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7 Feb 2007 : Column 316WH—continued

The inimitable Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information has used language that is far stronger.

The 12-week consultation has been ridiculously short. I understand that after the process ends on 8 March, the regulations will be introduced on 19 March—an even shorter period. I join with other hon. Members in urging the Minister to think again. Any legislation that is virtually brand new needs more time before any worthwhile assessment of it can be made. We need much more time for a proper, mature assessment of the workings of the legislation. The regulations would effectively neuter and destroy the Act, and I urge the Minister to use all her persuasive powers as an eminent, learned QC to talk to her colleagues and to tell them that the Government must think again.

3.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): I am grateful for the personal comments made about me; I am also glad that this excellent debate has taken place.

Let us remind ourselves that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) is a member of a party that has not brought in any kind of freedom of information legislation. The measure has been six manifestos in the making, and there was no doubt an internal struggle to get it through. It is now law, and it has been in force for about two years. It is utter nonsense to suggest that there has been any kind of summersault after that length of struggle. It is incorrect.

For the first time ever, a full statutory right to know was introduced. We must recognise how far we have come from the situation under the Tories, when the public had no right whatever to request information held by a public authority. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs was right to compliment the Government on a measure that has been what it called a significant success. I agree.

Mr. Shepherd: Will the Minister give way?

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Vera Baird: I apologise, but I do not have the time.

Individuals wanting to find out about the performance of the local NHS trust can do so; local newspapers wanting to know how their council is allocating money to local services can do so; and national journalists searching for information about the most embarrassing things—payments made under the common agricultural policy, or whatever else it might be—can do so. The Freedom of Information Act has contributed hugely to healthy debate. It covers 100,000 public authorities, and it takes in myriad bodies that affect our constituents’ daily lives in a tangible way. It is fully retrospective; 63,000 pieces of information have been released; and 60 per cent. of all applications are allowed and answered in full.

In an Adjournment debate recently secured by a Conservative Member, the House heard of failures in more than one health authority. My Department went out of its way to ensure that those health authorities knew that we intended those queries to be answered. That is how committed we are to the legislation.

When the fees regulations were debated in Committee, it was announced that they would be reviewed within 12 to 18 months of their implementation to see how they were working. That was right and sensible. Good governance requires us to review the practical operation of legislation and to make changes if appropriate. I am very much in favour of a great increase in post-legislative scrutiny, of which this is a good example.

The review, which was of course independent, was undertaken by Frontier Economics. The entire findings were published, which included suggestions of a far more draconian nature than the current one. If the changes were about enabling central Government and the wider public sector to avoid high-profile, contentious or difficult requests, we would impose a charge. That had a destructive effect in Ireland, which saw a 75 per cent. reduction in the number of applications, and we calculated that it would cut by about 44 per cent. the time spent by officials on these matters if we were to do that. Clearly and obviously, what is proposed is not about restricting the operation of the Act. It is about targeting the approach; a tiny minority of requests impose disproportionate burdens on the Government, some of which, frankly, take weeks to deal with.

Let me deal with some of the detail. We intend to increase the number of activities that will count toward the appropriate limit of £600 for reading, consultation and time. If that happens, it will be subject to guidance and a framework. It will be subject to principle, and the application of those principles will be subject to appeal. It is not a situation in which public authorities can cook up some means of extending the time that they take over an inquiry to obfuscate the progress of information that they want to conceal.

Cases will be fully appealable, and the framework will be totally transparent. It would take a huge leap of imagination to link that transparent way of considering the value of work on dealing with requests with trying to get rid of the most embarrassing, contentious or high-profile cases. There is no connection. I repeat that it is all subject to appeal. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) is wrong—he will be glad to hear it—because there will
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still be a duty on the public authority, even in those situations, to try to help individuals to refine their requests so that they come within the time limit.

Another argument was raised about ministerial time, as if what is proposed is the thin end of the wedge to ensure that we do not give answers when we should. Ministerial time is frequently involved, but I have not heard a shred of evidence that it is abused. It is charged at the ludicrous rate of £25 an hour when it is really worth zillions. Truly, either there is evidence that we are abusing the use of ministerial time or people should simply accept what has been happening since the Act came into force, and that there will be no change in how it will function because it is part of the process.

It is mad that we do not charge for reading. All hon. Members ask parliamentary questions. There is no guidance to say that reading time should not be included when we come to the time limit on answering parliamentary questions. It usually is included. Why, all of a sudden, is it important to exclude reading from freedom of information requests? It lacks logic.

With aggregation, the applicant is pursued blindly—I mean that people do not refuse something because of who is asking. It means nothing more than that. Under existing legislation, public authorities have the right to aggregate similar requests. To do that, they need to know the identity of the requester. There is no new principle here as to identifying the requester.

The public sector is right to expect top-rate research skills from those whose jobs depend on them. The careers of journalists, professional campaigners and researchers are based on being able to ask clear, unambiguous and precise questions, but they do not seem to do it that often in freedom of information territory. I shall not give specific examples, but a reasonable analogy is a question about all the information since 1066 on the use of the wheel, when what the inquirer—the professional journalist—is really driving at is how many grants were given to car manufacturers in certain years. Such deliberately wide inquiries can take weeks of officials’ time, which is priced at £25 an hour.

Norman Baker: Will the Minister give way?

Vera Baird: I would, but I have very little time.

Of course, such activity costs the Government infinitely more than £25 an hour. Such open-ended trawling and unspecific and unfocused inquiry are the problem.

I have freedom of information in my blood—my blood group is not AO; it is FOI—but my blood gets hot when I think of my constituents in Redcar having to subsidise, on my Department’s estimate, the BBC’s research budget by about £1 million a year. That is the result of open-ended questions being asked in that trawling way. I get hot about the fact that the legislation was introduced with the intention of the Government being very open. Abuse is too strong a word, but it is not far from the truth when it comes to some requests. We are having to take the blame for trying to restrict the impact on public finances. That is completely the wrong approach. Our intention is to do no more than tailor how the legislation works so that it gives the best value to the most people in freedom
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of information terms, instead of concentrating a disproportionate cost on a few people who could get the information from anywhere else or could perfectly easily, by consulting the public body or working on their own, narrow the focus of their inquiries rather than take huge and disproportionate swathes of officials’ time.

We have had an excellent debate, which I welcome. The consultation process continues until 8 March. I would be furious with my staff if they had not fixed a date for the regulations, but that is no indication that the Government do not intend to take seriously into account everything that is put forward in the consultation. I have it in writing—I shall say so to put it beyond doubt—that the terms of the consultation are what they are, but the Government will take into account all that is put forward in the consultation process. We have so far received a rather small group of responses to the consultation—by 1 February, there was a total of 21. I fervently hope for a larger number. The responses so far are fairly evenly split, although that may not be the eventual outcome. I glad to have had this debate. Let us make the consultation hear everybody’s views, so that we can come to a measured decision.

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Cashpoint Security

4 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): By way of some background information, my interest in this subject was prompted largely by an appalling incident in Swadlincote in my constituency. In broad daylight at midday, an armed gang attacked a security delivery replenishing a cash machine at a Tesco store and in the course of committing their crime shot the security worker who was delivering the cash twice. Thankfully, gun crime in South Derbyshire is extraordinarily rare. The impact that that incident had on the local community can only be imagined. Looking further at that incident led me to learn a great deal more about the issue. First, I learnt that there had been a number of other incidents—not with the same level of violence, but nearly so—in other stores around my area. I had noted them, but had not taken them as seriously as I certainly should have.

As an example of the violence used in such attacks, someone who observed an attack at Measham in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) stated:

That was a few miles away from the incident in my constituency. It was the same type of crime and, I am afraid, was clearly committed by the same gang responsible for the incident in Swadlincote.

Such attacks are increasingly common. Last year, 1,033 attacks were made on those who replenish cash machines, which is an increase of 24 per cent. on the previous year. In 206 cases, firearms were produced and, in some instances, used. Often, other crimes were clearly linked to the offence. Predictably, the theft of a vehicle was often involved, as were firearms or knife offences and other matters relating to the laundering of money collected during the crime.

There is increasing anxiety in the security industry about the appalling prevalence of such crimes against people who are simply carrying out their lawful activities and providing support for part of our normal lives—I will come to that again later—and I give credit to the union that represents many security workers, the GMB. The scale of the cash transit business is £1.4 billion a day. An increasing number of machines are needed to fulfil our needs as customers. There are more than 58,000 in this country; the number has gone up by 4,000 in the past 12 months. The average machine dispenses between £5,000 and £20,000 a day. It is no surprise that they have to be so frequently replenished to meet our need as customers for cash to spend on the goods that we want to buy.

This subject has attracted interest before in Parliament. There was a useful Adjournment debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North
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(Mr. Austin) last April and there have been two early-day motions on the subject, including one tabled recently, which I urge hon. Members to sign.

As I mentioned, the Tesco store in Swadlincote was the target. I asked Tesco what measures it has taken in relation to the issue and it provided a useful note. I also asked about the prevalence of attacks on stores. In 2006, 50 Tesco cashpoints were attacked and since the start of this year—in only one month—there have been a further nine attacks on Tesco cash machines alone and three injuries during that month. Like many other retailers, cash machines form an important part of Tesco’s business and it is increasingly concerned about the risks to its staff—many of whom are caught up in those crimes—and to customers who are visiting stores. Of course, it is also concerned about those who provide that critical service and allow its stores to operate cash machines.

What has been done to date? Useful operations have taken place at a local level in some parts of the country. In Merseyside, Operation Matrix focuses on the protection of those delivering cash and on intelligence activity. The operation has yielded a reduction of 60 per cent. in these appalling offences. There has also been some improvement in the technology of protective responses. Cartridges full of blank paper or notes are used to persuade criminals that they might catch something that is in fact valueless. Dye-stained cartridges have also been used, which contaminate the criminal who opens them and makes the cash unusable. Those measures have some by-products. There is evidence in the Swadlincote incident that the immediately preceding attack yielded a negative for the criminals and, as a result, they used additional violence against the guard in Swadlincote to make absolutely sure that they got a cartridge that contained real cash, which is what they were after. Those attempts at protection can yield additional violence from the criminals involved.

In my own area—I will turn to some of the actions that I want us to take—there has been a focus on the use of cross-force intelligence activity. The east midlands special operations unit has been set up partly in response to the O’Connor review on level 2 policing provision in the east midlands. My hon. Friend the Minister will be familiar with the O’Connor review, which showed all the east midlands forces to be lacking in capability in that area. That unit has recently been set up and one of its first initiatives was to participate in steps to track down the criminals involved in the appalling incident in Swadlincote and others in the area.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I have long shared a common constituency border with my hon. Friend and he will agree that our areas are particularly vulnerable to cash-in-transit crimes because they are at the nexus of the midlands motorway system: the M1, the M69, and the M42. Does he agree that in relation to the cross-border co-operation that he is describing, it would be helpful if the finance for that unit could be extended beyond when it is due to expire, which is during next year? The unit is making progress and it would be helpful to have a longer period over which it could make plans.

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Mr. Todd: My hon. Friend intelligently anticipates one of the points that I will be putting to the Minister and one of the actions I will be asking him to take. It is certainly true that the unit, which has only just been set up with Home Office funding—let us give full credit to the Home Office’s assistance in establishing the unit—has funding guaranteed only until 2008. The valuable work that it has already undertaken in dealing with organised crime of that nature might be harmed if its funding is terminated or significantly reduced. We are talking about a collection of east midlands police forces that are already stretched for cash. Therefore, turning the unit’s needs back on the forces involved and saying, “Well, you fund it on your own,” would certainly place its extraordinarily important work in jeopardy.

Let me turn to what we can do about what is an increasingly prevalent criminal activity that has recently had an effect on a number of hon. Members’ constituencies. The first point has already been mentioned. We are talking about organised criminal activity. The gangs involved are not speculative criminals, who look around for an opportunity to collect money. They are organised and operate across a wide area, and the police response needs to be both protective and intelligence led. The intelligence activity requires dedicated specialist resources.

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and I echo his comments on the excellent work done by the GMB in the area that we are discussing. Although I appreciate that the police can do much to solve the crimes, many preventive measures could also be taken. We should not put all the onus on the police. For example, the financial services industry has its part to play. Many shipments are made at the same time each day, every day. Does my hon. Friend agree that that gives criminals a perfect opportunity to plan their attacks?

Mr. Todd: I clearly have a collection of extremely wise colleagues present, who are picking out points that I shall make later in my speech and identifying them themselves. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says. That point came up in the Swadlincote incident and I shall touch on it in a moment.

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