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Freedom of Information Act 2000

Volume 736: debated on Thursday 15 March 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

My Lords, the Government are already amending the Freedom of Information Act through the Protection of Freedoms Bill, including provisions to extend the Act to more than 100 extra bodies and to introduce new rights in relation to data sets. These are part of a much wider set of measures to enhance transparency. The Freedom of Information Act is also currently the subject of post-legislative scrutiny by the Justice Select Committee.

My Lords, I very much welcome that Answer from the Minister, and that commitment to transparency. He will be aware of a report in the Guardian last month that civil servants are calling for higher fees for users of that Act in order to discourage them from using it. I am sure he will recall that at one point the previous Government also looked at increasing charges for users of the Act, but they dropped that proposal when they realised the damage that it would do to transparency. Will the Minister now rule out increasing charges for users of the Act?

My Lords, I like to take pride in having played this by the book, in that I referred the Freedom of Information Act to post-legislative scrutiny, and it is entirely proper that Sir Alan Beith and his committee should look at a whole range of issues and proposals, including that of charging, which other jurisdictions such as Ireland have brought in. However, it is a matter that we will look at when we have heard what the post-legislative scrutiny deliberations bring forward.

My Lords, clearly much more information is routinely being published and the culture is changing. To be sure that the system works as well as possible for users, and there must be a number of specific categories that can be identified, will the Government consider undertaking research into the changes that users might welcome to make the system more effective, if that is not covered by the Justice Select Committee?

My Lords, when this House and the other place considered the original Act, they specifically made applications applicant and motive-blind, and for very good reason. We believe that it benefits the public by providing access to information in the public interest, without targeting specific individuals who are asking those questions. The Ministry of Justice publishes quarterly and annual statistics on the volume, timeliness and outcome of information, but I would still be reluctant to move from the principle of it being applicant and motive-blind.

My Lords, given that the BBC is an entirely publicly funded body and a very important part of our democratic system, and that it quite rightly suggests that we should all be accountable publicly and openly, is it not right that all aspects of the BBC should now be covered by the Freedom of Information Act?

Will the changes proposed cover such things as leaseholders being quite unable to get information or transparency? There are over 2 million leaseholders, and they are unable to discover whether the insurance company to which they are paying great money is giving a kickback to the superior landlord. Will that sort of thing be covered, or will it require other types of housing or accountancy legislation?

I am afraid that it would require a different kind of legislation. This is about freedom of information from public bodies.

My Lords, I know that the Minister shares my frustration that the post-legislative scrutiny on this important Act is being undertaken only in the House of Commons, but I would be grateful if he could tell me two things. First, how can we ensure that the committee in the House of Commons takes into consideration the many views, expertise and great experience of this House on the subject? Can he also assure me that the committee will look at the issues relating to the risk register, because people out there simply do not understand why this House is not able to see the risk register while the health legislation is going through this House?

I am interested in this question about the risk register. Risk registers are protected under the Freedom of Information Act, and the relevant clauses were enthusiastically used by the previous Government. Their enthusiasm for moving away from the protections of the Act seems to have occurred only after May 2010. They may like to tweet that that is true.

On the other matter, I know that there are strong opinions and great expertise in this House on freedom of information. I regret that there was no Joint Committee but, under the rules and arrangements between the two Houses, Sir Alan’s committee had first pick and chose to do it alone. However, I urge all noble Lords to write to the committee with their opinions and to offer to appear before it if Sir Alan so deems.

My Lords, has my noble friend drawn to Sir Alan’s attention the excellent debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, some weeks ago and some of the very real concerns and important points raised during that debate?

My Lords, yes, I have. It was an extremely useful debate and a number of former public servants expressed their point of view on how the Freedom of Information Act works in their experience. As I said at the time, I do not share all their fears. I am extremely proud that we, as a party, supported the Freedom of Information Act. It has made our system of government much healthier. Frankly, when politicians, the press and the police have all shown that they have something to hide, this is not the time to start pulling down the shutters of secrecy again.

Can the Minister tell us of any measure of the dimensions of the Health and Social Care Bill, with such direct effect on the organisation of a life-and-death service, that has been protected by any Government’s evasion of the responsibility to publish risk registers? This is not a matter of political persuasion but of the fundamental well-being of the people of this country.

As the noble Lord knows, the risk registers are protected by the Freedom of Information Act. Every piece of legislation passed by the previous Government enjoyed the same privileges. The Opposition changed their opinion only when they went into opposition.

Since there is no time to respond to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, on her concerns about academic freedoms, I draw the attention of the House to the response of my noble friend Lord Henley. I have also passed that response to Sir Alan Beith for his consideration.