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Parliamentary Ombudsman On Access To Official Information: Report

Volume 622: debated on Monday 19 February 2001

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2.45 p.m.

What is their reaction to the report of the Parliamentary Ombudsman on Access to Official Information for April to December 2000.

My Lords, the Government welcome the Ombudsman's report. The Government agree with his conclusions that there can be no excuse for some departments to fail to deal effectively with requests under the code of practice. Recently the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office has written to his colleagues to remind them that they are required to comply fully with the provisions of the code.

Although not complacent about the failings identified by the ombudsman, we should recognise the Government's achievements in promoting openness. In 1995, there were 44 complaints to the ombudsman about non-disclosure under the code. I am happy to report that in 1999 that number reduced to 36. In 1995, 8.4 per cent of requests under the code were refused and in 1999 that had reduced to 6.3 per cent. The Government have, through the Freedom of Information Act 2000, provided, for the first time, a wide-ranging statutory right to information. When implemented, the Act will replace the code and, in particular, will provide a free and direct means for the public to enforce and to access their rights.

My Lords, naturally I welcome what the Minister has said, but does he agree that that is a wholly unacceptable standard for the moment? Will the Government ensure that the kind of attitudes shown up in the ombudsman's report are wholly eliminated before we move from the code of conduct to the Freedom of Information Act?

My Lords, this is one of those areas where there is broad political agreement, certainly between the Benches of the noble Lord and our own Benches. Yes, of course, we need to tackle the culture of secrecy that, over many decades, has taken root in some parts of our institutions. I cannot give an undertaking that we shall root out all of that before we implement the Freedom of Information Act, but the training and the learning exercise that needs to take place to deal with that problem is important.

I believe that departments are robust in dealing with complaints where the ombudsman has upheld them. I congratulate the ombudsman and the departments on their positive responses, as noted in the report. Progress has been made, but there is more to do. We are proud to have introduced the Freedom of Information Act. However, we know that we have a long way to go in tackling that culture of privacy and secrecy that, at times, is all too pervasive.

My Lords, has my noble friend noticed that in case after case, even where the outcome has been satisfactory, the ombudsman criticised the way in which the request for information was initially dealt with and, in his introduction, pointed out that some departments appear even now not to recognise that requests for information have to be dealt with under the code? When may we expect to see a proper training scheme in place for all staff, as was discussed during the debates on the Freedom of Information Bill?

My Lords, I cannot be specific about the dates for the commencement of training, but of course, we need to have a lead-in so that departments can deal effectively with such issues. Training will be absolutely critical. The need for a national roll-out plan is urgent and we are in the process of preparing one. Although the Act provides us with up to five years to introduce roll-out training and so on, we would expect to bring matters forward much sooner than that.

My Lords, will there be full disclosure of the invitation list for the recent party for lawyers given by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, or is that secret?

My Lords, I would take such questions seriously if the party opposite had, during its 18 years in government, introduced a Freedom of Information Bill.

My Lords, may I, through the Minister, express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who in response to a Question which I tabled for Written Answer valiantly fought to obtain the names of members of a working party? I received his reply today and I am most grateful to him.

My Lords, I am always pleased to receive congratulations from wherever they come.

My Lords, would the Minister mind answering the question posed by my noble friend Lord Cope?

My Lords, I believe that I made my position perfectly clear on the matter and I believe that most Members of your Lordships' House agree with me.

My Lords, does the Minister still not recognise that the code of practice was stronger than the Freedom of Information Act?

My Lords, the Government's Freedom of Information Act is a profound piece of legislation. I believe that it is as profound as the Human Rights Act. I believe that, over time, it will change the culture of secrecy which many in your Lordships' House sought to defend for far too long. I believe that our Act is effective and robust and provides an important right of access for the people of our country.

My Lords, will the Minister stretch his mind far enough to accept the possibility that answering a question and making his own position clear are not necessarily the same thing?