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Freedom of Information (Amendment) (No. 2)

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 12 June 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000; to remove the provisions permitting Ministers to overrule decisions of the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal; to limit the time allowed for public authorities to respond to requests involving consideration of the public interest; to amend the definition of public authorities; and for connected purposes.

Friday 18 May 2007, when Members of this House, aided and abetted by Labour and Conservative Front Benchers, backed the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, will surely go down in history as one of the most dishonourable and embarrassing days in this Parliament. The arguments deployed in favour of the Bill were spurious and specious and collapsed after the most cursory scrutiny.

Members of this House—those who were whipped into voting for the Bill and those who failed to anticipate the skulduggery and subterfuge in which Front Benchers were willing to connive that Friday—have an opportunity to repair some of the damage caused by that capricious and self-serving vote—

Order. Temperate language is always best. Votes and decisions of the House should not be described in that manner. It would help me if the hon. Gentleman tempered his language and made it more moderate.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I will attempt to do what I am being encouraged to do.

In an article headlined “House of Knaves” in The Daily Telegraph, the vote was described as “an abysmal decision”, with MPs

“acting in a way uncomfortably reminiscent of Communist officials in East Germany”.

The Daily Mail headline was no more flattering:

“MPs’ freedom of information cover-up is a dark day for democracy”.

The Sun was characteristically blunt:

“MPs back squalid secrecy Bill”.

My Bill—

Order. I dislike doing so, but I must interrupt the hon. Gentleman again. So far, he has commented on something that happened several Fridays ago. He must move on and put the case for the Bill before us.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am about to do so.

My Bill will demonstrate to our constituents that Members are committed not only to protecting freedom of information legislation, but to reinforcing it. It will strengthen freedom of information powers in three key areas: it will remove the ministerial veto; it will limit the time allowed for public authorities to respond to requests involving consideration of the public interest; and it will extend the range of bodies covered by freedom of information legislation.

It is, of course, true that the ministerial veto has never been exercised. Members might consider that to be a reason for maintaining it, as Ministers have shown considerable self-restraint in not exercising it. I prefer the contrary argument: if it has not been used, it is because the safeguards work and there is no need for a veto. Furthermore, the fact that the veto has not been used does not mean that Ministers are not actively considering using it. In a letter to Lord Falconer, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said he wanted to

“guard more effectively against the incremental harm to the policy development process that must inevitably arise from the disclosure of individually innocuous submissions”.

It is not clear to me exactly how individually innocuous submissions become lethal when accumulated. The Secretary of State went on to bemoan the

“discernible trend within the Information Tribunal that decisions on the public interest test have not been falling in the government’s favour in key cases.”

Most Members will agree that that is good news. However, in response to the tribunal’s failing, the Secretary of State is considering exercising the Cabinet Minister veto to annul those decisions. Clearly, therefore, one senior Minister is considering exercising the veto.

As a consequence of yesterday’s information tribunal decision that the Deputy Prime Minister must hand over documents relating to Vauxhall towers—a development that the local council and UNESCO opposed—the right hon. Gentleman might also be considering use of the veto. We need to get rid of the veto before Ministers develop a taste for it.

I shall now turn to the subject of time limits within which public authorities must respond to public interest freedom of information requests. In 2006, there were 1,326 requests to central Government Departments, and extensions were taken beyond the 20 working day period in order to consider whether information should be disclosed on public interest grounds. That is allowed as public authorities can use whatever time is “reasonable in the circumstances” to consider the Act’s public interest test. Figures from a Ministry of Justice publication show that 211 of those extensions were for between 21 and 30 days, 125 were for between 31 and 40 days, and 370 were for more than 40 days—although for how much longer than 40 days is not known.

If my Bill is passed, all such requests—totalling more than 700 in that year—will receive a response in less than 40 days. Departments such as the Home Office—which set a new record of 18 months for tardiness in answering a Freedom of Information Act request—would no longer be able to use delaying tactics to postpone the release of embarrassing information. Ben Leapman, The Sunday Telegraph home affairs correspondent, is familiar with that tactic. He sought information relating to the Soham murderer, Ian Huntley, and security lapses at Woodhill prison, and he had to wait I8 months for a response to the request. The reason for the delay was simple: the Home Office’s desire to hold back sensitive—in other words, damaging—information. My Bill would stop freedom of information requests being kicked into the long grass.

Finally, the Bill proposes an extension to the definition of public authorities to include school academies and private contractors. When individual Members of Parliament draft legislation—albeit in this case ably supported by Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information—the Government can often point to technical flaws in the Bill. However, this Bill highlights the need for a debate about what constitutes public authorities. It is clear in my mind that academies are public authorities. The total capital costs of building 200 academies will be around £5 billion. The 27 opened so far received revenue funding of between £2 million and nearly £9 million in 2005-06. They are funded overwhelmingly from public sources. They teach our children, employ teachers mainly trained in UK institutions and they are monitored by Ofsted: there can be no argument about whether they should be covered by freedom of information legislation; they must be.

The argument about private contractors doing work for public authorities is less clear cut. The Secretary of State does of course have the power to designate private contractors under section 5 of the Act, but has not chosen to do so. This Bill does not seek to include all private contractors working for a public authority within the scope of freedom of information legislation. The self-employed painter and decorator who does occasional painting and decorating jobs for the council should of course not be covered by FOI legislation. The definition in this Bill of a relevant contract—one whose value exceeds £1 million and extends for a period of more than 12 months—would ensure that he was not covered by it.

However, what about Capita and the other huge firms to which local authorities and central Government outsource large chunks of their business? They provide services for some local authorities and Government Departments that, for other areas and Departments, the public authority provides. They are, in effect, quasi-public authorities. They must not be allowed to avoid the scrutiny provided by FOI legislation. They must be covered by the same rules.

I have set out today in this Bill three simple measures that would demonstrate that we in this House are serious about freedom of information legislation. The Bill would strengthen FOI legislation, not emasculate it, and I urge Members to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Tom Brake, Norman Baker, Mr. Paul Burstow, Mr. Nick Clegg, Tim Farron, Lynne Featherstone, Mr. David Heath, Simon Hughes, Mr. Dan Rogerson, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Andrew Stunell and Mr. Phil Willis.

Freedom of Information (amendment) (no. 2)

Tom Brake accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000; to remove the provisions permitting Ministers to overrule decisions of the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal; to limit the time allowed for public authorities to respond to requests involving consideration of the public interest; to amend the definition of public authorities; and for connected purposes.: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June, and to be printed [Bill 121].