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Freedom of Information

Volume 450: debated on Tuesday 17 October 2006

20. How many freedom of information complaints have been made to the Information Commissioner; and how many relate to Government Departments. (94022)

Since the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act in January 2005, the Information Commissioner’s office has received 4,292 cases, of which 30 per cent. have related to central Government Departments and Agencies.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. However, she gave the number of cases that the commissioner’s office has received rather than the number of complaints, so perhaps she does not know how many complaints have been received. Does she expect there to be a reduction in the number of complaints, given that the Government propose to reduce the cost threshold, which will mean that fewer applications will be answered? When officials decide that Ministers may have something to hide and that they should push an application up to ministerial level, the cost of a Minister considering that application will be included in the cost threshold.

The proposal is not quite as the hon. Gentleman describes it. When deciding whether the £600 threshold has been reached, officials will take into account the time taken to read and consider an application, rather than just the time taken to make a search. That is surely a matter of common sense. In that process, Ministers’ time is priced at £25 an hour, just like everyone else’s. That shows that the engagement of Ministers in the process is pretty cheap—much cheaper than the equivalent in my previous job used to be. The involvement of Ministers will not necessarily mean that the process will cost more. Ministers do not get involved only when a matter is controversial—for instance, a Minister might get involved because the question is about him or her personally. Moreover, good governance under section 36 requires that Ministers get involved from time to time, so I think that the hon. Gentleman is making a number of false links.

A real problem is the number of public services that fall outside the FOI provisions. What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that non-commercial decisions made by publicly funded bodies that provide public services—such as Stockport’s Sports Trust, for example—fall within the remit of the Act?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Constitutional Affairs Committee has said that the FOI Act has been a significant success so far, and we agree. It has made available to the public thousands of pieces of information from more than 100,000 public bodies, but that does not mean that that is as far as we need to go.

The most worrying feature of the Government’s response to the Constitutional Affairs Committee’s report is the proposal that Departments should be able to aggregate requests from a single source. That provision would be wide open to abuse by Departments that do not want important public interest issues raised and made subject to FOI requests. Will aggregation decisions be subject to appeal to the Information Commissioner?

The short answer to that is yes. The appellate process will remain in place, and every time there is a refusal, there will be an appeal all the way up from the internal review to the commissioner and to the tribunal. The right hon. Gentleman will know, however, that there is already a power to aggregate similar requests from the same inquirer—the BBC has been extensively referred to in the publicity, for example. That is a power, however, not a compulsion; sometimes it is used, and sometimes it is not. What is being proposed is an extension—we are going to sound out where the extensions should take place—to enable the aggregation of non-similar requests. Serious serial users account for about 14 per cent. of requests, and they are very expensive. In particular, they take up a lot of senior officials’ time. I have said that we price their time out at £25 an hour, but it costs us a good deal more than that. So this proposal is an attempt to strike a balance between an appropriate level of information being delivered and public service delivery, which is what our officials are mostly about.

But is not the problem that a lot of the people whose requests are likely to be aggregated are the people whose job is to hold the Government to account? That includes political parties, the media and particular newspapers. The decision to allow aggregation across a range of different questions will give rise to particular risks. Furthermore, it was announced today that the Treasury will continue to refuse to release information about the true cost of identity cards under the Freedom of Information Act. It has been ordered to provide that information but, no, it is going to appeal. How does the Minister square that Government attitude with the Labour party’s pledge in 1996 to end “scandals, sleaze, patronage, secrecy” and to

“stop unnecessary secretiveness in government”?

Is not this just another example of good intentions but very poor delivery?

I cannot help noting that, during the Tories’ 18 years in government, they chose not to introduce a freedom of information Act. They preferred to cleave to secrecy during all that time. There was not much evidence of letting sunshine in to win the day there, was there? Or of any other chinks of light being shed on the secrecy of the hon. Gentleman’s former colleagues.

The Treasury must be asked about its own approach, but it is entitled, like everyone else, to go through the appellate procedure, and that is exactly what it is going to do. If we wanted to make a serious attempt to curtail or limit these requests, the way to do it would be to levy a flat-rate charge. That would reduce by about 44 per cent. the time spent processing the requests, but we have expressly chosen not even to consult on that option. The impact of our proposal will be to reduce the most expensive requests while preserving the right of the vast majority of people to get absolutely free information. The hon. Gentleman almost suggests that the way in which we are proposing to go forward—

Order. May I suggest to the hon. and learned Lady that it might be appropriate to send some information to the hon. Gentleman via a letter? Her answer is very long.

I have listened carefully to what my hon. and learned Friend has said. Will she tell me how many Members of Parliament have used the Freedom of Information Act? Some of us find it rather disheartening that, when we ask for information on sensitive subjects from the Department of Health, for example, we are given so little. In those cases, we have to prepare freedom of information applications to get the information that we need.

I do not have the information on the number of Members of Parliament making such applications, but if my hon. Friend wants me to get it for her, of course I will do so. She has raised the analogy of parliamentary questions, and it is interesting to note that there is no guidance that says that the time used for reading and consulting is not aggregated in when considering the upper time limit for parliamentary questions. It is entirely sensible that the Freedom of Information Act requests should be aggregated.

Does not the Government’s response to the recommendation of the Constitutional Affairs Committee show that, in office, they are going cold on the commitments that they made when they were in opposition? Is not the reality that, if they put up the charges and give regular, serious users fewer opportunities to use the Act, they will reduce the total number of people using it, and reduce the ability of the most investigative—and potentially the most difficult—customers to get the information that the Government are least keen to divulge?

Once again, the hon. Gentleman makes a false elision. The aggregate users do not necessarily produce the embarrassing facts. They embark on extremely wide, sweeping inquiries that take hours and hours—indeed, weeks sometimes. Of course, there is a duty on every Department that refuses a request for information under the freedom of information legislation to try to advise the inquirer how better they can bring their inquiry within the terms of the Act. There is plenty of scope for applications that are refused on the new basis to be resubmitted under a different name 60 days later. That will not deter the rational, quite honestly.