Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 17th October 2000.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 10:15 pm, 17th October 2000

I have the pleasure of moving this amendment on behalf of my noble friends Lord Goodhart and Lord Lester. It would replace the unlimited period for disclosing information in the public interest with a 20-day limit. We strongly believe in the amendment. The legislation will work best with good will and common sense, but it is incumbent on us not to leave too many temptations in the way of Ministers or officials. We believe that the Bill as drafted, with a two-stage process over two different timescales, leaves such a temptation. A 20-working day limit is provided for complying with requests in general and an unspecified period, which needs only to be "reasonable in the circumstances", for disclosing exempt information in the public interest.

We believe that whether or not to disclose should be a single decision and that that decision should not be allowed to trickle out over a prolonged period with no clear end-point. Applicants will be told that information is exempt. That will be followed by a further open-ended wait to discover whether the authority is prepared to release the information on public interest grounds. The provision could be exploited by obstructive authorities and encourage others to relax their standards, resulting in almost unlimited delays and undermining confidence in the legislation.

There is no reason to believe that consideration of the public interest should be a cause for long, time-consuming delay. If difficulties are encountered in complying with the 20-day period, authorities or Ministers can be open about that. It is possible that a formal request, perhaps from the commissioner, for a further time limit could be drafted into the legislation. I believe that this is where the common-sense provisions should come in.

However, no overseas freedom of information Act provides extra time for public interest decisions; nor does the UK code, which also contains a public interest test. Home Office figures indicate that currently 92 per cent of code requests are dealt with within the code's 20-day limit, or the tighter limits which departments themselves set. Therefore, we do not believe that this rather loose, open-ended clause should be left in the Bill. It would be a reassuring declaration of intent if Ministers could accept a 20 working day limit.