|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Young of Dartington: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, in his list of honour would he be prepared to include the Bangladeshi seamen and stokers in the British Merchant Navy, who also did us a great service in the war and who number many tens of thousands?
Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe: My Lords, I would certainly pay tribute to them. I had a great deal more material from the Imperial War Museum, but I did not wish to try the patience of your Lordships too much. However I take my noble friend's point.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I will not pursue very far what the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, has said, beyond saying that one of the great glories of this country has been an ability to change incrementally and without revolution. It was, I
What we are today debating, the Freedom of Information Bill, is very directly related to how far this country can move with the times of a new post-Industrial Revolution--the information revolution--in a way that will enable us not only to retain but to broaden and enrich our democracy by accepting that today an educated and much more sophisticated electorate wishes to be part of its own government by broadening out the process of consultation. In my view, at least in part, that is what this Bill was intended to bring about. That is why this has been a remarkable and indeed illustrious debate, conferring great credit on the House of Lords.
One of the things one feels from time to time in this House is that occasionally Ministers and other Front Bench spokesmen become aware that there is a need to alter Bills in order to meet what is a very broad and reasoned set of objections. It was the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, who referred to "siren voices". It is of course possible that the noble Baronesses, Lady Hilton of Eggardon and Lady Thornton, could be so described, although I rather doubt it. However, when one gets the noble Lords, Lord Alexander of Weedon, Lord Lucas, Lord Tomlinson, Lord Young, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, to mention only some of those who have spoken, all hewing to exactly the same line of criticism and arguing, if I may say so, eloquently and effectively, one then has to ask whether Ministers should not listen and make the changes that are necessary to make this Bill what it could well be: a pillar of our democracy, rather than an obstacle to change.
I think that would be very much in the spirit of what the Prime Minister said recently not only in another place--the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, referred to his remarks--but only a month and a half ago, when he opened a conference called Knowledge 2000. He said:
I do not believe that this Bill, as it currently stands, with these huge areas of exemption from its purpose, with the substantial requirements which must be met in order to allow public interest to take precedence over what is called the effective conduct of government, is yet in a position to encourage that new development. If we do not change the Bill in a way that I shall later suggest the noble and learned Lord is in a very strong position to do, what troubles me is that we shall simply find ourselves like so many Canutes sitting on a wet beach telling the rest of the information revolution to, "Go away".
Bluntly, as implied by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, in what he said about the European Union, if one wants to get fuller information one turns at the present time to the EU websites in many areas. They are far more open and contain much fuller information than anything that is available in this country on, for example, a large range of economic and financial matters. However, in order not to trouble noble Lords who do not care for the European Union, perhaps I may give the example of the United States where many of our newspapers have gone for information under the Freedom of Information Act on such matters as thalidomide and, more recently, on BSE--information that they could not get from British Government departments.
During the next year or two, I suspect that many of us will have a lot of fun and run up very large telephone bills ringing Scotland in order to obtain information that is barred in Britain, or, more precisely, in England and Wales. That is hardly an encouraging priority for successful devolution of power. It will simply make Westminster look old-fashioned, out of date and obsolete in comparison with Edinburgh, let alone other countries in the world. I believe that we will sit here looking foolish if most information can be acquired from other sources.
There is also another crucial aspect here to which the noble Lord, Lord Young, referred. All of us are well aware, both in government and outside, of the extensive scale of leaking of government information. Indeed, it has become the case that if you want to know what is going on, you read the more irresponsible newspapers rather than turning to government. In my view, that is in part a cause of the profoundly disturbing poll results that show distrust in governments of all parties.
By making more information available, Ministers will actually find themselves getting very much better coverage and discussion on their policy proposals because they will not be relying on leaks, many of which are heavily distorted by the political ambitions of the leaker. Those of us who have been Ministers are well aware that there are a few people in every government who like to engage in the process of being opportunistic at the expense of their colleagues by being readily available for the more irresponsible journalists with information about those colleagues
I would be wasting the time of the House if I went through yet again the major points made so effectively by other Members of this House. However, there is the extent of the Bill's exemptions, which go far beyond what I believe is really essential to protect what one might describe as the "crucial secrets" of government. The noble Lord, Lord Alexander, went further than most of us by referring to Clauses 25 and 26 which protect the communications between governments. But in a globalising world deeply concerned with human rights legislation which goes beyond borders, one cannot have total protection for communications between governments. There was a good example of that in the House earlier today when many questions were raised about the communications between the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of Russia. That kind of question will not go away.
Many noble Lords referred to another aspect of the Bill; namely, the weakness of the test that needs to be met as regards deciding to refuse to release information. Many of us wanted "substantial harm" or "substantial prejudice" to be included in the terms of meeting that test. With great respect, I believe that the noble and learned Lord too easily dismissed the concern that many of us have and which was so eloquently expressed by several speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, who sit on his own Benches. The test appears to be relatively weak and means that a "qualified person", who may be no more than a middle-ranking official, will be in a position to say that information to a citizen shall not be made available.
I refer in passing to the weakness of the commissioner. I should like an assurance from the Minister that the commissioner will have adequate resources. I hope that he will look again at the position of the commissioner and give her the ability to make the final judgment in all but the most extreme cases.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is widely recognised to be a man of great ability and, if I may say so, also of great influence. I hope that the Cabinet will listen to him and to the views expressed in this debate rather than to what one might describe as the somewhat tainted advice--if this is true; it may be just gossip--of one of only two Presidents of the United States this century to be charged with impeachment. That is not, surely, the best possible source of advice on issues concerning freedom of information.
I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has the position, the power and the influence to be able to turn this Bill into an effective weapon of modernising government and to make government more open, responsible and accountable to citizens. I very much hope that he will attempt to do that because this is one of the few occasions when almost the whole House--I exclude the noble Lord,
We on this side of the House have four main objections to the Bill. First, it could keep more information secret than is currently the case under the code of practice due to an increasing number of exemptions, more class exemptions and replacement of the "harm" test with the tighter test of "prejudice" on the release of information. Secondly, Ministers and officials would continue to make decisions rather than an enforcement body. Thirdly, there is no role for Parliament which should have the final say in matters of public interest. Fourthly, the process of application to the courts is cumbersome for members of the public.
Clearly we are not the only party worried by the proposals. Almost all speakers were concerned about aspects of them. The Minister had to rely, albeit grudgingly, on the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster--described by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, as a Mandarin's Mandarin--for the sole voice in support of the Bill as it stands.
In the other place up to 36 Labour Back-Benchers voted unsuccessfully for amendments to be made to the Bill. We on this side of the House will explore the detailed proposals. First, we question the class exemptions which extend beyond the scope of the code of practice, such as the exemption relating to investigations into accidents. Secondly, we shall want to explore the test for disclosure, as my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish said, exploring "prejudice", "serious prejudice" and "serious harm".
Thirdly, we would amend and strengthen the enforcement procedures, replacing the commissioner and tribunal with a more powerful information ombudsman and a parliamentary information committee. This change would bring the decisions
As many noble Lords have said--including the noble Lords, Lord McNally, Lord Hunt of Wirral, Lord Lucas, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon--there should be a purpose clause. This was strongly recommended by all sides in the other place at Report stage. For instance, Dr Tony Wright, the Labour chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, said:
A purpose clause is also favoured by the CBI, which, in a parliamentary brief in February, stated that such a clause would send a clear message to public authorities and the public at large that a cultural change in favour of open government is expected.
Perhaps I may briefly mention other CBI worries about the Bill. It is worried about too much disclosure being necessary by public authorities, where it considers that public interests in disclosing override the commercial exemption of not doing so due to it constituting a trade secret or prejudicing commercial interests.
In addition, the CBI is concerned--as are many noble Lords and MPs in the other place--about Clause 33. In a nutshell, it feels that the scope of the exemption is too broad. By excluding information relating to the formulation or development of government policy, it feels that less sensitive information--such as factual information and background papers that inform policy considerations--should normally be available at least once a policy decision has been made.
In summary, we find that this Bill should really be called "The Restriction of Information Bill". Following the severe criticism of the Bill from all sides of this House and in the other place, I am sure that it will require careful revision here.
Clearly the Government will have a fair number of amendments. I hope that they will table them quickly, as stated by my noble friend Lord Lucas. If they make any substantial changes to a clause, may I suggest that they delete the old clause and insert a new one in order that we may easily read the amended clause.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it has been an extremely interesting and stimulating debate. Perhaps I may deal with the main themes that have run through it. A large number of points have been raised--many of which we shall get an opportunity to explore in Committee.
It is worth pointing out that I do not share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. Various points have been made and, as one would expect in a Second Reading debate, many noble Lords raised concerns about the Bill. But there was a wide range of different concerns; many noble Lords would support one part of the Bill but not another.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbrook, shakes his head. I am happy to say that he is the one who, two minutes ago, went so far as to say that the Bill provides for too much information to be disclosed. That is rather out of tune with what a number of other noble Lords are saying.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page