Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Baroness Hamwee.)

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Bill’s promoters and to their advisers for the trouble that they have taken to address the concerns that I had with the Bill, and I am delighted to tell the noble Baroness that they have succeeded in that.

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1206

Two things get my goat about traffic enforcement: one is when the regulations are enforced unreasonably and the other is when they are not enforced at all. As far as the unreasonable enforcement is concerned, all the promoters of the Bill are my regular opponents. I chair an organisation called the London Motorists Action Group and we spend a lot of our time trying to deal, for instance, with Camden, which makes a vast surplus—tens of millions of pounds every year—on its traffic enforcement account by being completely unreasonable in the way that it enforces the regulations, and with my own borough of Wandsworth, which chooses to send people round on mopeds on Boxing Day to ticket people who are picking up supplies of groceries from backstreet convenience stores. So I am politically neutral in my targets in this matter: both the former Labour Camden and the present Liberal Camden and the Conservative Wandsworth all reap my ire. Indeed Transport for London, in its former practices in collecting the congestion charge, made the terms so unreasonable to begin with that if you were a minute past midnight in paying your congestion charge you were fined 50 quid, and it has never made it possible to pay by direct debit or any convenient means. I am very hopeful that our new mayor will remedy some of these deficiencies. I believe he has promised to do so.

However, on the subject of this Bill and dealing with people who persistently evade their parking fines, I am entirely at one with all the promoters of the Bill that something effective should be done, and I believe that they have come up with something that is in essence an effective way of doing it. But there are problems with that. If it is just Transport for London chasing people who have three or more outstanding congestion charges, and it takes a car, sticks it in the pound and you turn up there at midnight to deal with it, you have only one organisation—a reasonably efficient organisation—at the back end of that, and you are likely to be able to sort out problems reasonably quickly. But where you have all the London boroughs involved—some whose back offices are in a state of chaos, and where you will find when you are appealing a parking ticket that it suddenly goes live again because of the mistakes made in the back office—and if you travelled round London a good deal and perhaps collected your three tickets from three different authorities, none of which is maintaining a 24-hour helpline and a couple of which may have lost paperwork or take a long time to deal with the outstanding problem, which is typical, it is just not right for a motorist to find that they have been deprived of their car with no easy way of getting it back. They cannot just pay the fines. If you are appealing a fine and you pay it, you lose your right to appeal. So you cannot pay the fines to get your car out of jug. It is quite unreasonable to ask someone who has been wrongly towed to pay the full amount.

I am grateful that the promoters of the Bill have settled on what I consider to be a reasonable amount. It is important that £250 is a figure to which people have ready access, the sort of amount which you would expect them to be able to get on their debit or credit card in a single transaction. It must enable people to get their car out without doing their arguments over the correctness of their parking fines any damage,

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1207

and for them to have the use of their car while they are pursuing their legal rights. The promoters of the Bill have achieved this, and I am grateful to them for their concessions.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, it gives me pleasure to follow my co-president of London Councils, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in warmly welcoming the Bill. Those of us who have worked on a Bill of this kind—I have done so only once—can be satisfied that the committee on the Bill did a proper job. It dealt with a topic affecting not only those who drive around and have businesses in London, but every citizen. It is right and proper that the 32 London boroughs, and others who are affected, take this matter seriously.

In 2008, we live in a society that is heavily dependent on access to a car and reasonable provision for it. I live in Loughton in the middle of Epping Forest, and frequently travel through London. I first congratulate the powers that be on the congestion charge. We all have experiences, but I am convinced that the situation for those who need and wish to pay the charge and drive in London is much more satisfactory than it was 10 years ago.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said that he had a problem with enforcement being carried out “unreasonably” or “not at all”. That is true of the application of any legislation. One hears horrifying tales of road rage or car-parking rage, increasingly involving not only anger but violence and worse. We are dealing with an emotional subject for many. I do not envy the 32 London councils and others who must apply this legislation. Some of the caveats mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, may turn out to be well founded and worthy of reconsideration in some form. In my experience of working with the 32 London councils, I am satisfied that there will be a genuine desire to ensure that the law is applied fairly and evenly.

Some offenders are persistent in not paying their charges and, often, not paying their road tax and insurance; in other words, they are a bad lot. They must be dealt with seriously. I do not have a reputation for being hard on people, but anyone who seeks to drive a car—a weapon that can kill—and does not take the proper steps to ensure that they abide by the law, and this is the law, ought to be dealt with harshly.

My two pennyworth consists of congratulating the London boroughs and others involved in the Bill. I especially congratulate those who were involved with the proceedings in the committee. They deliberated for a long time and dealt fairly with it. I am satisfied that the Bill was substantially improved by the committee. I am very glad to have the chance to take part in this debate.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her explanation of the Bill. I wish to make a few observations. I share some of the anxieties expressed by my noble friend Lord Lucas. I listened carefully to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, in which he said nothing with which I disagreed. I am always surprised that the measures in such a Bill are not already provided for

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1208

somewhere else. Clearly, its passing will not make the “News at Ten” this evening but it covers important details. I pay tribute to all those who have worked on it, including your Lordships and officials outside the House who put a lot of effort into getting it right.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I shall be brief. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who took the Bill through the House. I am an impostor as this is my first appearance on the Bill. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for the points he raised. Before I turn to the detail of those matters, I reiterate the importance of the measures in the Bill that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned.

Parking enforcement both nationally and in London is no trivial matter. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that it should be enforced fairly and proportionately, but it should also be enforced properly. TfL claims that there are in the region of 165,000 persistent evaders, and that they account for about 1.3 million unpaid penalty charge notices, which is not a good situation.

When the Bill first entered the legislative process, the Government initially had some concerns about some of its provisions. However, I am glad to say that, following careful negotiation and some amendment of the text, these concerns have now been resolved. The negotiations have led to a Bill which is now aligned with, and will usefully supplement, the Traffic Management Act regime for parking in London, which came into force here, as in the rest of the country, at the end of March this year.

The Government’s concerns about the rights of motorists to a proper representation and appeals process have also been addressed and I commend the Bill to noble Lords on that point. An issue that caused considerable concern was that of the payment of bonds. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has been persuaded by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on this point. A figure of £250 has been mentioned as a reasonable amount that is neither too high as to be unaffordable nor too low to ensure that drivers made some effort to recover their bond. These points have been recorded and I fully expect the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to be happy with that. I shall be glad if that is the case. The noble Lord also had concerns about rights of appeal. I believe that there are now sufficient safeguards in place to protect the interests of innocent motorists.

This is timely legislation. It may not make “News at Ten” but it will allow Transport for London and the London boroughs to carry out their highway responsibilities. It will allow them to take effective action against habitual offenders against the parking regime and will enable them to focus their efforts on those offenders who make a habit of breaking the law and expect to get away with it. It should also enable them to fulfil their duty to keep the roads free flowing and safe to use for honest motorists. I am therefore happy to commend the Bill and to congratulate all those, including officials in TfL and the Department for Transport, who have brought the Bill to fruition and ensured that it is workable.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I share with the House that I, too, am something of an impostor, as I came to the Bill very recently as well. I am grateful to

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1209

the Minister, whose head must be spinning from the variety of topics that he has had to cover this week. I have shared some of them with him.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for his support. The noble Lord said that the adjudication process has to be dealt with fairly. It has been in place for some years dealing with other matters, so I hope that we can rely on it for this. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. This might not make “News at Ten”, but I guess it will make quite a lot of technical journals.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I remembered as he was speaking that the two of us have in the past discussed in this Chamber the congestion charge scheme. When there is new technology, I hope that methods of payment such as direct debit will be easily incorporated. That is not for now. The noble Lord referred to the danger of there being different regimes in different authorities and he made some disparaging comments about council back offices. The noble Lord ought to become a councillor and get stuck in, in whichever local authority he would like to reform. He is right about the £250, and it is right that we take the opportunity to put that amount on the record as what is in view as the amount that will initially apply.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.

Freedom of Information (Additional Public Authorities) Order 2008

4.21 pm

Lord Tyler rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order, laid before the House on 8 May, be annulled (SI 2008/1271).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it may seem rather curious for a Liberal Democrat who has campaigned for freedom of information over many years to have tabled a Prayer that would annul additions to the Freedom of Information Act. I hope to explain to your Lordships’ House why I feel that this is a good opportunity to look at these additions, not to oppose them—bring them on—but to highlight the panoply of organisations providing a public service that are not in the order. To that extent, it is an inadequate order, updating what I fear is becoming a rather inadequate Act.

Let us first think about the value and categorisation that we apply to different public services. There are great institutions on which elections are fought and lost and on which our country relies to keep going, such as schools, hospitals and public transport. Perhaps Members of your Lordships’ House will be surprised to learn that in all three of those key areas there are companies and organisations that provide just such a public function whose actions, priorities, successes and failures still hide behind a cloak of secrecy.

There are some examples, such as the new academy schools, the Government’s big wheeze in education; the contractors who keep our hospitals clean or who carry out operations when the NHS cannot offer a quick service; the train operating companies, many of

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1210

which effectively operate monopoly services and, of course, Network Rail. All those are outwith the terms of the Act.

There is a further area of concern, which is another issue that turns elections; our crime-fighting agencies. Whole chunks of the justice system remain enclaves of secrecy in a nascent culture of transparency. The operation of the court escort service, private prisons, immigration detention centres and even the Serious and Organised Crime Agency are outside the remit of the Act. It may seem curious to your Lordships’ House that included in the Act are such organisations as the Potato Council. I defy the Minister to explain why potatoes have to be more transparent than prisons; I find that really quite extraordinary.

Members of your Lordships’ House will also recall the curious anomaly that we encountered over the public accountability of Northern Rock when it was nationalised. The Government made strenuous efforts to exclude the bank from freedom of information legislation, even though it is wholly owned by the Treasury and therefore by the nation of taxpayers. As the order and the Explanatory Memorandum make all too clear, freedom of information legislation follows form, not function. Our right to know is predicated not on what somebody or something is doing, but on who is doing it. That is totally illogical.

I take another example. A key government contractor such as Capita carries out public functions in relation to the Criminal Records Bureau, the Driving Standards Agency, the teachers’ pensions agency, television licensing, BBC information lines and—infamously, in the context of the previous debate—congestion charging on behalf of Transport for London. All are subject to no more scrutiny than if that company were running a grocery store. These companies handle public money in pursuit of public functions. Indeed, Capita handles millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money every year, yet it has complete secrecy. I hope the Minister will be able to indicate whether the Government are now minded to bring such contractors within the purview of the Act. If they are so minded, how far have they got in deciding between the options that were enumerated in the Ministry of Justice consultation exercise that closed at the beginning of February?

For example, have the Government now ruled out the quite extraordinary prospect, suggested in Option 3 of the consultation, of simply securing contractual obligations in each case? There are surely serious questions about whether such obligations could even be investigated by the Information Commissioner. It sounds like the worst of all worlds: complexity for that contractor, which would not know where it stood, and great opacity for the public. What of the choice between Options 4 and 5 in the consultation process? Surely a single Section 5 order could never future-proof the Act, since the trend in public policy is to contract out provision of ever more services.

I suspect that when the freedom of information legislation went through this House and the other place, we did not anticipate such an extension of privatisation of services as has occurred under this Government. It was really quite unexpected. Had it been a different sort of Government, perhaps it would

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1211

have been easier to anticipate this need. The Minister may not be able, this afternoon, to commit the Government to one outcome from the options put forward in the consultation, but I hope he will be able to indicate the direction in which they are heading and, crucially, that he will be able to tell noble Lords when the Ministry expects to publish its response to the consultation. After all, this has now been closed for more than four months.

The main locus of the debate on extending freedom of information is, understandably and rightly, on contractors providing public services. I hope the Minister may also be able to consider private companies which provide essential services to the public, sometimes in a monopoly situation. I take, as an example, the water industry. In Cornwall, my part of the world, people feel the pinch of their water bills more acutely than pretty much any of their other essential outgoings, except perhaps council tax. Indeed, any Member of your Lordships’ House from the south-west—and there are too few of us—knows that we pay the highest water bills in the country.

Whether one’s bills are the highest or the lowest, the local water company takes such decisions as whether to renew ageing pipe work, introduce hosepipe bans or, crucially, change how water is treated and cleaned. These are important issues about vital public services provided, practically, on a monopoly basis. All remain completely opaque, outwith the Freedom of Information Act. While electricity and gas companies are subject to some competition, there is no option to switch away from your water company if you are dissatisfied with the public service it provides. There should surely be a general principle that, if the public relies on a service and has no option to go elsewhere to obtain it, the administration of that service should be subject to full public scrutiny.

I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so there is some good news for the Government. The Freedom of Information Act has proved popular with the public. It has shone a spotlight of public scrutiny on many public bodies, and many a media story has been written as a result. That is good for democracy, even if it is a scandal that some MPs have been so reluctant to embrace the freedom of information culture themselves. Their sensitivities notwithstanding, the Information Commissioner's office found at the beginning of this year that some 80 per cent of the public felt that being able to access information held by public authorities promotes accountability and transparency. Not many government policies get 80 per cent support, so FOI has been a success, and all who campaigned for it, inside and outside Government—and we should give particular credit to Maurice Frankel and the Campaign for Freedom of Information—have every right to be proud of its achievement.

However, I hope the Minister will agree that we should not be complacent. Ministers must surely move swiftly now to close the loopholes and to make the system still more accessible to the public. After all, the third annual report on the operation of the FOI Act, which, by remarkable and delightful coincidence, came out yesterday, makes it clear that a third of requests are partially or wholly withheld. In the light of those

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1212

figures, is the Minister convinced that the departmental default position, which appears to be non-disclosure, should always be to try to disclose unless there are overriding issues to be faced?

Since the number of requests fully withheld has increased steadily, if slightly, in each year since the Act was implemented, departments must be careful not to pull up the information drawbridge any further. I am thankful that the Government have consigned to the dustbin the absurd proposals we saw last year to limit FOI requests by increasing the cost of making a request. I hope the Minister will agree that this is a good opportunity to build on that constructive approach by committing unequivocally this afternoon to include, for example, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, within the provision of the Act. There cannot be any logic to its exclusion since the police and even Special Branch are already covered. Similarly, unless the Minister can think of an adequate defence for leaving academy schools outside the terms of the Act, it is surely reasonable that he should be asked to tell your Lordships' House when they will be subject to proper scrutiny.

More broadly, I wonder whether the Minister would like to touch on why the public interest test here in England is weaker than that north of the border in Scotland. Why do the Scots have a privilege that we are denied? Will the Minister consider bringing the Act into line with its Scottish counterpart? Perhaps the Minister can also take this opportunity to clarify whether the very successful present Information Commissioner is eligible for reappointment next year, when his appointment comes up for review. If he is not, why not? We know that the present commissioner's office is drastically overstretched—of course, if the Government were more open at the outset, fewer appeals would need to reach his desk. The Minister should be concerned that of the 222 appeals last year, 186—more than four in every five—were in relation to his colleagues in other departments of state.

Members of the public can wait months for their cases to be dealt with. Indeed, parliamentarians, as I know to my cost, can wait months when they put in a request on behalf of their constituents or their labours, and there is a real risk that those delays could put the hard-won public confidence in serious jeopardy. It is clearly important that the commissioner's office is properly resourced, and it is surely time to make the commissioner accountable not to Ministers, but to Parliament. I hope the Minister can touch on whether it would be appropriate to take the model of the Comptroller and Auditor-General for that purpose. Most crucially of all, I hope he will accept that it is important that the commissioner should be allowed to investigate not just bodies owned by the public through their Government but any organisation that provides a public service. If it is a public service, there is demonstrably a public interest in transparency. That is clearly a challenge to this Government and to any possible future Government. I hope that the noble Lord who will speak from the Conservative Front Bench will be able to commit his party to maintaining, not diluting, the freedom of information legislation. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1213

We have come a long way along the freedom of information road. As public confidence in politics and political institutions has tended to wane, this is clearly no moment to stall on that movement or to turn back. We must surely press on and prove that none of our public services has anything to hide. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page