My Lords, the Government intend to amend the Act to give the Information Commissioner more time to prosecute alleged offences under Section 77 of the Act and introduce a dedicated exemption for prepublication research. Other parts of our response to post-legislative scrutiny will be implemented through secondary legislation codes of practice and guidance.
My Lords, I very much welcome what the Minister has just said about giving the Information Commissioner new powers but I hope he will recognise that suggestions have been made by other Ministers—not this Minister, whose commitment to freedom of information is exemplary—that they will tighten the Act. I hope this Minister will recognise that tightening the Act in the way that has been suggested will damage transparency. He will recall that the previous Government at one point proposed to increase fees for accessing freedom of information requests and then dropped the proposal when they realised the damage that that would do to transparency. Are the Government now downplaying that risk to transparency, and doing so at a time when the Francis report into Mid Staffordshire shows just how dangerous damaging transparency can be?
My Lords, it is true that we are looking at other aspects of the post-legislative scrutiny through secondary legislation. However, I can assure the noble Lord that my commitment, and the Government’s commitment, to transparency and freedom of information, which I see as twin tracks of government policy, remains as steadfast as it has always been. Ideas and information about other aspects of the post-legislative scrutiny fully justified the exercise and I compliment my right honourable friend Sir Alan Beith and his committee for doing an excellent job. It has done much to embed freedom of information in our political culture.
It is something that was considered by Sir Alan’s committee and recommended as a good idea. It has its attractions, but it also has its downsides. On balance, the Government decided to retain anonymity for freedom of information requests because they felt that not doing so would inhibit people coming forward with such requests.
I hear what the House is saying. It was a very tight judgment and a lot of discussion went on in government about it. There certainly was not any sinister desire by the Government to protect information. It was more a decision resulting from a very tight discussion that the idea of anonymity for those making requests was still an important principle to preserve.
My Lords, the Government have been successful in extending the Freedom of Information Act in line with the coalition agreement by adding to the bodies which are subject to the Act and by providing for electronic data sets to be made available. Can the Minister assure the House that there will be no reversal of this process, and in particular, that there will be no extension of the Government’s power of veto and no further fees, particularly for appeals to information tribunals?
I do not think I can give an absolute assurance on that. We decided to retain the veto following discussions that had gone on since the start of the freedom of information debate about whether, at the very heart of government, a safe space was needed for genuine discussions. At the moment, I am having discussions with colleagues about these ideas and principles and in due course I will inform the House and give it an opportunity to comment on this. It is always an interesting balance. We have faced this problem for a decade or more since we debated these principles in this House. Indeed, we had a very interesting debate a few months ago where a whole clutch of former mandarins gave their opinions about what is called the “chilling effect” of freedom of information. I do not accept that there is such a chilling effect, but I do accept that it is right—as is the proper intention of the post-legislative review of the Act—that we look at how the Act is working and we will come back with recommendations in the areas raised by my noble friend.
My Lords, further to the question of my noble friend Lord Dubs, does the Minister not accept that his response and the Government’s current position on freedom of information are flatly contrary to the position of openness and transparency in protecting those who ask the questions and not protecting at any level those who are being asked the questions? Does he not accept that this is totally contrary to the principles and ethos of the Freedom of Information Act?
On the contrary, my Lords. If you are asking questions of power, there is some reassurance in the fact that the system giving you the right to ask those questions allows for anonymity. It certainly is not an abuse of power; it is rather, as the debates have shown over the years, that anonymity gives protection and encouragement to those who want information.
When the Government receive, as they do from time to time, independent legal advice, is there any reason why that advice should not be made available under the Freedom of Information Act? Should there be an absolute rule against independent legal advice being made available?