Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 14th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip 6:15 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, we have been round this circuit before, but on that occasion there was a different driver on each side. As the noble Lord said, for a sad reason he was unable to be present. At that time another of my noble friends answered the debate and that task falls to me today. Noble Lords opposite were not fully persuaded by the arguments employed last time, perhaps because the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, was not present to advise them of the good sense of those arguments.

Amendment No. 18 would not have the effect of compelling the Secretary of State to make regulations but simply require that any regulations that might be made should include provisions to give effect to the matters listed in Clause 9(4). We believe that that is too prescriptive. It is quite sufficient to specify the particular matters which the Secretary of State may wish to consider, including in regulations, which is the effect of the clause as drafted. Regulations need to have a somewhat greater degree of flexibility than the primary legislation upon which they depend so as to enable them to adapt within the parameters set by subsection (4) to circumstances and practical experience. We believe that that is a reasonable and balanced way to proceed, rather than force the regulations needlessly to cover matters which practical experience and circumstances show that they do not need to cover.

Amendment No. 19 would force the Secretary of State to prescribe in the regulations the circumstances under which a fee might be charged. It was said in Committee that this did not take sufficient account of the scope of the legislation. This amendment, if passed, would require the Secretary of State to identify all types of information and the circumstances under which any one of the 50,000 authorities within the scope of the Bill might charge. Just to state it proves the impossibility of that task. But even if it could be achieved, the effect would be to produce regulations which would be complex, confusing and difficult to interpret. For the smallest public authority, any omission or failure properly to comprehend the implications could have a significant effect on its operational and financial viability, and that would be too high a price to pay. What we propose in comparison is sensible, comprehensible and, above all, deliverable and will ensure that the public are able to exercise their right of access to information without overcharging or obstruction through the fees structure.

Amendment No. 20 would introduce a statutory duty to set fees at a sufficiently low level to facilitate access to information by applicants. That is not necessary. The regulations will provide that the greater part of the costs of disclosing information under the Bill will be met by the public purse. The appropriate way to do that is through the detail of the regulations. A statement of a statutory duty to provide for a low level of fees to "facilitate" public access to information would be vague and unenforceable. What level would constitute "sufficiently low"? Should the fee be means tested to ensure that a wealthier person should pay a fee more commensurate with his level of income? Arguably, any fees would put people off to varying degrees, depending upon their means. No fees as such facilitate access to information. Looked at like that, the amendment could be seen even as unfair and counter-productive. The intention behind the amendment is clearly commendable, but we do not think that it will achieve the aim that it seeks.

The Government have published their draft fees regulations. The policy is that the maximum fee should be 10 per cent of the marginal costs of seeking and finding the information. We reckon that that is a fairly generous subsidy. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.