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 Goodhart Lord Goodhart Liberal Democrat 6:15 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment No. 28 which is grouped with Amendments Nos. 21 and 22. I have a good deal of sympathy with the amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has just moved. But there is a problem. While, undoubtedly in the great majority of cases, it is and should be possible to take a decision within a 20-day period both on exemption and on the question of disclosure under Clause 2, there are nevertheless certain cases of particular sensitivity where consultation may be needed about the possible consequences of disclosure. Therefore, it is reasonable that a further period of time should be allowed. For that reason, we have tabled a considerably more modest amendment than the noble Lord's amendment. The amendment requires a public authority to give an estimate of the time it will take to reach a decision. That will set a bench-mark against which it can be tested.

The issue must be looked at against the background of Clause 10(3) which does not give a public authority an open-ended discretion as to the time it can take; it must comply within such time as is reasonable in the circumstances. We think that it will help if the public authority is not merely allowed to take a reasonable time, but must make and publish its own estimate of what a reasonable time is. I recognise that a public authority will give itself as much time as it thinks it may possibly use, but it is more likely to give a reasonable time for the estimate. That is likely, therefore, to have a beneficial effect in speeding up the time within which decisions are taken.