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Lord Tyler: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. However, is she aware how disappointed—indeed, disillusioned—those of us who campaigned long and hard for freedom of information legislation are by the lack of ability to deliver? Is she surprised or dismayed that it is taking so long for the Information Commissioner to examine complaints of unwanted secrecy? For example, I submitted a complaint in April 2005 when I was still an MP. I received no response until November 2005, when the commissioner told me:

Does the Minister recognise that such a lack of urgency and resources is undermining the whole system? Freedom of information is, at the moment, a sham. Can the Minister confirm a report in Private Eye that membership of the freedom of information users group is secret?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I shall seek to answer the noble Lord's questions. On his final point, I am putting together a freedom of information users group, but we have not yet invited anybody to participate. I have yet to finalise the list with my noble and learned friend. When I do so, people will be invited; there is no truth in the Private Eye story.

Regarding the question of urgency, anyone looking at how the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was brought in—when we sought to be transparent in dealing with all of these issues—would know that, working closely with the Information Commissioner, we anticipated that there would be a surge of requests, as indeed happened. We have resourced him to the tune of £5 million, and my noble and learned friend has made it perfectly clear that on resourcing issues the Information Commissioner is invited to come to us as urgently as he can so that we may address them. I believe freedom of information is critical; I, too, campaigned for it and I am delighted that we did it.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I, too, have sought to make use of the Freedom of Information Act 2000? For more than
 
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three years, I have been trying to get the answer to a simple question: what was the first date that the Government sought legal advice about the legality of the invasion of Iraq? I won before the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, who decided that there had been maladministration. The Government would not reply.

I have been trying to get to the Information Commissioner, but I am in the coils of bureaucracy. The Foreign Office has, I think on four occasions, asked for further time. I am nowhere near the Information Commissioner. If that is true of someone with my privileges, can one imagine what it is like for the ordinary citizen? I know it is not the Minister's direct responsibility, but can she look at the unnecessary bureaucracy now surrounding government departments before one even reaches the Information Commissioner?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I have some responsibility in that area and I am deeply aware of the requests made by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. He would not expect me to comment on his individual request. Mr Richard Thomas is available in Wilmslow to all those who seek him. I suggest that the noble Lord writes to him directly on that issue and, if he feels he does not receive satisfaction, I shall be more than happy to pick that up myself with the commissioner.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I declare an interest to the Minister in that I was chairman of the National Consumer Council when we fought hard and long to get a freedom of information Act. When we went to America, we realised just how much money and time that would involve. We sympathise with the Government in trying to deliver this. People will be feeling deeply disappointed and their hopes will be dashed in trying to get answers to their questions.

According to a press release issued by the Information Commissioner, he has been in discussion with the Minister at the DCA on increased funding to improve the service that he provides to the public. We on the Conservative Benches know well how much it will cost to provide the sort of service in a freedom of information Act that the Americans have provided. It is deeply expensive. Have any increases in funding been agreed?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as I indicated, the funding available to the Information Commissioner is some £5 million. I visited him in Wilmslow not long ago to discuss resources. My noble and learned friend meets him regularly and resources are always on the agenda. The Information Commissioner would agree that he has been invited to put forward proposals if he feels that he needs resources to do his job more efficiently. He has been looking carefully at that but believes that once the surge—if I may describe it as such— is over, his office will be able to settle down and deal with the issues effectively and efficiently.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, can the Minister give an estimate of what percentage of the
 
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requests under the Freedom of Information Act come from newspapers and their so-called investigative reporters?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I sought to discover whether the Information Commissioner had a breakdown of complainants because there is an issue—which I think my noble friend is referring to—concerning the use of the Freedom of Information Act by different people. I believe very firmly that the purpose of the Act, above all, is to allow local people in communities to obtain information in order to enhance the ability of government to be better at what they do. It is critical that local people should be able to do that and should understand better how government works, and the Government should respond to that. That is ultimately what the regime is for. We also suffer from a number of frivolous requests. I am sure all noble Lords read the article by my noble and learned friend where he referred to the request, for example, for the number of windows at the Department for Education and Skills. Each department could probably come up with a number of frivolous requests which require time to answer. We need to look carefully at ensuring that the Act is used properly, especially, as the noble Baroness said, for those of us who campaigned for so long and so hard to get this very important legislation on the statute book.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, we are on 15 minutes.

Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency: Opticians

2.52 pm

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty's Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, qualified opticians and optometrists must apply for registration declaring their ability to undertake the specific visual field test required for driver licensing purposes. Each visual field test result is monitored by DVLA's medical group to ensure it satisfies the registration requirements. Those who are no longer able to conduct tests to DVLA requirements will cease to be used.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, given the anxieties of those about to take the field test, because it might involve them losing their driving licence, is it not unacceptable that they should be required to take these tests in public view—in the noisy, brightly lit public rooms of opticians—instead of in the privacy of the back room of the optometrist? Moreover, is it not unacceptable that they should be required to put on
 
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their glasses—glasses which may well be bifocals—and then distort the actual measure of the test when the test is one of peripherality and not of acuity?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, on the latter point, the spectacles that the person undergoing the test is expected to wear are those that they would be required to wear when they are driving. In fact, if you are required to wear spectacles and have passed the test wearing them, it is an offence to drive without them. On my noble friend's first point, the conditions in which the test is taken will vary between different opticians and optometrists. However, provision is made for more than one test in circumstances where failure occurs, and the conditions in which opticians and optometrists carry out the tests are moderated. I accept what my noble friend has indicated—that a test may be conducted in less than satisfactory circumstances. However, there are rights of appeal against test failure. I can assure the House that the tests are taken seriously and are generally conducted under proper conditions.

Lord Renton: My Lords, four years ago—when I was only 93—having twice fallen asleep when driving, I voluntarily surrendered my driving licence. I have never driven since. Should not the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency be alerted to the possibility of there being various ways in which people should no longer go on driving?


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