Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 14th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 6:30 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, I was going to say, until I heard the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that there was not a great deal between us on this issue. We debated the issue at an earlier stage. The Government explained the complexities which might lead to applications for information involving public interest disclosure decisions taking longer than 20 days to resolve. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, in 92 per cent of cases there is likely to be compliance with that deadline. We should all feel very pleased about that. It rather undermines the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

The Government have a real concern that if time is short, authorities may be more likely to withhold information than disclose it, on the basis that where there is insufficient time to consider the matter properly it is better to be safe than sorry. On the other hand, authorities may decide not to consult those affected by disclosure on the basis that it would take too long. A properly considered decision that perhaps takes a little longer seems to me far better than an ill-considered one produced within a wholly unrealistic timescale. Thus the Bill provides for a reasonable limit in order to ensure that decisions are taken soundly.

Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 would have the effect not only of disadvantaging authorities by imposing an impractical time limit on them but might also disadvantage perversely applicants and others affected by disclosure, by causing decisions on the public interest to be taken hastily. The amendments would result in ill-considered decisions by authorities and work against the very culture of openness that the Government are seeking to achieve with this legislation. For those reasons, I invite the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 28, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and others, concerns the timetable for making a decision where information which is requested is covered by an exemption, but not an absolute exemption; that is, where Clause 2 requires the public authority to determine where the public interest lies. The Government believe that it would be wrong to set an arbitrary time limit on decisions on disclosure in the public interest for all the reasons we have just been debating. However, we have listened to the strength of feeling on this issue. Having given further consideration to these matters, we accept that Amendment No. 28 is sensible, reasonable and practical in the circumstances, and that we can support the changes which the amendment would introduce.

Failure to provide an estimate of time would mean there was failure to comply with the requirements of Part I of the Bill. The commissioner would therefore be able to issue an enforcement notice under Clause 51(2), or a decision notice under Clause 49(4). In the light of the amendment, if accepted, the Government make a commitment to add a reference in the Secretary of State's code of practice under Clause 44 to the desirability of complying with estimates given. Failure to comply with the estimate would render the authority liable to a practice recommendation from the commissioner under Clause 47. So, to answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, there is a series of steps which give the provisions some teeth.

Finally, I should say that the Government remain of the view that wherever possible all information should be disclosed within a 20-day time period. That too--I give a commitment--will be reflected in the Secretary of State's code. For that reason, I commend Amendment No. 28 to the House.