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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I would not dream of ever doing that. I wonder whether the noble Lord is aware that a single judge has precisely the function of weighing the conflicting rights between personal privacy and freedom of speech and information in a whole variety of contexts. Spycatcher was one example of such conflict: between the public's right to know the information from the former spy who was disloyal and government's need to protect their secrets against unwarranted disclosure. A single body--the court--has to do that weighing and balancing using concepts like proportionality to do so. There are many other examples. If one had two courts, one dealing with free speech and the other with personal privacy, that would be--I am not sure what "moonshine" is, but something a little rude.
Lord Archer of Sandwell: Before the noble Lord rises to make his response, does he agree that, although we have two counsel, one for the prosecution and one for the defence, it would be extremely odd if we were to have two judges, one to consider the case for the prosecution and the other the case for the defence?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Yes, I can see that. Perhaps we should not take the comparison too far. However, unless I have misunderstood the position, the point here is that the commissioner will also adopt the role of trying to protect the citizen who wants information from the government department that does not want to release it. This is not only a judicial matter or a court situation; it concerns also the role of the commissioner in trying to ensure that we--the public--can get at information and that a government department cannot needlessly hide it.
It may be that I have misread the role of the commissioner. Perhaps the commissioner is not there to help, but simply to adjudicate. I may have to study that point again, although no doubt the Minister will intervene if I am entirely wrong on this. I hope that the role of the commissioner is intended to be that of being helpful to the citizen in his quest for information from what will be, frankly, fairly reluctant central government and probably even more reluctant local government.
I am still not entirely convinced by the Minister's remarks as regards why he thinks that the current proposals set out in the Bill are exactly right. He spoke a great deal about Select Committees and their role in dealing with these matters, but I am not sure which Select Committee would be involved. No specific Select Committee is to be set up to look at these issues. Perhaps the Minister can help me on this point.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My understanding is that these kinds of issues are dealt with by the Home Affairs Select Committee. That committee has a long tradition of dealing with such matters. However, it may be that another place will take a different view. Perhaps there should be a specific Select Committee set up to focus precisely on information issues as a whole. That may prove to be a way forward.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: That was a helpful intervention. The Minister did not mention the Home Affairs Select Committee earlier, but it is clear that he envisages that committee as the relevant body. He has also made it clear that the Government will not have a closed mind should the other place decide that a separate committee should be formed to deal specifically with freedom of information and related matters.
Lord Goodhart: Perhaps I may suggest to the noble Lord that a more appropriate committee might be the Select Committee on Public Administration. In the other place, that committee conducted an investigation and produced a report on the draft Bill.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The noble Lord has made a good point. However, I suspect that he may have introduced a potential element for turf wars to break out in Whitehall. After all, I had first thought that this Bill would come to us via the Cabinet Office. That was certainly David Clark's understanding. But the Bill was grabbed by the Home Office, which explains why the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, is in his place. I believe that the team is Home Office-based, although the Minister at the Cabinet Office, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is also here--in his capacity as the Government's trouble-shooter in these matters. However, I suspect that he is present more to relieve the pressure on the poor Home Office team. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, appears to spend a great deal of his time at the Dispatch Box. When he is not battling against me, he needs to battle against my noble friends Lord Cope and Lady Blatch. That situation reflects the volume of Home Office legislation.
As I have said, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has made a good point. Perhaps the Home Affairs Select Committee is not the right body to undertake this duty. Or perhaps it is exactly the right body. The Home Office may have more secrets that it wishes to keep to itself than any other individual government department. However, I shall not pursue that line of thought.
I am sorry that I have not received a more sympathetic response on this matter. It is important that Parliament's role in public life as regards matters arising between citizens and government is adequately recognised. It is a great pity that that has been taken away. I think also that it is a pity that the Data Protection Commissioner is to take on the role of information commissioner. I am not in the least convinced by the arguments that have been advanced in support of that move and I may well return to the matter in due course.
Resolved in the affirmative, and Clause 16 agreed to accordingly.