Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 17th October 2000.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 9:15 pm, 17th October 2000

Thank you. Perhaps I could approach this in another way. I think the noble Lord is right: this is a key part of the Bill. The point was made earlier that successive governments have moved more and more what were thought of as public sector responsibilities to the private sector. Successive governments have encouraged public/private partnerships which bring public authorities and the private sector into very close co-operation. I served on your Lordships' Select Committee that looked at changes that had taken place in the public service in the 'eighties and 'nineties. It was a dramatic if not a noisy revolution, which I do not think people fully appreciate, on which this Bill will impact.

My concerns are twofold. The brief we received from the CBI sets out very clearly the risk of disclosure of trade secrets and of commercial information, prejudicing commercial interests. This means that business will be more reluctant to provide information in the first place and perhaps more reluctant to get into bed with the public sector on joint projects which both sides of the Committee want to encourage.

How do we get round this? It is clear--perhaps it is something that the CBI and the private sector will have to take on board--that doing business with the public sector, which for many companies is very profitable indeed and very attractive, carries with it certain freedom of information responsibilities.

The kind of culture we are trying to encourage in the public sector as regards the citizen's right to know will spill over into the private sector as well. At the beginning of this debate it was said that one of the intentions behind the Bill was to bring about a cultural change and a shift in the balance of power.

The relationship between the private and public sectors and how the Bill will interface between them will form extremely important parts of the legislation. From the way the lawyers have been jousting this evening in their efforts to get it exactly right, one can see that that is going to take some considerable skill. That is one reason why I look with such confidence to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer.