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7 Feb 2007 : Column 302WH—continued

I hope that this debate will focus our consciousness. How can we have accountable Government and accountable local authorities if we cannot have access to the information that informs judgments? Why are the regulations coming into force—or, from the point
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of view of the Executive, why do they hope that the regulations are coming into force? How can this be if we assert ourselves and argue that the Government should stand fast by the intent that they first expressed so long ago?

Several hon. Members rose—

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. There are five contenders for the 31 minutes available. Hon. Members should please bear that in mind.

2.59 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I shall be extremely brief, Mr. Cook. As you say, other Members want to speak, but I must also apologise because I shall not be here for the end of the debate due to a Select Committee commitment. I am therefore obliged to be extremely quick.

Most in this Chamber have form on the issue of freedom of information in one way or another. We have lived with it for many years and taken pride in delivering for the first time a law on freedom of information. Naturally, we want to protect it. So we are concerned at proposals to restrict the 2000 Act so soon after its implementation. Let us be clear: the only intention of the proposals is to restrict the operation of the Act. It is worth asking about the underlying rationale. Well, there must be two: first, the Act is costing more than we want to pay and we would like to reduce the cost; and secondly, it is proving so onerous and irksome that we would like to restrict access to it. A way has been found to achieve both those objectives in one set of regulations.

Why should that happen? It is extremely puzzling, especially when the regulations are set alongside the other bizarre development—an attempt, through a private Member’s Bill, to remove the House of Commons and Members of Parliament from the orbit of the Act that they themselves passed. You couldn’t make it up. Furthermore, I gather that there is all manner of usual-channels collaboration to ensure that that happens.

This must be utterly bewildering to the outside world. We have done something that we are proud of, and it is beginning to operate—unearthing information and improving the quality of our democracy. Then we say on the one hand, “Oh, by the way, we’d like to remove ourselves from it,” and on the other, “We’d like to introduce some restrictions so that it does not work so effectively.” It is utterly bizarre.

The Public Administration Committee, which I chair, considered the legislation. We looked at it in draft and spent a lot of time making sure that we could improve it—and we did, in a number of ways. At the heart of the arguments was public interest. Where did that lie in particular cases? Should certain information be withheld or disclosed, and who would decide where that public interest was to be found? That is at the centre of the whole approach to the issue and of the legislation.

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): The question has arisen recently in respect of decisions being taken about which Post Office branches may or
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may not close and whether a list exists. One of the excellent media sources in the south-west, the Western Morning News, made a freedom of information request on that topic. The answer came back that, if such a list existed, it was not in the public interest for it to be in the public domain at this stage. It will be crucial for all communities that may well be under threat of losing their post offices to prepare their campaigns to keep them. How does the hon. Gentleman respond to that?

Dr. Wright: The examples being given are telling. I could extend the hon. Gentleman’s point to the press generally, which hon. Members have mentioned. One of the great advantages of the freedom of information regime is that instead of simply making up stories, at which they are traditionally rather good, the press now have a discipline of finding the facts about cases. Then they can make up stories about them. It is a great advance and it is utterly puzzling that we should now want to go into reverse.

The point that I am trying to get at is that the public interest argument was central to the whole basis of the legislation, yet it is entirely absent from the proposals before us. They do not answer the fundamental question: what value do the Government put on freedom of information? Is it £35 million? Perhaps it should be double that. How do they know that £35 million is too high a value? How do we evaluate the examples that hon. Members are giving? That is the question behind the issue. I would put an extraordinarily high value on the contribution that freedom of information makes to the quality of our democracy and society. The Government must be able to answer the question about what value they put on it. Again, that is at the heart of the issue. In making the proposals, they have not even attempted to make that balancing, evaluative test, which is at the heart of the legislation itself.

Mr. Willis: I love the passion that the hon. Gentleman brings to his argument. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) mentioned the Yorkshire Post and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has just mentioned cost saving. The reality is that many freedom of information requests made by the Yorkshire Post have pulled out from local authorities, particularly police authorities, huge expenses that have been squandered—£28,000 for a shower for the chief constable, £65,000 for a 4x4 BMW, £6,000 for—

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman should be brief.

Mr. Willis: All that came out, and only because of freedom of information.

Dr. Wright: So that we do not get a consensus that we do not really want, let me extend the hon. Gentleman’s argument a fraction further. One of the reasons why it is not a good idea to exclude Members of Parliament from the legislation is that we have to produce the same kind of information—the list of expenses that we all have to claim. Of course we find that irksome, but an exclusion would have an effect on the pattern of claims—exactly the same effect to which
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the hon. Gentleman points in other areas of public life. We should not fool ourselves about that.

I conclude by saying that public value is completely absent from what is proposed, yet it was completely central to the legislation. My conclusion, which has been hinted at already, is that the fundamental reason for wanting freedom of information has not yet entered the bloodstream of the Government. That is the truth of the matter. When we were passing the law, we always knew that unless it produced that culture change and entered the bloodstream of every public body in the land, it would not be doing its job. What has happened tells us, unfortunately, that it has not yet entered the bloodstream of the Government.

I know that that law has entered the bloodstream of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister. She is a believer, although she will have to defend the indefensible in a moment. We know that she does not believe in it; she is too principled. One of the penalties of being a Minister is that they have to read out things that they know are not true. That is a considerable quality, which some of us have not managed to achieve. That goes to the heart of the issue. Parliament passed and believes in the legislation, which is producing lots of good effects. It would be absurd and bizarre if we started rolling it back.

Several hon. Members rose—

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. One of the previous contenders has slipped his moorings and appears to have left port. My previous anxieties about getting everyone in have somewhat eased. We now have 21 minutes and only two Members are seeking to catch my eye. I call Tim Farron.

3.9 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Cook. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on securing this debate, which is extremely important, as has already been said. He made excellent points in his speech, although I do not entirely agree with the lavish praise that he heaped on the 2000 Act. Many of us felt at the time that the Act was far too weak. Indeed, Lord Clark of Windermere, who is a constituent of mine, ostensibly resigned because the Act was not made of the stuff that he wished it was.

It is all the more depressing, therefore, that we are having this debate about potentially narrowing the Freedom of Information Act, rather than expanding it or widening its scope. Liberal Democrat Members would certainly like to see it expanded and the limitations on access to information reduced. One complaint that I have about the Act as it stands is that public bodies can refuse freedom of information requests on cost grounds, because that already permits them to give allowable, but nevertheless spurious, reasons for refusing access to vital information. Now, of course, the Government propose to allow agencies to take account of areas of work that could increase the overall cost in each case, and such powers are bound to be abused in some quarters. Even if they are
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exercised without malice, they are bound to increase the number of requests that will not be properly answered.

To follow an earlier line of argument, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) talked about costs and asked what price the Government put on freedom of information. What are we saving? The proposals have ostensibly been introduced to save not quite £12 million. Is it worth it? The Government are curtailing the liberties of every citizen in the country to save £12 million. However, they are preparing to take away our liberties under an identity card scheme that will cost 500 times that amount, at a conservative estimate. We could scrap that scheme and have plenty of money to ensure that we had much wider access to information.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his point not only applies to the Government, but goes back to the culture of secrecy in this House, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) referred? We often apply for information through the House, but we are told that the cost of providing it is disproportionate. I have found that out to my cost many times over the years. If we ally that with the inability to elicit information through the 2000 Act, what price the essential function of every Member of this House of holding the Executive to account?

Tim Farron: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is absolutely right, and I sympathise with him. I, too, have been given that reason for not having many of my written questions answered. As he suggests, the issue extends to other bodies beyond the Government, such as national park authorities, local councils and a variety of other quangos. We have to drag information out of those bodies, and it is important that we can do that.

Of course, we have to ask what the motivation is for seeking this £12 million saving. If the figure is just £12 million, it is a rather odd and relatively small saving to seek. Have this supposedly reformist Government gone native?

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): Is not one possible answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question about motivation that a Government who started off with great hopes and intentions on that bright, sunny day—to borrow the phrase used by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)—have progressively gone into a bunker and forgotten their principles during eight or nine years in government? In effect, they are trying to do a U-turn because they regret the right thing that they did earlier.

Tim Farron: Yes, I was just getting to that, and I am sorry that I did not see the hon. Gentleman trying to intervene earlier, because I have half made his point. I fear that the Government have, as he says, learned the lessons of their reforming and have decided to go native. They feel pressured by a monster than they cannot control, even though that monster is not nearly as scary as it should be.

Let me briefly run through some examples of how the Act has worked and been of great value in my constituency. We have a good, campaigning local
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newspaper, the Westmorland Gazette, which is pretty famous. It made a freedom of information request to the local police authority about the impact of new speed cameras. Whatever one’s view about the impact and usefulness of speed cameras, it was only by using the Act that the newspaper discovered that new speed cameras had led to a 753 per cent. increase in the number of speeding tickets. That valuable information is of use and interest to the public.

I mentioned national parks a moment ago, and there are two in my constituency—the Yorkshire Dales national park and the Lake District national park, which has just gone through the interesting experience of losing its chief officer. Various issues were not revealed at that point, but they all related to the good and proper use of public money. They would not have been revealed at all had the newspaper not been able to use the Act. I am sure that the authority did not want to answer the newspaper’s irksome and difficult questions and that it would have taken every opportunity not to do so, had it been able to. However, the proposed changes could present authorities with that opportunity in future.

I am pursuing an issue that alarms me greatly. I discovered that social services departments are increasingly forcing people who are going into care to cash in investments that they had taken out partly to pay off mortgages, which could put their partners and families at the risk of losing their homes. I am trying to find out what flexibility there is out there for discounting such investments, and the Act is my only obvious route for securing that information. It will be very difficult for those involved to find and produce it, so it is all the more important that the scope of the Act is widened, rather than narrowed.

To conclude, the proposals are a fundamental threat to the relationship between the individual and the state. From the perspective of public bodies, freedom of information requests are no doubt irksome, embarrassing and potentially dangerous, but any move that makes it less likely that they will be put in an irksome, embarrassing and dangerous position should be resisted at all costs.

3.16 pm

Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): I am particularly grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) for being clever enough to secure this badly needed debate. He introduced it admirably and set out the issues very well.

I am interested in the issue because I introduced the Right to Know Bill—a private Member’s Bill—in 1992. I inherited it from the then Labour Opposition, who had drafted it in the na├»ve assumption that they would be elected at the polls that year and who therefore had an excellent, fully drafted Bill in their hands. Thanks to the great amount of advice that they received from bodies such as the Campaign for Freedom of Information, they learned—as the world had done over the previous 10 years from Australia, New Zealand and Canada—which parts of freedom of information legislation were good and which were difficult. Having learned those lessons, countries around the world generally conceded that we had, in anticipation of being in government, drafted a state-of-the-art Bill
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with plenty of teeth, plenty of thought and plenty of learning from bad experience.

Of course, we were not elected then, but when we were, I was fortunate enough to be on the Cabinet Sub-Committee that looked at translating our policy and our original Bill into a formal Government Bill. That was a salutary experience, in that one saw a good policy and a good Bill gradually weakened, despite the extremely good leadership of Lord Clark of Windermere, or David Clark as he was then, who was the Cabinet Minister responsible for the issue. He fought a subtle and clever campaign to salvage what he could and he got a better White Paper than one would have expected had one looked around the table and seen the various Cabinet Ministers who were prepared to undermine it.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman name them?

Mark Fisher: In the interests of freedom of information, let me say that those people are well known. They know who they are, as does anybody who has taken an interest in this subject. However, the issue was not the individuals; some of the Ministers around that table, like the Minister with us today, had long, honourable and interesting records. None the less, the Government’s overall attitude was ambiguous, to put it politely, and the legislation that we passed was much weaker than it should have been. The comparison was with the legislation of the Irish Government, who, like us, had learned from the experience of the 1980s, but who had done a much better job and introduced a much more forceful measure.

So the Government have form on the subject; they have always had mixed, ambiguous views. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn noted, there are plenty of Ministers, such as the Lord Chancellor, who would give the measure warm and sincere words; and there are probably good Departments doing good work individually in relation to it. I was interested in what my right hon. Friend said about the record of the Ministry of Defence.

Most particularly to the Government’s credit, they selected or appointed an excellent Information Commissioner in Mr. Richard Thomas. Without him the Act would have been far less effective. He is the one thing keeping it—and hope—afloat. It was a brave appointment by the Government, but the Act should be stronger, and we need it to be stronger. If we are interested in good government locally or nationally we need freedom of information; it makes for better decisions. It concentrates the mind, in all government bodies at every level, if the information that they have can be shared with the public. The more information there is, the better government is.

We need to strengthen the legislation rather than weaken it. The proposals, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, will undoubtedly have a weakening effect. The idea of incorporating the timing of consultation and consideration, and the aggregation—the bundling together—will inevitably weaken the legislation. It will do so not in itself, because the sums and timings concerned are small, but because it gives any authority,
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Minister, local government department or public agency that wishes not to reveal information a perfectly respectable, wholly legal and unchallengeable way of refusing any request. That will completely sink the legislation.

There are several things about freedom of information that are very important, including empowerment of the individual. Most of the individual requests—the 60 per cent. that have been referred to—are fairly uncontentious. However, they are very important for enabling the individuals concerned to get a grip on their lives, by finding out what is on police or Army records—the things that give a person a sense of identity or of participating in their own life. Those aspects of the matter are important and probably will not be affected by the regulations often or much; they will not be used in relation to them. They will be used in the public sphere of journalists, politicians and people who are crusading on an issue; it is their activities that will be caught, easily, without the need for the relevant bodies even to break step. They will sweep up, if they wish to; many of them will not, and it is not right to make a doomsday speech, claiming that this is the end of the legislation. The Act will continue to be applied throughout the country, but anything that is painful for the Government or contentious—the cutting-edge issues that make the Act so important—will not even be at issue. It will be possible to ignore them, and that is wrong. It will make for worse government, at local and national level.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have asked the reason for the change to the regulations, and I am sure that the Government believe—under pressure from the Treasury, with the new spending round—that it is to do with cost. However, that is laughable. We have always under-financed the Act, from day one. We should have spent a huge amount of money that was comparable, say, to what went into advertising the delights of the national lottery. If we had had that sort of advertising campaign, about the potential of the Act and the relevance of freedom of information to the lives of people and communities, it would not have cost a huge sum but it would have changed public awareness and use of the measure. We have never put money behind it, and the idea of cutting a few million pounds by reducing the number of requests is shameful. Hon. Members have rightly complimented the Minister on her integrity, but I hope that she will swallow the part of her speech that argues the change is being made on financial grounds. That is an appalling and laughable argument that bears no scrutiny. The sums involved are nugatory compared with the political and democratic benefits flowing from the Act.

Norman Baker: On the financial side, which is of course only one narrow aspect of the matter, does not the Freedom of Information Act, properly applied, save public money by revealing excesses and improper expenditure, thus improving central and local government?

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