Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am not sure that, as of this moment, I can answer the noble Lord. However, if the noble Lord, Lord Cope, is happy to withdraw the amendment, I can assure the Committee that I understand the point that is being made and shall be happy to expand on it on Report.That may be the more appropriate way in which to deal with the matter.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: Perhaps the Minister would send us a letter, as he has done on other such occasions. In the past, he has frequently been very kind when dealing with other Bills to write on matters of this type. I believe that the Minister was quite right to stress the fact that there is an affirmative resolution procedure. I understand that that was inserted by a government amendment in another place. It covers these provisions and that does help. However, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 67 not moved.]

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 68:

("( ) Before making an order under subsection (3), the Secretary of State shall--
(a) if the order relates to the National Assembly for Wales or a Welsh public authority, consult the National Assembly for Wales,
(b) if the order relates to the Northern Ireland Assembly, consult the Presiding Officer of that Assembly, and
(c) if the order relates to a Northern Ireland department or a Northern Ireland public authority, consult the First Minister and deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland.").

17 Oct 2000 : Column 980

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 6, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 7 [Request for information]:

Lord Archer of Sandwell moved Amendment No. 69:

    Page 4, line 40, at end insert ("and expressed to be made pursuant to this Act").

The noble and learned Lord said: This amendment deals with a matter which has been adverted to in earlier debates. I am not even sure that it has not been overtaken by those debates. However, it is a point for which I am indebted to the Clifford Chance partnership.

As the Bill is currently drafted, any request for information which is in writing, states the name and address of the applicant and describes the information requested is within Clause 7 of the Bill. If that information is not provided, the whole machinery of the Bill is triggered: the charging of fees, the consideration of public interest and the right of appeal.

Not everyone who writes to a local authority asking a question intends or wishes to spark off all that machinery. Therefore, I ask my noble and learned friend whether we should limit such action to cases where a person wishes to invoke those rights under the Bill. Thus, I tabled the amendment, but in a spirit of being helpful. Some Members of the Committee seem to find it surprising that I should ever be in a spirit of being helpful. However, I sought to limit the operation of the Bill where it does not seem appropriate to apply it.

Since I tabled the amendment, it has been pointed out to me that I may be being too helpful. Many people--perhaps most--will not know of their rights under the Act; they will not even know of the Act. As I ventured to say earlier, not every pub and every mothers' union in the country are making this their major topic of conversation. Therefore, I was asked whether it would be too easy for a public authority which does not wish to disclose information to say, "Well, the request does not mention the Act; let's ignore it".

If the two arguments are to sit together--and I believe that there is force in both--and if the information requested is available to the public authority, surely it should answer the question or justify its refusal to answer under the Act. From what my noble friend Lord Bassam said in answer to an earlier debate, I understand that that is the Government's intention, although it will not be a legal requirement under the Act.

Therefore, the person who asks the question will be alerted to the existence of the Act and the rights which it accords him. He can then decide whether he wishes to invoke his rights under the Act. If he decides that he wishes to activate the whole process, he will then be aware of the option and can make his choice.

Having put the two sides of the argument and the process by which I arrived at this dilemma, I confess that I am not sure whether I support my own

17 Oct 2000 : Column 981

amendment. However, I believe that it may be worth a discussion and I should be most grateful to hear my noble and learned friend's reactions.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: Before the noble and learned Lord sits down, I should be grateful if he could tell me in whose interest Clifford Chance advanced the amendment.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: Like many others who have written to us, I believe that they did so genuinely in the interests of getting the Bill right.

Lord Goodhart: Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, we, too, are uncertain as to whether the amendment is helpful. I believe that probably it is not. Whether through a code of practice or otherwise, if local authorities are asked the kind of simple, routine questions that they tend to be asked and answer for nothing now, such as, "What is the date of the next council meeting?", I hope that they would simply provide an answer without requiring the applicant to go through the rigmarole of making it an application under the Act.

However, where a request for information is made, I believe that it is right that it should be treated as being made under the Act. Therefore, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, said, if a fee is to be charged, the applicant for the information will be told that and will then decide whether or not to proceed. That seems to me to be preferable to being told that the question does not qualify as a request for information under the Act and that therefore it will not be dealt with.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: Perhaps I may intervene. I believe that the amendment provides the opportunity to reflect for a moment on the need to make the procedure simple so that people can gain access to information and documentation simply by writing in to ask for it.

When I had responsibility for this area I was keen to ensure that any request under the code did not trigger into action a great bureaucratic machine. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, asked a penetrating question as to why the largest law firm in the United Kingdom should consider this matter. I believe that it did so in the right spirit, which was to try to ensure that a request for information can be answered promptly, swiftly and without triggering a great bureaucratic consequence. This is a welcome opportunity to remind ourselves that we must keep it simple, so that people can gain access to that information to which they are entitled.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, said that the first half of his speech was intended to be helpful, but I actually agree with the second half! One noble Lord who considered this matter--I would not dream of looking around the Committee and agreeing with him--suggested that this provision was a "lawyers' ramp" in that it ensures that lawyers need to be involved in making the

17 Oct 2000 : Column 982

application because only lawyers, as opposed to ordinary individuals, are likely to know of all the different powers under the Act. For that reason I agree with my noble friend Lord Hunt that we should keep it as simple as possible. Therefore, I do not support the first half of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, said, but I support the second half.

I believe that requests should be submitted in writing. I am not sure whether the words "in writing" cover an e-mail request, which would be electronically written rather than physically written on a piece of paper. We could explore that on another occasion. It does not arise directly out of this amendment, but it arises out of the clause. We are told that the Government are an Internet-friendly government, so presumably that is intended to be covered by the words "in writing". No doubt, if a request comes in that form, a reply may be in writing. My noble friend Lord Lucas has had difficulty acquiring information from government departments in electronic form, but perhaps in future it will become much easier.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, for telling the Committee that he does not fully support his own amendment! That has made my job a lot easier. As currently drafted, the Bill applies to all requests for information. Therefore, whether the applicant mentions the Act or not, the Bill applies to any request for information as long as it is made in writing. For the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, e-mail requests are covered by the term "in writing". I believe the reference is Clause 7(2). In making the request in writing the name of the applicant and an address for correspondence will need to be covered as well. Of course, that would cover e-mails.

Lest anyone runs away with the idea that the approach that we have taken in the Bill is novel, I should remind the Committee that under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, there is no requirement on the applicant to cite the code in any request for information. The same is true for requests under the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Environmental Information Regulations. That is an approach that is standard in access regimes. In any event, there are sound reasons of principle behind that policy.

I do not want us to lose sight of the purpose of the Bill. It creates new rights for all citizens and, as such, the rights exist without the need to rehearse them. It is enough that the citizen requests information; in the main, he or she should have to do no more. It will be his or her right to receive that information, subject to exemptions. There are also practical considerations that speak against the amendment. The same rules should govern the release of all information by public authorities. I am sure that the Committee will agree that there should be no scope for two similar requests to be dealt with differently, not least where they are made in the same form.

Moreover, I believe that the amendment could reduce the effectiveness of the Bill to act as a catalyst to open up the public sector. For the Bill to be such a

17 Oct 2000 : Column 983

catalyst, the onus for applying the rules of freedom of information should be on authorities, who should take responsibility for the duties that the Act will impose on them. By requiring applicants to quote the Act when making their request, the amendment places the onus on applicants to trigger the rights that the Freedom of Information Bill confers, with the result that authorities could lose that sense of responsibility for applying the legislation. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page