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 MacKay of Ardbrecknish Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Crossbench 6:15 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 21, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 22. Under Clause 10, decisions on whether information is exempt must be taken within 20 working days. However, decisions on whether to disclose exempt information on public interest grounds are not subject to any time limit. Clause 10(3) allows these decisions to be taken within,

"such time as is reasonable in the circumstances".

That could allow decisions to drag on for indefinite periods, either because the authority was obstructive or merely because it had no formal target at which to aim. Because the public interest test is the sole basis for access to information covered by many of the class exemptions, all requests for such information would be subject to no real time limit at all.

Amendment No. 21 seeks to delete Clause 10(3). The effect of that would be to require decisions on public interest grounds to be taken within the same 20-day period as decisions on whether an exemption applies. That is in line with the existing code of practice, which has a 20 working-day period for all requests, regardless of whether or not the code's public interest test is involved. Home Office figures indicate that the 20-day target--or the shorter time limit set by some departments--is complied with in 92 per cent of cases. So it is not an impossible target.

The code's approach has been adopted in the Aarhus convention on access to environmental information, to which the Government are a signatory. The DETR in its consultation paper--Proposals for a Revised Public Access to Environmental Regimes published on 18th October 2000--said that it supports the convention's approach to time limits. The convention requires that information must be supplied as soon as possible and at the latest within one month of the request. All exemptions under the convention incorporate a public interest test. So this one month covers all decisions on which the public interest test has to be taken into account. We should put a time limit of 20 days in the Bill. That limit is used in other parts of the Bill. The code indicates that departments are able to meet that limit in the vast majority of cases. I beg to move.