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Lord Bassam of Brighton: The Government believe that it would be unworkable for the commissioner and her staff to have a situation where Section 59 applied to one regime but not to another. We have said that we believe the vast majority of requests for information, and consequently complaints to the commissioner, will involve both personal and non-personal information. Information obtained by the commissioner will not, therefore, fall neatly under one regime or the other. Given this, there is no practical way to apply Section 59 to one regime and not the other.

We are aware that the Data Protection Commissioner regards Section 59 of the Data Protection Act 1998 as overly restrictive. We have also accepted the strength of the argument for an amendment to the Bill to allow information to be shared by and between the commissioner and certain other investigatory bodies and have tabled amendments that will achieve that.

Nothing in the Freedom of Information Bill would prevent the release by the information commissioner of information about the handling of complaints where that disclosure was made with the consent of the individual or company to whom the information relates, obtained in accordance with Section 59 of the Data Protection Act 1998.

However, where a person or company declines to give such consent, it is right that the information commissioner should not be able to overrule that view

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and routinely disclose such information. Given the commissioner's power to require disclosure of information for the purposes of an investigation under Clause 50, it is right that authorities must have confidence that such information will not be disclosed.

Furthermore, the commissioner can, and annually must, report to Parliament about the exercise of her functions under the Bill. Any disclosure of information in such reports would be done for the purposes of, and as is necessary for, the exercise of the commissioner's functions, and would therefore have lawful authority. There would be no offence under Section 59.

I hope that, given those assurances, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Goodhart: The Minister's reply is not entirely satisfactory. However, having said that, we certainly do not intend to press the amendment on this occasion. Indeed, it is unlikely that I shall wish to bring it back on a future occasion. Therefore I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 17 [Publication schemes]:

[Amendment No. 110 not moved.]

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 111:

    Page 10, line 23, at end insert--

("(2A) In the case of a local authority, a publication scheme must provide for the release of any agendas, minutes, background papers and reports at least three clear days before any local authority meeting to which they are to be presented.
(2B) For the purposes of subsection (2A)--
(a) the term "meeting" shall include (but not exclusively) meetings of any executive of a local authority, meetings of any committee or sub-committee of any executive, and meetings of any committee or sub-committee of the local authority,
(b) if the meeting is convened at shorter notice than three days, the agendas, minutes, background papers and reports shall be available as soon as possible before the commencement of the meeting,
(c) minutes shall include a summary of discussions, detailing (but not exclusively) substantive comments made by the participants, motions tabled and the way each participant voted on any division or vote,
(2C) Subsections (2A) and (2B) shall not apply to information which would be deemed "exempt" information under section 100I, of and Parts I, II and III of Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 111 seeks to add to the provisions of Clause 17. Clause 17 concerns publication schemes and places a duty on every public authority to publish information of various kinds. The amendment sets out those responsibilities as far as they concern local authorities. I seek a provision on the face of the Bill that every local authority,

    "must provide for the release of any agendas, minutes, background papers and reports at least three clear days before any local authority meeting to which they are to be presented".

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The amendment defines the term "meeting" in regard to a local authority.

Local authority meetings are currently rightly held in public. If the public are to know which meetings they wish to attend, they will need to know what will be discussed at those meetings. With the exception of exempt information, I believe that the public should be entitled to view the records of the arguments their representatives used in reaching their decisions and the facts on which councillors based their decisions.

Under the Local Government Act, the Government are forcing local councils to adopt new executive structures such as cabinets and directly elected mayors. In their current form, these new structures will encourage secrecy and reduce accountability. In terms of public access, local authorities will be set back many decades. As many Members of the Committee who have been involved in local authorities will know, at present council decisions have to be taken at meetings of the full council or its committees, which are subject to the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. This requires meetings to be open to the public and the media. However, exempt information, such as commercially sensitive reports or that related to individual staffing issues, can be discussed and decided in private session. If the meetings are open to the public, agendas, officers' reports and background papers must be publicly available at least three days in advance.

However, cabinets will not be required to meet in public but merely to publish decisions after they have been taken. Decisions of directly elected mayors or individual cabinet members will not be subject to the provisions of the 1985 Act but again will need to be published only as a record of decisions after they have been taken. The effect will be to strip away the rights of the British people and local newspapers to observe how councils make decisions and how individual councillors vote. We on this side of the Committee believe in open local government. It was indeed my noble friend Lady Thatcher, who, as Margaret Thatcher, steered through in 1960 a Private Member's Bill to open up council meetings to the press and the public. My noble friend's then government in 1985 passed a Bill to enable the press and public to obtain access to key council papers three days before the relevant meeting.

I know from experience, albeit quite a long time ago, that councils like to take their decisions in public. I joined Oban Town Council in the mid-'60s. Interestingly enough, we were all independents but I joined together with another independent who happened to be an active Labour supporter to use Margaret Thatcher's Bill to open up the council committees, which were structured in such a way that the press could be kept out. The full council meeting was a fairly de minimis affair. With the passage of time, I can say that it was held to expedite business as quickly as possible so as to enable the councillors to partake of refreshment afterwards. While there is little doubt that when the meetings were opened up the press interest occasionally caused us a little difficulty, it also made councillors much more responsive and careful in

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terms of the way they dealt with certain issues. What is much more important, the press informed the wider electorate and the public of the decisions that were taken, the arguments that were put forward and other matters.

Now it appears that there is a danger the clock will be turned back to the pre-1960 days. Andrew Ecclestone of the Campaign for Freedom of Information has remarked,

    "We are now finding a Labour Government removing the rights Mrs Thatcher gave us".

I do not know whether those on the Benches opposite are happy to find themselves cast in that light. I say in support of my argument that the principal people who open up government to public scrutiny are the press. I suspect that those of us in public life love them and hate them. We love them when they expose our opponents and hate them when they expose ourselves. However, the press do a necessary job. Nowhere is that more important than in local government. On a number of occasions we in this Chamber have lamented the low turn-out and the slight interest the public take in their local authorities. It is the local press which stimulate interest and involvement in local government.

A letter from Santha Rasaiah of the Parliamentary and Legal Committee of the Society of Editors to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde states:

    "The Society of Editors supports the Campaign for Freedom of Information and its detailed representations on the amendments necessary to transform the Freedom of Information Bill into a legislative instrument which will actually give the public an effective right to information from public bodies.

    The Society has made a series of representations on the need for improvement of the Bill. Unless it is changed and actually confers strong statutory rights to information, its numerous justifications for secrecy will be used and abused, to entrench official and institutional secrecy.

    The Society's fears are based upon the practical experience of its members. As editors of national, regional, local newspapers and their counterparts in the broadcast and electronic media, they are well aware of the difficulties involved in extracting information from local and national ... bodies".

I shall not read the whole letter but it continues in that vein. It further states:

    "The culture of secrecy will not change unless freedom of information legislation actually confers comprehensive and unambiguous information rights and disclosure".

The society is obviously concerned about our passing a piece of legislation that will not enhance the position of editors and reporters of local papers.

The Derby Evening Telegraph has been battling for the council to open its executive meetings. Labour councillors led by Robert Jones had accused the paper of being distorted, emotive and destructive and had compared its coverage to Nazi propaganda. Earlier this month the council eventually agreed that cabinet meetings would be open. That is an important step forward but clearly the Derby Evening Telegraph had to work hard to achieve that.

In Newcastle, 10 out of 78 councillors sit in single party cabinet meetings closed to the public. Afterwards the council issues a list of recommendations to a further committee which,

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although held in public, has been accused of rubber stamping cabinet decisions. Newcastle's Evening Chronicle, edited by Alison Hastings, has campaigned against the cabinet committee led by Tony Flynn, who is the leader of the council. He does not understand what all the fuss is about. He believes that the new system is no more secretive than the old. I am not entirely sure whether that is terribly reassuring. The same is true in other parts of the country.

I believe that Members of the Committee--especially those who have been involved in local government--will appreciate the point of my amendment and the danger that, if no action is taken in the Bill, the press, and therefore the public, will have less access to information about what their local authorities are about to discuss and what they are doing than I think is right and proper. I beg to move.

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