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12 Jun 2007 : Column 654

Impact Assessments

19. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): If she will make a statement on the role of the proposed impact assessments in speeding up small-scale planning applications. [141606]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): We are currently consulting on proposed changes to permitted development rights for householders. Developments with no impact beyond the host property would be permitted, and clear limits on size and siting would set out what was allowed. It is estimated that the number of householder planning applications would be reduced by about 85,000.

Dr. Cable: I welcome the proposed impact assessments as a way of strengthening the rights of third parties in planning disputes, but how do the Government intend to reconcile the new protection with their simultaneous commitment to speeding up planning applications?

Angela E. Smith: This is a twofold protection. It not only strengthens the rights of other householders to object, but it strengthens the right of the individual householder to know exactly what is permitted. It is like the old volume allowance, but with clear guidelines. As I have said, we expect the number of planning applications to fall by about 85,000, and that in itself would help to speed up the planning system.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Elsewhere in Europe, local authorities have been able to speed up the planning application process while also speeding up the process of change to a renewable and sustainable energy agenda, because they are allowed to set clear terms and requirements for collection and recycling of water and the incorporation of energy-generating systems in any planning developments. Is the Minister contemplating adopting the same system across the board in the United Kingdom, so that all local authorities can be clear about the change agenda?

Angela E. Smith: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and we are consulting on making microgeneration much easier for individual households on smaller scale developments. We have to get a balance between ensuring local flexibility and allowing every single local authority to do something completely different, which could then hamper progress towards developing greater take-up of new technologies. It is important, at the same time, that we have a degree of flexibility for local authorities. The key is to ensure that we move as quickly as possible to increasing microgeneration.

Affordable Housing

20. Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): What steps she is taking to ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing. [141607]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): New housing is now at its highest rate for 20 years but we need to go further, given the serious
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pressures on affordability. Regional assemblies also need to do more. That is made harder in my hon. Friend’s region because of the approach of the South East England regional assembly, which is arguing, unfortunately, for cuts in the level of house building.

Laura Moffatt: Does my hon. Friend have any words for those on the Conservative-dominated regional assembly, who on one hand tell my constituents that the south-east is to be concreted over, and on the other
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shout about the need for more affordable housing? I find that despicable and unfair; those people should see how desperate some of the hard-working families at our constituency surgeries are for new housing.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is completely right. We have an ageing and growing population, with more people living alone. We need to go further and build more homes for the next generation; it is not fair on them if we do not. Frankly, the approach of the Conservatives in the south-east is bonkers.

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Point of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday I raised with you an issue concerning the Ministry of Defence not answering a named-day question. I thank you for your work in ensuring that I will at least get an answer today. I understand that the Minister of State signed off the answer on his way to Brize Norton last night.

Unfortunately, I have to draw to your attention another lapse by the Ministry of Defence, to which I drew the notice of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), this morning. Yesterday, the MOD published a news release about the extension of the medical assessment programme and briefed the media. It was only today that the Under-Secretary thought it appropriate to publish a written statement to Parliament. What can be done to make sure that the Ministry of Defence takes seriously its responsibilities to this House before it publishes information to the media?

Mr. Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I will have to inquire whether this concerned a new policy. The press can be briefed on an old policy, but I shall find out why the press found out before the hon. Gentleman.

12 Jun 2007 : Column 658

Freedom of Information (Amendment) (No. 2)

3.33 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I beg to move,

Friday 18 May 2007, when Members of this House, aided and abetted by Labour and Conservative Front Benchers, backed the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, will surely go down in history as one of the most dishonourable and embarrassing days in this Parliament. The arguments deployed in favour of the Bill were spurious and specious and collapsed after the most cursory scrutiny.

Members of this House—those who were whipped into voting for the Bill and those who failed to anticipate the skulduggery and subterfuge in which Front Benchers were willing to connive that Friday—have an opportunity to repair some of the damage caused by that capricious and self-serving vote—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Temperate language is always best. Votes and decisions of the House should not be described in that manner. It would help me if the hon. Gentleman tempered his language and made it more moderate.

Tom Brake: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I will attempt to do what I am being encouraged to do.

In an article headlined “House of Knaves” in The Daily Telegraph, the vote was described as “an abysmal decision”, with MPs

The Daily Mail headline was no more flattering:

The Sun was characteristically blunt:

My Bill—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I dislike doing so, but I must interrupt the hon. Gentleman again. So far, he has commented on something that happened several Fridays ago. He must move on and put the case for the Bill before us.

Tom Brake: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am about to do so.

My Bill will demonstrate to our constituents that Members are committed not only to protecting freedom of information legislation, but to reinforcing it. It will strengthen freedom of information powers in three key areas: it will remove the ministerial veto; it will limit the time allowed for public authorities to respond to requests involving consideration of the
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public interest; and it will extend the range of bodies covered by freedom of information legislation.

It is, of course, true that the ministerial veto has never been exercised. Members might consider that to be a reason for maintaining it, as Ministers have shown considerable self-restraint in not exercising it. I prefer the contrary argument: if it has not been used, it is because the safeguards work and there is no need for a veto. Furthermore, the fact that the veto has not been used does not mean that Ministers are not actively considering using it. In a letter to Lord Falconer, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said he wanted to

It is not clear to me exactly how individually innocuous submissions become lethal when accumulated. The Secretary of State went on to bemoan the

Most Members will agree that that is good news. However, in response to the tribunal’s failing, the Secretary of State is considering exercising the Cabinet Minister veto to annul those decisions. Clearly, therefore, one senior Minister is considering exercising the veto.

As a consequence of yesterday’s information tribunal decision that the Deputy Prime Minister must hand over documents relating to Vauxhall towers—a development that the local council and UNESCO opposed—the right hon. Gentleman might also be considering use of the veto. We need to get rid of the veto before Ministers develop a taste for it.

I shall now turn to the subject of time limits within which public authorities must respond to public interest freedom of information requests. In 2006, there were 1,326 requests to central Government Departments, and extensions were taken beyond the 20 working day period in order to consider whether information should be disclosed on public interest grounds. That is allowed as public authorities can use whatever time is “reasonable in the circumstances” to consider the Act’s public interest test. Figures from a Ministry of Justice publication show that 211 of those extensions were for between 21 and 30 days, 125 were for between 31 and 40 days, and 370 were for more than 40 days—although for how much longer than 40 days is not known.

If my Bill is passed, all such requests—totalling more than 700 in that year—will receive a response in less than 40 days. Departments such as the Home Office—which set a new record of 18 months for tardiness in answering a Freedom of Information Act request—would no longer be able to use delaying tactics to postpone the release of embarrassing information. Ben Leapman, The Sunday Telegraph home affairs correspondent, is familiar with that tactic. He sought information relating to the Soham murderer, Ian Huntley, and security lapses at Woodhill prison, and he had to wait I8 months for a response to the request. The reason for the delay was simple: the Home Office’s desire to hold back sensitive—in other words, damaging—information. My Bill would stop freedom of information requests being kicked into the long grass.

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Finally, the Bill proposes an extension to the definition of public authorities to include school academies and private contractors. When individual Members of Parliament draft legislation—albeit in this case ably supported by Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information—the Government can often point to technical flaws in the Bill. However, this Bill highlights the need for a debate about what constitutes public authorities. It is clear in my mind that academies are public authorities. The total capital costs of building 200 academies will be around £5 billion. The 27 opened so far received revenue funding of between £2 million and nearly £9 million in 2005-06. They are funded overwhelmingly from public sources. They teach our children, employ teachers mainly trained in UK institutions and they are monitored by Ofsted: there can be no argument about whether they should be covered by freedom of information legislation; they must be.

The argument about private contractors doing work for public authorities is less clear cut. The Secretary of State does of course have the power to designate private contractors under section 5 of the Act, but has not chosen to do so. This Bill does not seek to include all private contractors working for a public authority within the scope of freedom of information legislation. The self-employed painter and decorator who does occasional painting and decorating jobs for the council should of course not be covered by FOI legislation. The definition in this Bill of a relevant contract—one whose value exceeds £1 million and extends for a period of more than 12 months—would ensure that he was not covered by it.

However, what about Capita and the other huge firms to which local authorities and central Government outsource large chunks of their business? They provide services for some local authorities and Government Departments that, for other areas and Departments, the public authority provides. They are, in effect, quasi-public authorities. They must not be allowed to avoid the scrutiny provided by FOI legislation. They must be covered by the same rules.

I have set out today in this Bill three simple measures that would demonstrate that we in this House are serious about freedom of information legislation. The Bill would strengthen FOI legislation, not emasculate it, and I urge Members to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Tom Brake, Norman Baker, Mr. Paul Burstow, Mr. Nick Clegg, Tim Farron, Lynne Featherstone, Mr. David Heath, Simon Hughes, Mr. Dan Rogerson, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Andrew Stunell and Mr. Phil Willis.

Freedom of Information (amendment) (no. 2)

Tom Brake accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000; to remove the provisions permitting Ministers to overrule decisions of the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal; to limit the time allowed for public authorities to respond to requests involving consideration of the public interest; to amend the definition of public authorities; and for connected purposes.: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June, and to be printed [Bill 121].

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Orders of the Day

Serious Crime Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

3.43 pm

The Minister for Security, Counter Terrorism and Police (Mr. Tony McNulty): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I turn first to a point that we must collectively understand. Members will know that this Bill has already been through the other place and, as ever, in most regards it is all the better for the scrutiny there. I accept that the Home Office has introduced a relatively large number of legislative measures over the last 10 years, and I do not doubt that that issue will be referred to again today. Legislating, as people know, is not governing, and the Home Office cannot and should not be a legislative sausage machine. So the first question that I ask, as a Minister, is, “Does the Bill in question add to our fight against crime?” In this case the answer must be and surely is a profound yes.

What does this Bill do? It provides a flexible new tool for law enforcement to use in preventing the serious harm caused by criminals, before it can have an impact on individuals and communities. It will improve the sharing of data across the public and private sectors for the purposes of detecting and preventing fraud. It takes forward much of the work done by the Law Commission in plugging the hole in the criminal law on encouraging and assisting crime. It will also enable us to improve the way in which we take away the profits made through the suffering of others through serious crime. The Bill also takes forward the Government’s proposals in last year’s Green Paper and has already been rigorously scrutinised in the other place. The result is a Bill that delivers what I am sure all of us want, and what all those we represent need. The Government introduced amendments to address concerns expressed in the other place and these have improved the Bill. I am grateful to Opposition Front Benchers for the constructive way in which their parties approached the provisions in the Bill, introduced into the other place.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The Minister suggested that this place should not become a legislative sausage machine. He will know that between 60 and 65 pieces of legislation have emanated from his Department since 1997. Is he aware that of that number 34 have yet to be fully or partly implemented and many contain provisions that have already been repealed by subsequent legislation? The sausage machine is working full-out under his command.

Mr. McNulty: I am fully aware of those points, and they go to my opening remarks. I suggest that the hon. and learned Gentleman get out more, if that is the best he can do for a pastime.

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