Freedom of Information (Amendment)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:52 pm on 7th September 2010.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington 4:52 pm, 7th September 2010

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to remove 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.

The day when Members of this House backed the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill put forward by the right hon. David Maclean, the then Member for Penrith and The Border, will rightly go down in history as one of the most embarrassing days of the previous Parliament. The arguments deployed in favour of that Bill were spurious and specious and collapsed after the most cursory scrutiny. In an article in The Daily Telegraph headlined "House of Knaves", the Bill was described as "an abysmal decision", with MPs

"Acting in a way uncomfortably reminiscent of Communist officials in East Germany".

A Daily Mail headline at the time was no more flattering. It said "MPs' freedom of information cover-up is a dark day for democracy". The Sun was characteristically blunt, saying "MPs back 'squalid' secrecy bill". Members of this House-not only those who were whipped into voting for the Bill, but those who failed to anticipate the skulduggery and subterfuge that the Front-Bench teams were willing to contrive, and who were therefore attending to important constituency business on that Friday-have had ample opportunity to consider the damage caused by that capricious and self-serving vote.

It is timely to revisit the issue in the week in which our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, chose to denounce the Freedom of Information Act as a "blunder". I would be more inclined to agree with his assertion in 1996 that

"information is power, and any government's attitude about sharing information with the people actually says a great deal about how it views power itself and how it views the relationship between itself and the people who elected it."

It was with that view in mind that I sought to introduce the Freedom of Information (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill in 2007, so that I might demonstrate to our constituents that Members were committed not only to protecting FOI legislation but to reinforcing it. In the spirit of the coalition's pledge both to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act and to provide greater transparency, I have introduced today's Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, which will strengthen FOI powers in four key areas. I make no apologies for the sense of déjà vu that some Members may have. The Bill is, broadly speaking, identical to my 2007 Bill, because the weaknesses of the FOI Act remain, with one exception, as academies will now be covered by the Act.

The four key areas that I seek to address are the removal of the ministerial veto; an extension of the time limit within which proceedings can be brought for the offence of deliberately altering a record to prevent the disclosure of information; a limit on the time allowed for public authorities to respond to requests involving consideration of the public interest; and an extension of the range of bodies covered by FOI legislation.

In 2007, I noted that the ministerial veto had never been exercised. Furthermore, I entertained the idea that Members might consider that that was a reason for maintaining it, because Ministers had shown considerable self-restraint in not exercising it.

That argument is now sadly redundant. In the intervening period, the ministerial veto has been used twice by Mr Straw, in his then role as Justice Secretary, in the first instance, to block the release of minutes of Cabinet meetings in the run-up to the Iraq war, because releasing the papers would do "serious damage" to Cabinet government and outweigh public interest needs. In the second instance, it was used to block the disclosure of minutes of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Devolution to Scotland, Wales and the Regions from 1998.

The exercise of the ministerial veto introduces a veil of secrecy and affords an opportunity for arguments in favour of the public interest to be dismissed out of hand. Furthermore, its deployment sets a dangerous precedent and paints a worrying picture of a disdainful relationship between Government and the electorate.

Similarly, it may appear that there is no need to extend the period during which proceedings can be brought for the offence of deliberately altering a record to prevent disclosure of information under section 77 of the FOI Act-that is a new proposal. There do not appear to have been any prosecutions for the offence.

In the wake, however, of the climatic research unit e-mail controversy-or "Climategate", as it is known to the tabloid media-the Information Commissioner's Office found evidence that the CRU tried to avoid disclosure by deleting information. In a letter from the ICO to the CRU, the deputy commissioner confirmed the fact that

"elements of a section 77 offence may have been found here, but cannot be acted on because of the elapsed time", and said that that was "a very serious matter."

In its subsequent report, the Select Committee on Science and Technology recommended that the six-month time limit between offence and prosecution for breaches of section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act be reviewed. The amendment proposed by my Bill would allow a prosecution to be brought within six months of sufficient evidence of the offence coming to the prosecutor's knowledge, rather than within six months of the offence being committed. However, a prosecution could not be brought more than three years after an offence had been committed.

I would now like to move on to the subject of time limits within which public authorities must respond to public interest FOI requests. In 2009, 1,551 requests to central Government Departments and other monitored bodies were subject to an extension beyond the 20-working-days period, so that the issue of whether information should be disclosed on public interest grounds could be considered. That is allowed, as public authorities can use whatever additional time is "reasonable in the circumstances" to consider the Act's public interest test. Figures from a Ministry of Justice publication, "Freedom of Information Act 2000: 2009 Annual Statistics on implementation in central government" show that of those extensions, in 155 cases, the extension was between 21 and 30 days; in 129 cases, it was between 31 and 40 days; and in 276 cases, it was over 40 days, but how far over is not known. If the Bill is introduced, all those requests, totalling more than 500, would receive a response in fewer than 40 days. Departments such as the Home Office, which set a record in 2007-I do not know whether that is still the case-of 18 months for tardiness in answering an FOI request would no longer be able to use delaying tactics to postpone the release of embarrassing information.

Finally, the Bill proposes an extension to the definition of public authorities to include publicly owned companies, publicly funded "not for dividend" companies, and private contractors delivering high-value public sector contracts. At present, a company that is wholly owned by a public authority is subject to the FOI Act in its own right under section 6(1) of the Act. However, where a company is jointly owned by two or more public authorities, it is not subject to the Act. Equally, where a public authority owns 99% of the shares and someone else owns only 1%, the company is not covered. The proposed amendment would bring within the scope of the Act any company where at least 51% of the shares were owned by one or more public authorities. Not-for-dividend companies such as Network Rail, which are not covered by FOI although the Government are the sole shareholder, would have their secrets revealed if the Bill were to become law.

The argument about private contractors doing public work for public authorities is less clear. The Secretary of State has the power to designate private contractors under the Act, but has never done so. The Bill would include only a very small number of very large private contractors working for a public authority-organisations such as Capita or Serco, for instance-which had contracts of a value exceeding £1 million and covering a period of more than 12 months. Clearly, such organisations are in effect quasi-public authorities delivering public services and they must not be allowed to avoid the scrutiny provided by FOI legislation. They must be covered by FOI rules too.

I have set out today in this Bill four simple measures that demonstrate the Government's commitment to extending FOI and demonstrate that the decision taken three years ago to support the FOI (Amendment) Bill was an aberration. This Bill will strengthen FOI legislation, not emasculate it. I urge Members to support the Bill.

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Annotations

Richard Taylor
Posted on 2 Nov 2010 12:29 pm (Report this annotation)

Mr Brake's attempt to make these same changes in 2007 can be seen at:

http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debate/?id=2007-06-12b.658.1