Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendments tabled by my noble friend, who certainly knows a thing or two more than I do about e-mail, the Internet and so forth. He is quite right to pursue this issue. Furthermore, he is right to point out that we have not seen a great deal of joined-up thinking across government on this. For example, when we debated yesterday the Political

22 Nov 2000 : Column 818

Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, we exposed the fact that electoral registers will not be available in a unified form on e-mail for the commencement of the Bill next year, even though they form an important part of how the provisions of the Bill are to operate. That provides another example of the point that my noble friend seeks to make here.

If the Government are serious about moving into the e-commerce age--we were told constantly that they were serious when we dealt with the Electronic Communications Bill covering e-commerce--they must ensure that they themselves have entered the electronic age.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, perhaps I may deal first with Amendment No. 7, which refers specifically to communication by "electronic means". The noble Lord quite fairly indicated that he covered this matter at earlier stages of our deliberations on the Bill. We responded to his points and I fear that my answer today may be quite similar to previous responses that he has received.

Amendment No. 7 deals with the code of practice. The code will provide guidance to public authorities to meet their obligations under Part I of the Bill. Clause 11 already puts clear duties on authorities to comply, as far as is reasonably practicable, with the applicant's expressed preference for communication. This will include the provision of information by electronic means. Thus there is no need to include any specific reference to the provision of information by electronic means so far as concerns the method of response to requests for information.

It is worth remembering that a wide range of public authorities will be required to comply with the provisions of the Bill. The figure of 50,000 such public authorities was given on a previous occasion. Some of those bodies will be very small indeed, while some may be comparatively poorly resourced as regards information technology. It would be inappropriate to make electronic or any other means of communication a recommended method for communicating information under the terms of the Bill. The Freedom of Information Bill is extremely important, but for many of those 50,000 public authorities, the delivery of their mainstream activities will be even more important.

Each authority must do what is reasonably practicable, taking into account its individual circumstances. It may be that the noble Lord has in mind the importance of encouraging the electronic information age. Indeed, he has made that specific point clear. That is, of course, a matter which is close to the Government's heart, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, pointed out. Furthermore, I believe that we hold a commendable record in the area. As the noble Lord is no doubt aware, Clause 19 relates to publication schemes that will provide the vehicles by which proactive disclosure is required. Publication schemes must specify the manner in which information to be made available proactively by the authority is to be published. The information commissioner must approve such schemes. Therefore the means by which

22 Nov 2000 : Column 819

authorities make information available in accordance with the publication schemes is a matter over which the commissioner will have direct control.

If the information commissioner thinks that an authority is not making appropriate use of electronic communication in a given set of circumstances, she can require the authority to include the necessary provisions in its scheme. That would seem to be the most appropriate way to ensure that the intention behind Amendment No. 7 is met. I hope that the noble Lord will find this response to be of assistance as regards Amendment No. 7. Although the means may be different from that which he has proposed, the intentions are similar.

Amendment No. 1 seeks, in effect, to remove Clause 21 from the absolute exemptions. This clause refers to information that is already available through other means. The Bill concerns freedom of information. If that information is already available by other means, and the question of whether such information has been made readily available is a point on which the information commissioner can rule, then there is no need to address it under the terms of Clause 2. For that reason, I believe that it would be inappropriate to set down anything other than an absolute exemption for Clause 21.

I hope that my remarks have been useful to the noble Lord and that now he will feel able to withdraw Amendment No. 1 and not move Amendment No. 7.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I believe that that is the best response that I am going to get here. I draw a little comfort from the point made by the noble and learned Lord as regards the powers of the information commissioner. However, I do not draw much comfort at all from his proposition that, in 2005, a number of public authorities will still be poorly resourced as regards information technology. His noble friend mentioned that some doctors would still not be using computers by that year. I do not know of a school which does not already have 2,000 computers in place. Similarly, I do not know of a doctor who is not well advanced in the use of information technology, employing it increasingly for medical diagnosis, checking on the side-effects of pills and so forth. I believe that the noble and learned Lord may be a little out of date on the capabilities of public authorities--or at least I hope that he is.

If the noble and learned Lord is truly suggesting that in 2005 we shall still have public authorities that are not well provided for in information technology, would he let me know which authorities are so affected? Perhaps I might then have a go at doing something about the situation. Otherwise, I shall assume that the noble and learned Lord is simply less well informed than is usually the case.

I shall withdraw the amendments. I hope that, in this instance, the Government will live up to their fine words. With that hope, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

22 Nov 2000 : Column 820

3.15 p.m..

Clause 15 [Special provisions relating to public records transferred to Public Record Office, etc.]:

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 2:

    Page 9, line 10, after ("is") insert ("expressed to be").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 2, perhaps I may speak also to Amendment No. 8. These are technical amendments, consequential on amendments tabled on Report by the noble Lords, Lord McNally, Lord Lester of Herne Hill and Lord Goodhart, to which noble Lords agreed. They help to clarify the relationship between Clause 2 and those provisions in Part II which deal with the duty to confirm or deny that the requested information is held. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 35 [Formulation of government policy, etc.]:

Baroness Whitaker moved Amendment No. 3:

    Page 21, line 4, at end insert--

("( ) Information consisting of--
(a) scientific, medical or technical data,
(b) the analysis of such data, or
(c) the opinion of a scientific, medical or technical expert as to the interpretation or significance of such data or analysis,
is not exempt by virtue of subsection (1)(a) or section 36(2)(b) or (c).").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in speaking to Amendment No. 3, I should say, first, that the Bill is now much improved. When one works through the way in which the Bill is to operate, there is a kind of groundswell towards public access to the factual basis of decisions, which is capable of being translated into the culture of change which my noble and learned friend presaged earlier. However, this process remains tortuous. It is not easy for the citizen to follow and particular concerns have been expressed about areas such as scientific facts and their analysis, on which can turn life and death.

This amendment would exclude scientific data, analysis and opinions from the scope of Clause 35(1)(a), the government policy formulation exemption clause, along with the related exemptions in Clause 36. This amendment is more limited in its scope than previous amendments tabled at earlier stages. It applies only to factual information which is scientific, medical or technical. However, it goes beyond the data themselves. It applies to data, the analysis of data and expert opinion on the interpretation or significance of the data or analysis. In effect, those are the three ingredients that go into a published scientific paper. Government scientists may also offer advice on the policy that should be adopted in the light of findings. The amendment does not extend to that advice. It is limited to scientific opinion on the significance of the data.

Thus, a government scientist looking at data on the outbreak of BSE might recognise that the disease was continuing to strike, despite the fact that controls had been introduced. He might suggest that the

22 Nov 2000 : Column 821

implication was either that the controls were not being properly applied or that the disease was being transmitted in a previously unsuspected manner. All those implications would be open to disclosure as a result of this amendment.

I think, but would be relieved to be corrected, that the so-called "harm test"--or, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, put it, a "prejudice test in all but name"--as now achieved in the Bill, would not necessarily bite on a particular document--for example, our scientists' paper--if the Government believed that there was a public interest in ensuring that all the ingredients of their internal deliberations remained confidential to allow for the free exchange of views. In the same way, a report on vaccine damage which dealt only with the possible risks of the vaccine to individuals and not with the aggregate benefits might also fall into this category.

The amendment reflects the concerns expressed by the national Consumers' Association and the Freedom of Information Campaign. Without it, can my noble and learned friend persuade us that there will be a true right to the scientific, technical and medical data analysis and interpretation on which turn such crucial political decisions?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page