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Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents

Volume 814: debated on Tuesday 20 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to adopt the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents (CETS No. 205).

My Lords, I apologise for not being present in your Lordships’ House—I have been since the first lockdown—but I am currently isolating and will not be able to attend the House this week. The United Kingdom Government have no plans to adopt the Convention on Access to Official Documents.

I send my sympathies to the Minister but that is a very unsatisfactory answer, and I wish he was here in person so I could tell him to his face. Does he agree that, with certain limited exceptions, access to official documents is essential for transparency, good governance and a functioning democracy? A number of countries—Ukraine, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Norway, Sweden and others—have agreed to adopt this convention. Can the Minister give us just one simple reason why the British Government are not doing likewise?

My Lords, the noble Lord always tells me that my Answers are unsatisfactory; I do not always agree with him. As it stands, the convention, which has not been adhered to by the overwhelming majority of EU nations, would not, in our view, allow for the appropriate protection of sensitive information or of journalistic independence, as Parliament intended when it passed the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

My Lords, can the Minister help the House? Can he explain what it is about releasing the official documentation concerning the £37 billion test and trace scheme and the £12.5 billion of PPE contracts—including the VIP route, which has been roundly criticised by the National Audit Office—that might conceivably make the Government reluctant to sign this convention?

My Lords, I have given the House the reasons for the Government not wishing to adhere to the convention. However, the United Kingdom Government are absolutely committed to transparency and the principles behind the convention and recognise the work done by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in this sphere. We routinely disclose information well beyond our freedom of information obligations and in line with many of the provisions of the convention.

I am sure the Minister is entirely apprised of the fact that the Council of Europe is completely separate from the EU. The attitude of the Government on an issue such as this tends to smack of an anti-European thread in the Government, which I am sure is not in the interests of this country. Can the Minister kindly explain why such a universally accepted treaty should not be acceded to by this Government?

My Lords, I have underlined the principle of this Government’s belief in transparency. I refute the idea that there is anything anti-European here. The current adherents to the treaty are Bosnia, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Lithuania, Montenegro, Norway, the Republic of Moldova, Sweden, Ukraine and Iceland. The majority of EU countries are not signatories. I think that answers the noble Lord’s point that this is some kind of EU line.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether a Cabinet paper would be an official document in terms of this treaty and, if so, would it be protected under Article 3k?

My Lords, my noble and learned friend is right to draw attention to this. Although protection for deliberations within public authorities is allowed for in the convention, it does not provide the specific exemption that Parliament felt was necessary in order to protect Cabinet collective responsibility, which is one of the key conventions underpinning our form of Cabinet government. It informed the Labour Government in 2000, at the time this Act was passed, and continues to inform us.

My Lords, the Minister has given quite inadequate answers as to why the Government will not adopt the convention. Can I press him on the issue of transparency and whether the Government would obey the law—their own laws? In February, the High Court confirmed that the failure to publish the details of all the PPE contracts is unlawful. The Government responded that they were working hard to do so. Just how far have the Government got? In March, more than 100 of the contracts awarded last year were still unpublished. Some 93% of contracts awarded to suppliers with political connections have been published late, and it is estimated that nearly £2 billion-worth of contracts have gone to those with Conservative Party links. The Government will not adopt the treaty, even though other countries have published this information. As of today, how many contracts awarded more than 30 days ago have yet to be published by the Government?

My Lords, on the specific question of the number that the noble Baroness asks about, I will have to write to her; I apologise for that. Obviously, the Government hold the principle of transparency as paramount. There are always issues of commercial confidentiality, as all noble Lords will understand. However, we go far beyond the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act in publishing information about the conduct of business within government.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his answers and his assurance that there is not an anti-European element to this, which I wholeheartedly accept. However, does he agree that access to official documents is even more important in times of crisis and that there is a need for openness and transparency in public authorities, partly to restore trust but also to expose or reduce any corruption and make the public feel more confident in their authorities?

My Lords, wherever, if ever, corruption exists, it should be mercilessly rooted out and dealt with; I think that would be the united resolve of your Lordships’ House, of the Government and the whole of Parliament. All central government departments are required to publish datasets, including central government contracts, tender opportunities and contract award notices over £10,000, central government spending over £25,000, the gender pay gap data—I will not prolong the list, because other Members wish to ask questions. However, I stress to your Lordships that a great deal of information is voluntarily published by the Government and that we do and will adhere to the law.

I am absolutely thrilled to hear that the Government are, in the words of the Minister, committed to transparency. A few Members of this House—I do not know how many—have been told that MI5 has files on them. Can the Minister therefore, in this spirit of transparency, get those files for us so that we can see exactly what information is held on us? I cannot believe that any of us is a threat to national security—apart from, obviously, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes.

I could never conceive that the noble Baroness would be a threat to anyone and I rejoice in her kindly words always. The reality is that Parliament agreed in 2000 that it was appropriate to protect sensitive information from inappropriate disclosure and legislated for exemptions in some areas, including absolute exemptions for information relating to security and intelligence agencies and communication with the sovereign. That decision was taken by Parliament, and in the spirit of adhering to the law, the Government continue to follow that provision.

My Lords, I also have an MI5 file, which I discovered after a recent government publication. What distressed me was that all the information in it was wrong. Can the Minister make these files available so that MI5 at least has accurate information about why we are totally untrustworthy?

My Lords, the noble Lord would not expect me to have access to any such file, and we do not comment on security matters in any case.

My Lords, given that England, Wales and Northern Ireland already have the Freedom of Information Act in place, could the Minister comment on whether, after 20 years of that Act, it is due for review to assess its effectiveness and whether it needs to be broadened to cover other bodies?

My Lords, other bodies are covered. If I said that it was time for a review, people would immediately say, “Oh, they are planning to do something different to what we have now.” There are no current plans for a review. Obviously, every piece of legislation is constantly kept under consideration both by Parliament, including your Lordships, and by those responsible for conducting government business, but currently there are no such plans.