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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: David Taylor
Burden, Richard (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
Hain, Mr. Peter (Neath) (Lab)
Heald, Mr. Oliver (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)
Hemming, John (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Howell, John (Henley) (Con)
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor (Epping Forest) (Con)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
McGuire, Mrs. Anne (Stirling) (Lab)
Salter, Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)
Timpson, Mr. Edward (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
Wills, Mr. Michael (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Chris Stanton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 27 April 2009

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Draft Freedom of Information (Time for Compliance with Request) Regulations 2009
4.30 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Freedom of Information (Time for Compliance with Request) Regulations 2009.
Welcome to the Committee, Mr. Taylor. I am sure that under your chairmanship, the regulations will be dealt with expeditiously and wisely.
The purpose of the draft regulations is to allow more time for certain schools and pupil referral units in Northern Ireland to respond to freedom of information requests to take account of closure during school holidays. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 enshrined in law for the first time the right of access to official information. The Act applies to more than 100,000 public authorities, and since it came fully into force on 1 January 2005, central Government-monitored bodies have received more than 30,000 requests a year. Requests to public authorities in the wider public sector exceed 87,000 a year.
Under the 2000 Act, freedom of information requests must be responded to “promptly”, normally within 20 working days. It is right that people making requests should receive a timely response, hence that provision. Some 82 per cent. of requests received by central Government-monitored bodies during January 2005 and December 2008 were answered within 20 days. However, there are limited occasions when such a deadline is impractical. That is why in 2004, in the run-up to the introduction of the Act, regulations were laid to extend the deadline for answering requests for specific public authorities in certain limited circumstances.
Those 2004 regulations extended the usual limit of 20 working days in relation to maintained schools in England and Wales and schools maintained by the Secretary of State for Defence, to take account of closure during school holidays. The limit was also extended to enable archives to deal with requests for information that were contained in a public record that was being transferred to a closed file because one of the freedom of information exemptions applied, and to allow time for information to be obtained from front-line units of the armed forces when they cannot be reached for operational reasons. The extension also covers requests involving information that is held outside the UK and takes time to retrieve.
The draft regulations will give certain Northern Ireland schools and units the same reasonable allowance that schools in England and Wales already have under the 2004 regulations. Currently, “controlled schools”, “voluntary schools”, “grant-maintained integrated schools” and pupil referral units in Northern Ireland can face difficulties in answering requests received during holiday periods when the schools are closed and unstaffed. That is a particular problem during the summer holidays, which can be about eight weeks long and therefore longer than the 20 working days permitted for a response. Schools and units in Northern Ireland may therefore be put in a position in which, unavoidably, they will be unable to comply with the time limits provided for under the Act, and that is not sensible.
Section 10 of the Act requires public authorities to deal with FOI requests promptly, and in any event within 20 working days. If the draft regulations are made, managers of certain Northern Ireland schools and pupil referral units would not have to count any day that is not a school day, such as during the school holidays, towards the period of 20 working days within which requests must be answered. However, requests must be answered within a maximum of 60 working days in total, including any school holiday periods. Schools will still have an obligation to respond to requests promptly. When it is possible for a school to respond to a request earlier, the response cannot be delayed until the end of the extended time limit.
The draft regulations will ensure that certain schools and units in Northern Ireland will have more time to deal with information requests when they need it most. It will also place schools in Northern Ireland on a comparable footing with their counterparts in England and Wales. I commend the draft regulations to the Committee, and I hope that hon. Members will agree that this necessary, common-sense measure should proceed.
4.35 pm
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): It is a pleasure, Mr. Taylor, to serve under your chairmanship of what I suspect will be a fairly brief sitting.
It is good to have straightforward regulations before us, and I do not oppose them because they are perfectly reasonable. It is right that when the practicalities of a situation show that those who are required by law to undertake certain duties cannot reasonably do so, the law should be changed to take account of that. The Government are sensibly doing that this afternoon.
Does the Minister have any plans to change the freedom of information legislation in other ways? The most recent quarterly statistics show that, of nearly 5,000 requests to central Government, nearly 800 did not receive a response within 20 working days, and the deadline was extended for just over 300 on public interest grounds, which is of course allowed. This is a narrow debate, and I will not allow my remarks to stray further, Mr. Taylor, but the Minister has introduced the regulations because several bodies could not comply with the law as drafted. Have the Government considered how their Departments work? It is not reasonable that 800 freedom of information requests to Departments, which are well geared up to deal with such matters, should not have been dealt with within 20 days. I must not stray further, but I am sure that the Minister will want the Committee to be aware of the facts. Having made that point, I am pleased not to oppose the order.
4.37 pm
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I, too, am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor. I am sure that our discussion will not take long, because the order is entirely reasonable.
It is odd how the edges of freedom of information have variations, such as the difficulty of getting people to respond within 20 days, but then finding that people such as the Official Solicitor are not covered by that requirement. However, the draft regulations are entirely reasonable because freedom of information must be practical. We therefore support them.
4.38 pm
Mr. Wills: I am grateful for the Committee’s support, which seems to be unanimous. To reply to the hon. Lady’s questions, we constantly scrutinise central Government’s performance. Eighty-two per cent. of requests received a response within the time limit, but we must not be complacent. We constantly consider how to improve our performance and the Ministry of Justice works hard to do so, but the hon. Lady is quite right to ask for further improvements. We agree that improvement is needed, and it will be achieved.
The hon. Lady asked what other plans we have. She will be aware that we have consulted under section 5 of the 2000 Act, which covers designation—this may address the hon. Gentleman’s point—on extending the legislation’s scope. We expect to be able to report the results of that consultation to the House shortly.
Question put and agreed to.
4.38 pm
Committee rose.

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