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7 Feb 2007 : Column 309WH—continued

Mark Fisher: Of course; the hon. Gentleman is completely right. The Act can do that, although not invariably or inevitably. It saves money by helping
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Government to understand and properly debate important decisions, and avoid those that would be wrong, misguided or costly. Indirectly, it can have the effect that he mentioned. We see examples of that happening all over the world under other regimes, and it is certainly true here.

Money is not the explanation of what is proposed, and it cannot really be that our wonderful civil service or local authority officers are so burdened that they cannot deal with a few requests; the numbers are small, and in a really participatory democracy the legislation would be used much more, which is perhaps what the Government fear. The idea that we should not welcome that effect is nonsense. It is a question not of price, but of value: what value do we put on our democracy and the scrutiny of it? That is what we are discussing. Behind it, we are discussing a yet bigger issue. In the current generation, Parliament is getting weaker and weaker in relation to Governments who are growing more and more mighty. We have almighty Government and a Parliament that in its recent manifestations over the past 20 or 50 years—certainly over the past 100 years—has been getting weaker.

The imbalance between the Executive and the legislature has reached a critical point. If we pass the regulations they will be only a small drop of water in the balance, but that will tip it in the wrong direction for Parliament and the public realm, and the investigative press. Heaven knows, with a few honourable local and national exceptions, we do not have a rigorous investigative press that fights on our behalf to scrutinise and call to account local or national government. Thank heavens for the few journalists and titles that do so, but we can never say at the moment that we have a rigorous press or Parliament. If the regulations go through, it will be much easier to neuter Parliament and anyone in the public realm who wants to ask difficult and pertinent questions. We would be fools to allow them to be passed.

I am sure, as every other right hon. and hon. Member who has spoken has said, that the Minister does not believe in the brief that she has before her. It will be difficult for her to present it. I hope that she will persuade her colleagues quietly to bury the regulations. They are not important financially, but they are very important to the quality of our parliamentary democracy.

3.28 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on his introduction of the debate. Several eloquent speeches have given good reasons for opposing the regulations. It is heartening to find the spirit of ’97 alive and well among Labour Members; it is only a pity that that spirit appears to have been dampened in the inner circle of Government. I hope that the powerful speeches, particularly from Labour Members, will have some influence on the Minister and her colleagues. The arguments have considerable merit.

There were, in 1997, the year of reforming zeal, several constitutional changes, but my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) was right to say that before the Freedom of
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Information Act was even formalised there had been a process of rowing back from its original state. I remember talking to David Clark, who was a very good Minister and seems to me to have been the first Cabinet Minister to be sacked for attempting to implement his party’s manifesto too successfully. Nevertheless, the Act is in force, and works. Change is proposed not because it does not work, but because it does.

That represents a fundamental threat to those who now believe that information needs to be suppressed rather than released. It may be inevitable after a long time in government that people find more reasons to suppress information than to release it, because the information is about their record rather than that of a previous Government, but that is very sad. As Members have made clear today, releasing information is good for accountability, and it is a fundamental democratic right.

It is also the case that releasing information leads to better government and, as a matter of fact, to cost savings. I very much agree that worries about costs are secondary to the principles involved, but even on that narrow ground, releasing information can lead to cost savings. If we in this House do not have the ability through parliamentary questions or freedom of information to scrutinise Ministers and the decision-making process and to discover the facts that will lead to informed debate, what are we here for, and what possible incentive is there for the Government to behave in a way that is responsible, that gives good value for money and that bears in mind issues of accountability? Asking Ministers of any party or any Government to behave with absolute integrity when there is no proper way of finding out what they are doing is asking a great deal of them.

Why were the proposals made in the first place? Several reasons have been suggested. I shall refer to the one in the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs report of 13 June 2006. Baroness Ashton had been asked to elaborate on why the review was considered necessary, and she told the Committee that staff apparently

and that staff spent

The Committee rightly concluded:

That is drily but pertinently put. It succinctly demolished Baroness Ashton’s argument.

The Select Committee demolished Baroness Ashton’s argument, and it is up to the Government to demolish the arguments of those who are opposed to the regulations. In a letter to Lord Falconer on 11 December last year, the BBC stated:

That is a succinct summary of what Members have said in this debate.

Of course, the BBC would be caught by the aggregation proposal as well. Presumably, if one BBC journalist were to submit a request that took the organisation to the limit, the BBC, our primary investigative organ of the media, would be prevented from putting in further requests for three months. That is what the regulations suggest, and of course it is completely ludicrous. It would put the BBC’s ability to submit FOI requests on a par with an individual who may wish, quite properly, to look at their Army records. No one wishes to restrict that in any way, but to compare the two is, frankly, not sensible. The BBC has an entirely different role, as do the rest of our media, our campaigning organisations and, dare I say it, Members of Parliament and others in public life who hold the Government to account. That is part of our role, and it should not be compromised.

The ease with which requests could be rejected if the proposals go through unamended is bizarre. I believe that that is the word that the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) used. “Insidious” is the word that I would more readily choose. There is already a £600 limit—a so-called appropriate limit—for requests made of central Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, there is a question whether that is an appropriate limit in any case, but even if it is, we are now told that the costs attributable to considering a request will be capped at £400, and the costs attributable to consulting will also be capped at £400. Therefore, a request that is simply considered and consulted on could exceed the limit before its merits are even considered. I am sure that if a request is particularly difficult, there will be no difficulty in consulting a large number of civil servants and Ministers, all of whose time will add up quickly to £400.

Let us be in no doubt as to what the proposal is. It is a method of stopping any freedom of information request that is embarrassing or difficult from getting off square one. That is what it is about; that will be the result. Other Members were generous in saying that that is unintentional. Unfortunately, I do not agree.

Mark Fisher: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Government insisted on their regulations, they could constructively allow appeals to the commissioner on applications that are turned down, and allow a public interest defence to be raised? Without those, the whole thing would be a disaster.

Norman Baker: That would certainly be better than nothing, but it would be dangerous. First, the Government have shown no commitment to a proper public interest test. We saw that when the original Bill was watered down. Secondly, the commissioner, for whom I have tremendous respect as a matter of fact, is already overawed by the amount of work that he has to undertake. The hon. Gentleman’s suggestions would be the best of a bad job, but by no means a satisfactory consequence of the regulations.

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I am afraid that the pendulum has begun to swing back against freedom of information. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase put his finger on it exactly: it is not in the bloodstream. That is a good way of putting it. The pendulum has swung back as far as the Government are concerned—some civil servants and Ministers never wanted freedom of information in the first place. It has swung back, dare I say it, in this House with the absurd proposal to exempt Members of Parliament from the Act. That came to notice thanks to David Hencke of The Guardian. Nobody else had picked up on it, and I intend to oppose it all the way through—it must be resisted.

The swinging back of the pendulum is shown by the fact that the House of Commons Commission, which is supposed to represent us, resisted for two years a modest freedom of information request of mine to break down the travel costs of MPs. It fought that at vast cost to this House in barristers’ fees and so on, and it lost. Next week—by Valentine’s day—it is required to produce the information, but it fought for two years against that modest request.

Unfortunately, people are resisting the basic culture of freedom of information. I had hoped that we had changed in 1997, but we are rowing back. Those who are in this room are well known as defenders of freedom of information. We must ensure that those outside this room, elsewhere in this House, feel equally strongly about it.

Before I sit down, let me make a plea directly to the Minister. I served with her on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and I have tremendous respect for her. I say that genuinely, not as a debating point. Members will know that I do not say such things unless I mean them. I do not believe, knowing as I do where she is coming from, that she can possibly believe that the regulations are the correct way forward. Whatever else she has to say today, I hope that she will be able to convince her colleagues in the Government that the proposals are indefensible. They will do the Government no good in terms of their standing with the public, and they will ultimately lead to worse government. I believe that she knows that in her heart of hearts. The proposals are an attempt to kick the legs from under the Freedom of Information Act, and the Liberal Democrats want no part of that.

3.38 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on opening the debate so ably. Obviously, open government is less secretive. It is better government, and there is more public involvement and public trust. Decisions taken in secret that remain secret hardly lead to good or better public services and better value for money for the taxpayer. Open government actually costs much less.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) mentioned the millennium dome, which was a total disaster financially. One could add to that the foot and mouth crisis, the NHS information technology fiasco, the Child Support Agency meltdown and the Criminal Records Bureau
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problems, all of which have cost large amounts of money. Much of that expenditure could have been avoided if there had been more open, less secretive government. Extra scrutiny of public expenditure through FOI can result in big savings in public money, and that point was made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) a moment ago.

The Act is working reasonably well. I would not say that it was working perfectly—the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) was right when he said that quite a lot can be done to try to improve the legislation. There are delays at every stage. Whitehall Departments continually extend their original consideration beyond the 20-day deadline, and continually extend their internal reviews. When requests have been made and turned down twice, they go to the Information Commissioner and often sit in a six-month queue in Warrington before they are even considered. I urge the Minister to devote Government energy to tackling some of the problems to strengthen the public’s right to access public information, rather than finding ways to restrict that right.

A number of hon. Members have made it clear that the legislation is not costing a great deal. The report by the consultant from Frontier Economics came up with a figure of £35.5 million for the cost across the public sector, including the Information Commissioner and the tribunal. That is not a vast amount; in fact, it is a small sum. Let us compare that with what the Government spend every year on the Central Office of Information: it is about 8 per cent. of the cost of the COI. That puts that into perspective. The National Audit Office, in a report on 14 December, pointed out that the Government could save £660 million by completely restructuring their office supplies procurement. When we consider the cost of freedom of information in that context, this is a small sum, as was made clear by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher).

The upper limits of £600 and £450 are not often reached. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs has recommended that no changes be made. The Information Commissioner stated that the fees regime was working reasonably well. He went on to say that it had

Why change the system? Why, indeed. Of course, the Government have to bear down on costs. I understand that the Department for Constitutional Affairs has received a pretty miserable settlement from the Chancellor for the next financial year. It has to have a beady eye on areas of expenditure where costs can be driven down—we accept that. However, a saving of roughly £12 million—just 4 per cent. of the cost of the COI—means that I do not think that we are talking about cost. Are we talking about abuse of the system? Manifestly, we are not. There is evidence that some commercial organisations have been getting carried away, but that could be dealt with separately. Is the system delivering what it is meant to deliver? It is working reasonably well, despite the flaws.

If one looks at various local newspapers and how they run campaigns to try to extract information from local bodies, one comes across a lot of examples.
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Indeed, a number of hon. Members have pointed out examples already. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills referred to two local newspapers, while the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to his local newspaper. I have had a look at one of the newspapers from my part of the world, the Cambridge Evening News. I asked for some examples of news that has broken thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and there have been a number of interesting stories.

In November 2006, the Cambridge Evening News ran a story about how 30 police officers and 26 members of civilian police staff in Cambridgeshire were on long-term leave due to illness. In June 2006, a story was run, again based on FOI, about the cost of interpreters to the Cambridgeshire police: it was more than £700,000 a year, the equivalent of 35 extra bobbies on the beat. In May 2006, through information that had previously been refused, the newspaper discovered:

The paper has run various campaigns that are linked to the health service, and in March 2006 it discovered:

It also ran a story in February 2005 about violence and intimidation being part of daily life for staff at Addenbrooke’s, with more than 170 incidents of aggression against those staff, with many being punched, bitten, kicked and spat at.

All that information would not have come out were it not for the Act. Hon. Members have given numerous other national examples of how the Act has been used. The right hon. Member for Islwyn pointed out that there are dozens of examples in his former Department, the Ministry of Defence, of how the Act was used by members of the public and outside organisations to access information.

So, if we ask, “Why change the system?”, the answer is simple. Ministers want to curtail the flow of information. Maybe they are embarrassed that too many revelations have been coming out of Government. Surely the changes in the regulations will transform the working of the Act. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills pointed out, the reading, consideration and consultation with lawyers proposals will mean that many more requests will hit the limit. Ministers will effectively be able to stop any request that they feel is inconvenient. It will be, as the right hon. Member for Islwyn pointed out, a charter for public servants who want to be obstructive. Tens of thousands of requests will be removed from the system altogether.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central mentioned the Irish example. Ireland introduced various amendments to the Irish Freedom of Information Act in 2003, which included the introduction of a range of fees. In her annual report for 2004, the Irish Information Commissioner reported that following the introduction of fees and changes similar to those proposed here, requests for non-personal information declined by 75 per cent. She said that the decline in the use of the Act went far beyond what the Government intended when they decided to
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introduce fees and called for a review of the scale and structure of the charges. That is what happened in Ireland after similar changes to those proposed by the Government.

Let us consider the impact of aggregation. A number of hon. Members have mentioned it and its impact on specialist reporters. They have also discussed the impact of the new acting in concert rule, which would mean that the whole staff of a newspaper would be aggregated and the newspaper could be restricted to one FOI request a month. If the newspaper in my region that carried out the campaigns I mentioned earlier had been restricted to one request a month, many of those stories would never have been brought to the attention of the public.

The Society of Editors has been outspoken on the subject. It has made it clear that it believes

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