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(" .--(1) Arrangements under section 7 must include the establishment and maintenance of a panel of persons (to be known as the "Small Business Practitioner Panel") to represent the interests of practitioners who are in businesses which employ fewer than fifteen persons.
(2) The Authority must appoint one of the members of the Small Business Practitioner Panel to be its chairman.
(3) The Treasury's approval is required for the appointment or dismissal of the chairman.
(4) The Authority must have regard to any representations made to it by the Small Business Practitioner Panel.").
On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 74E) shall be agreed to?
Their Lordships divided: Contents, 57; Not-Contents, 110.
I spoke to this amendment with Amendment No. 62. I beg to move.
moved Amendment No. 76:
Page 4, line 37, leave out from second ("persons") to end of line 39 and insert ("--
(a) who are consumers for the purposes of section 129; or
(b) who, in relation to regulated activities carried on otherwise than by authorised persons, would be consumers for those purposes if the activities were carried on by authorised persons.").
I spoke to this amendment with Amendment No. 62. I beg to move.
moved Amendment No. 78:
After Clause 9, insert the following new clause--
(" .--(1) The Authority shall, subject to subsection (2), publish or disclose information to any person on request with a view to enabling members of the public to make informed judgements about the way in which it is carrying out its functions.
(2) Before deciding not to publish or disclose information, the Authority must decide that the public interest is outweighed by any considerations of confidentiality attaching to it.").
The noble Baroness's amendment seeks to provide the Committee with an opportunity to debate the extent to which the Financial Services Authority will be open about its activities. We should like it to be required to operate under a presumption of openness. That means that everything should be open unless there is a good reason for it not to be. The Minister may like to confirm that the FSA will be among the bodies that will be covered by the provisions of the Freedom of Information Bill. That will be most welcome. There are well-documented concerns relating to provisions in that Bill which we shall no doubt consider in more detail when the Bill comes before this place.
As a general principle, however, we favour the introduction of a more stringent openness requirement on regulatory public bodies. The Food Standards Agency--curiously, another "FSA"--is required to operate more openly than it would be under the freedom of information legislation. So the wording of the amendment deliberately echoes the wording to be found in the Food Standards Act. The public would be placed in a position to make informed judgments about the performance of the Financial Services Authority.
Following the widespread mis-selling of pensions and endowments, the FSA has a vital role in restoring public confidence in the industry. Market confidence is indeed one of its prime objectives in Clause 2(2)(a). An open regulatory system is a fundamental aspect of the attempt to rebuild trust. Because the public need to be satisfied that their interests are being given due weight in decisions that impact on them, recommendations made by the consumer panel to the authority and the authority's response to them ought to be in the public domain. Transparency about information flowing between the FSA and government would also be very welcome.
We think that the new clause is balanced. It recognises that there are sometimes important considerations of confidentiality which may justify a decision not to publish or disclose information. But the amendment would ensure that the FSA, before reaching such a decision, must first have to have concluded that those interests do outweigh the public right to know. The amendment introduces a general presumption of openness. I hope that the Minister will feel able to give a positive response to this most modest proposal. On behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, I beg to move.
I hardly dare say that I am sympathetic, but no. The purpose of the amendment is entirely admirable. It is to enable members of the public to have access to information on request which would help them to make informed judgments about the way in which the FSA is carrying out its functions. Access to information to enable greater understanding and transparency is of course right, but the new clause is in fact unnecessary because the authority will be a designated body, as the noble Lord anticipated, for the purpose of the Freedom of Information Bill, which was not published in its present form when the Food Standards Agency Bill was first introduced and therefore will be required to make disclosures in accordance with the requirements under that Bill when it is enacted. One of the stated purposes of the Freedom of Information Bill is to extend progressively the right of the public to have access to information held by public authorities.
It is not only that the suggested clause is unnecessary, but it would allow access to information relating to a fairly narrow range of activities; that is, information relating to the way the FSA is,
"carrying out its functions".
The FSA's responsibility to allow access to information under the Freedom of Information Bill means that it has to provide access on request in connection with all of its public functions and not just the way it is carrying out its functions. Subsection (2) of the amendment provides a carve out for confidential or commercial information. Of course it is important that the authority is able to protect sensitive information. Indeed, it is under a legal obligation to do so. The Freedom of Information Bill makes appropriate provision to afford such protection, as indeed does Part XXII of this Bill.
The Government are sympathetic to the intention of the amendment but believe that it is an unnecessary addition, given that it is already provided for by the Freedom of Information Bill.
I fear that this is another example of what I described previously. The Government are prepared to express sympathy but are not prepared to act slightly more decisively. Therefore, I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.
I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving this Motion I suggest that the Committee stage of the Bill should not reconvene before 8.35 p.m.