Constitutional Affairs officials about the death of Dr. David Kelly, I shall explain what happened. When the Hutton inquiry was announced, section 17A of the Coroners Act 1988 became relevant. It allows the Lord Chancellor to tell the coroner that there will be a public inquiry and if, in his view, it covers the same ground as the inquest, what happens is that, unless there are exceptional reasons to the contrary, the coroner has a duty to adjourn the inquest until after the inquiry has concluded. The meeting with officials came about because, although the inquest was opened by the coroner with initial information about the cause of death, further information—after the Hutton inquiry had been announced, but before it had got under way—came in from Home Office pathologists, including a toxicology report. The coroner wanted to be sure that that information was formally admitted so that it could be passed to the registrar in order to ensure that details of the death were properly recorded. I was not working in the Department at the time, but I have discussed the matter with officials and the position is as I have described it. However, if the hon. Gentleman wants further information, I would be happy to write to him.

Next Section Index Home Page