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Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, as the noble Lord said, these amendments are consequential on the enactment of the Fire and Rescue Services Act. They
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are wholly appropriate. They bring such authorities as may be formed within the scope of the Bill, which is right and proper. Therefore, we support them.
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 3. It would be appropriate to speak to Commons Amendments Nos. 3 and 7 together. They correct minor errors in Clauses 28 and 56. Clause 28(3)(b) enables a member of the public to obtain on payment of a reasonable sum a copy of a non-immediate public interest report prepared by an auditor, under Clause 22, in respect of an audited body's accounts. Clause 28(3)(b) states that a copy of the report should be supplied by the audited body. The reference should have been to the body's auditor.
as originally drafted. The exclusion should relate only to the information about public interest reports, not to information about contraventions of the accounts and audit regulations to be made under Clause 39.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, Amendment No. 3, which applies to Clause 28, is a distinct improvement. The duty of supplying a non-immediate report to a member of the public is quite properly taken away from the body reported on and given to the auditor who has produced the report. One can imagine such a body finding all kinds of excuses for not supplying a report that is critical of itself.
Amendment No. 7 applying to Clause 56, which would leave out subsection (1)(d), is a little more complex. As I understand it, it would prevent the Auditor General for Wales publishing information about a body that contravenes regulations made under Section 39. Those regulations made by the National Assembly relate, for the most part, to local government accounts.
We have been over that ground before. It is whistleblower territory. A person who contravenes such regulations may find himself or herself committing an offence. In such circumstances, which may be sub judice or close to sub judice, it may be sensible not to encourage the Auditor General to publish information about a contravention. That is my understanding of the effect of leaving out Clause
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56(1)(d). It is an understandable position for the Government to take. We do not intend to make a big issue of it.
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 5 and 6. Commons Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 relate to Clause 54. They remove information obtained during a value-for-money study undertaken at the request of an education body from the restriction on the disclosure of information currently provided for in Clause 54.
The Government have striven to achieve consistency in the treatment of Section 49 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 and Clause 54. Clause 54 would apply the restriction on disclosure of information to value-for-money studies undertaken at the request of education bodies under the proposed Section 145B of the Government of Wales Act, provided for in Clause 4 of the Bill.
Studies in respect of such education bodies are not covered by Section 49 of the Audit Commission Act 1998. The amendments bring the provisions into line. As the studies are at a body's request, the release of information will be governed by the normal laws of confidentiality and the terms of agreement between the parties. These Commons amendments limit the scope of Clause 54 and bring it into line with Section 49 of the Audit Commission Act.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, from the start this has been the most contentious clause in the entire Bill. I think that we all believe it is right that it should be a matter of contention. There are elements in the clause that even this Government have now found to be obnoxious. I shall not deepen their hurt but accept that they are trying their best to right the wrongs without causing too much fuss. There is however continuing cause for concern.
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With regard to these specific amendments relating to value-for-money studies undertaken at the request of educational bodies, the Government take the view that because the bodies have requested the studies, the rules of confidentiality and restriction on disclosure should apply even though the bodies concerned are substantially financed from the public purse.
The Government's view has a certain validity: they rightly wish to encourage educational bodies to seek such independent studies if they believe they need them and will benefit from them. Part of that encouragement is the non-disclosure of possible adverse outcomes. Of course, under the Bill, the situation is further complicated because such educational bodies are not covered by Section 49 of the Audit Commission Act, as the noble Lord has said and as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Mr Don Touhig, said in Standing Committee.
The Government seek consistency between what they now propose and that Act. Of course, we must remember that, ultimately, we shall have translucency rather than transparency. If there is something wrong in an educational institution that has sought one of these studies some will be entitled to know about whatever is wrong, but the great British public will not know necessarily.
However, I am the first to appreciate the Government's position. They require consistency between this Bill and the Audit Commission Act. It is important because of the changes that the Government have repeatedly promised to bring about in both pieces of legislation to bring them into line with the Freedom of Information Act. In short, as I understand it, the presumption against disclosure in Section 49 of the Audit Commission Act will become a presumption in favour of revelation before the end of this year. That presumption will be effected by an order under Section 75 of the Freedom of Information Act.
As we have heard, the Government have already announced in the other place that they have decided to drop the imprisonment sanction against disclosure, which is certainly welcome. We trust, of course, that they will also abide by the rest of the commitments that they have made to Parliament. We are the first to acknowledge that this is a complex area and that the Government have made every effort to eliminate that complexity and secure consistency between this Bill and the Audit Commission Act.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I have said all that I wanted to say in general about Clause 45, but perhaps I may repeat something that was pointed out on many occasions by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, during the course of this Bill through this House; that is, that it is a shame that the opportunity was not taken here to put forward best practice so that the Bill could become the template for what will happen in England in due course. As it is, this Bill has been made to comply with an Act of Parliament which the Government admit is unsatisfactory and
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inconsistent with the Freedom of Information Act. Machinery has already been put into the Bill which will amend it in a matter of months.
The Government should accept the possibility that in Wales we can show the way in legislation. We can provide a guide to the way future English legislation should go on these topics. Given that, I hope that when other Welsh legislation comes before Parliament, we do not always seek to comply with out-of-date English statutes.
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