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Division No. 3


Acton, L.
Amos, B.
Archer of Sandwell, L.
Ashton of Upholland, B.
Bach, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L.
Bernstein of Craigweil, L.
Billingham, B.
Bragg, L.
Brennan, L.
Brett, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L.
Burlison, L.
Carter, L. [Teller]
Clarke of Hampstead, L.
Davies of Coity, L.
Donoughue, L.
Evans of Parkside, L.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L.
Falconer of Thoroton, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B.
Gibson of Market Rasen, B.
Gladwin of Clee, L.
Gordon of Strathblane, L.
Harris of Haringey, L.
Harrison, L.
Hayman, B.
Howells of St. Davids, B.
Hoyle, L.
Kennedy of The Shaws, B.
Layard, L.
Lea of Crondall, L.
Levy, L.
Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. [Teller]
McIntosh of Hudnall, B.
MacKenzie of Culkein, L.
Patel, L.
Pitkeathley, B.
Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Rendell of Babergh, B.
Simon, V.
Stone of Blackheath, L.
Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Turner of Camden, B.
Warner, L.
Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
Whitaker, B.
Whitty, L.
Woolmer of Leeds, L.
Young of Dartington, L.
Young of Old Scone, B.


Anelay of St Johns, B.
Blatch, B.
Dundee, E.
Freyberg, L.
Goodhart, L.
Henley, L. [Teller]
Hunt of Wirral, L.
Lester of Herne Hill, L.
Lucas, L.
Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Northesk, E. [Teller]
Norton of Louth, L.
Park of Monmouth, B.
Renton, L.
Roper, L.
Shrewsbury, E.
Tordoff, L.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Clause 26 agreed to accordingly.

19 Oct 2000 : Column 1286

10.10 p.m.

Clause 27 [The economy]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 138.

    Page 14, line 40, leave out from first ("would") to end of line 44 and insert--

("(a) harm the ability of the Government to manage the economy, prejudice the conduct of official market operations, or lead to improper gain or advantage;
(b) prejudice the assessment or collection of tax, duties or national insurance contributions, or assist tax avoidance or evasion").

The noble Lord said: I can be brief on this, because it is a straightforward argument between the terms of the Bill and the code of practice. The Government thought the code of practice inadequate, but it is stronger than the Bill. The amendment would replace the provisions for a contents exemption in the Bill with the wording used in the code of practice. It would tighten up the Bill, ensuring that only information that would genuinely harm a specific economic interest would be exempt. At the moment, the clause would catch all information relating to the economy. The Government must not be allowed to include such catch-all exemptions, especially as they have drawn up the Bill in such a way that, if information is covered by an exemption, the public authority, rather than the information commissioner, decides whether it should be released.

For those reasons, the exemptions should be worded as tightly as possible. The wording in the code is far superior in this regard to that in the Bill. The Government's supporters, who have just come so willingly to their aid in the Division, should ask themselves whether they believed that they fought the election for a Bill that is weaker than the code introduced by the previous Government. I beg to move.

Lord Bach: The amendment repeats one moved by the Conservatives in another place on 25th January. At the end of that debate, the Conservatives proposed to go away and see whether the amendment could be revisited in a "slightly more focused way". Unfortunately, the wording of the amendment today is identical. No doubt there has not been enough time since January to refocus it.

19 Oct 2000 : Column 1287

The intention behind the amendment is to focus the scope of the exemption at Clause 27. That is to be achieved by limiting the exemption to a number of identified important economic and financial interests. However, the issue goes further than that. The amendment fails to acknowledge the reality of life in modern Britain, which the Government have created through their policy and legislation to devolve responsibility and accountability to the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a glaring anomaly that the Opposition refuse to accept that the devolved administrations are here to stay. I except the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, from that criticism, because at about this time yesterday he was saying that he accepted the results of the referendums, particularly the one in Scotland.

I do not dispute that the interests identified in the amendment are important, but the Government do not believe that they are the only important economic or financial considerations in relation to which the inappropriate disclosure of information could lead to real harm being done to the economy.

Clause 27(1) exempts information the disclosure of which would, or would be likely to, prejudice,

    "the economic interests of the United Kingdom or of any part of the United Kingdom"


    "the financial interests of any administration in the United Kingdom".

That includes the UK Government, the Scottish administration, the executive committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales. Clause 27 as drafted therefore specifically protects the interests of regional economies and the financial interests of the devolved administrations, in addition to the national economy. The amendment, as moved, would remove the specific protection for both of those.

We believe that the freedom of information regime should not require disclosure of information which would harm the economic interests of the United Kingdom generally or a part of the United Kingdom. However, we believe that that would be the inevitable result if this amendment were carried. Perhaps I may give a brief example. Public authorities such as the DTI may hold documents which set out the advantages and disadvantages of investing in different regions. If that type of information were disclosed to an overseas business organisation which was contemplating setting up a factory in the UK, the organisation may be put off its proposed investment. However, if this amendment were carried, that would not exempt such information from disclosure.

Before I sit down, perhaps I may remind noble Lords that the exemption at Clause 27 does not act as a bar to the disclosure of all information relating to economic or financial interests. First, it is a prejudice test-based exemption. It can be relied upon only where a public authority can establish that there would be or would be likely to be prejudice resulting from the disclosure of any particular information. Even where the authority reaches a conclusion that such prejudice

19 Oct 2000 : Column 1288

would arise, the exemption is not an absolute exemption. The authority would still be required to apply the public interest test, and the Commissioner would be able to substitute her judgment for that of the authority in respect of either a claimed exemption or the judgment reached as to the public interest. We believe that that is the right way to ensure the correct balance between the right of the public to information on the economy and public finances and the need to protect such important--indeed, vital--matters.

The scope for real damage to the economy from the disclosure of information which would prejudice our economic interests is substantial. The amendment would remove those necessary protections, particularly for the legitimate interests of the regions and devolved administrations. For those reasons, I invite the noble Lord opposite to withdraw his amendment.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: That was an interesting response. I should have thought that half of it had been overtaken by the fact that Clause 26 remains in the Bill. That clause sets out the catch-all position for relationships between the Government and the United Kingdom. I believe that the example which the noble Lord gave about a paper which set out for an inward investor the pros and cons of different parts of the UK would be covered by Clause 26; but possibly not.

I shall need to read what the noble Lord said to see whether he chides me correctly. However, I notice that he did not answer my main point: the words that I used are exactly the same as those used in the code of practice. At the last election that code of practice was considered by his party to be too weak. Yet in this Bill we find words which are weaker than those in the code of practice. I notice that none of his noble friends, who no doubt campaigned on introducing a freedom of information Bill which would be better than the code of practice, has come to his aid. Given the time, I am not surprised. I beg leave--

Lord Lucas: I believed that we had other important debates to move on to. However, if noble Lords opposite want to extend this debate into Wednesday of next week, I am sure that we can oblige. I find myself full of words and energy, even at this time of night.

It is quite clear that the ability to obtain such information has existed under the code for several years. It has not resulted in any harm to anyone and it is quite ridiculous that the Government should suddenly say that it will start to cause harm. Their argument is holed below the waterline by the fact that it has caused no harm in the past.

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