Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 14th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 6:45 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, I am sure that this amendment and the amendments with similar objectives which were debated in Committee are well intentioned. I shall endeavour to answer the question put to me by the noble Lord; namely, whether we have changed tack in error. I doubt whether that is the case, but I can understand why the noble Lord might wish to ensure that information which is in the public interest should be made public irrespective of cost. However, we do not believe that this is the right way to achieve that.

I shall try to explain why we feel that the amendment is not acceptable. Nothing in the Bill prevents a public authority from disclosing such information. That is a point that I made clear when we considered the matter in Committee. Where a public authority has the power to disclose information, it would be required to do so under administrative law; and when asked to disclose such information, in so doing to balance the costs of disclosure with the public interest. We feel that that is the sensible way in which to approach this issue, rather than the blanket disapplication of exemption provided for in Clause 12--regardless of the implications for the public authority. Indeed, those implications would be real and could from time to time be very substantial.

This Bill gives real rights of access to all information held, but--we have argued this point many times--this must be balanced against the administrative burden that it would place on public authorities. Clause 13 seeks to achieve that end. I can assure noble Lords that the Government intend to set the appropriate limit for the purposes of Clause 12 at £500. That should ensure that the clause does not unduly restrict the right of access.

The amendment could expose public authorities to disproportionate demands on their resources and jeopardise other important work. I believe this to be particularly the case with smaller public authorities. We advanced this argument at an earlier stage and we still believe it to be an important consideration, particularly when one considers how small are some public authorities. The point has been made on many occasions, but it is an important one. Although the noble Lord moved the amendment with his customary elegance, I do not think that he has particularly focused on that important matter. Many public authorities are unlikely to be large enough to be sufficiently flexible to adapt to such demands, even if they were able to recover the full financial costs.

In addition, the amendment would allow applicants with sufficient financial resources--for example, companies or wealthier individuals--to require the public authority to undertake time-consuming research on their behalf--again regardless of the size, scope and capacity of the organisation to undertake that research. That seems entirely unfair. For those reasons, I would ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

The noble Lord asked me a specific question. I said that I did not think this was an error. Apparently, it is not an error. The forerunner to Clause 2 was a direction to authorities to consider the public interest in disclosure when the Bill did not require it because the information was exempt. Clause 2 is now much stronger. For those reasons we feel that this is a sensible way of dealing with this issue.