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 Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State, Cabinet Office 6:45 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, I am aware of the strength of feeling which was expressed in Committee about the arguments for placing a duty on public authorities to assist and advise applicants, and that that duty should be on the face of the Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for moving the amendment.

I have always made clear that it is the Government's intention that public authorities should do what is reasonable to help applicants to understand and exercise their rights under the Bill. In the past, I have expressed the Government's reservations about a duty to assist which is open-ended and impracticable to enforce because of its lack of clarity. However, the effect of this amendment is to impose a statutory duty upon public authorities to provide assistance to persons either who make or have made requests for information so far as it could be considered reasonable for the authority to do so.

Subsection (2) of the new clause helpfully clarifies that, where the authority has provided advice and assistance to the applicant in conformity with the guidance in the Secretary of State's code of practice, that authority shall be deemed to have complied with the statutory duty to assist. I can give the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, the assurance that he seeks. The existence of this statutory duty will not lead to a diminution in the substance of the code.

The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, would provide a clear message to public authorities about what they must do as a minimum to ensure that they have met the duty imposed by the amendment. Of course, it does not prevent them from going further if they able to do so. Because the duty that the amendment imposes is contained within Part I of the Bill, the duty to assist and advise will be enforceable by the information commissioner. If a public authority fails to comply with its statutory duty to assist, she will be able to issue an enforcement notice under Clause 51 or a decision notice under Clause 49.

The amendment will strengthen the requirement on public authorities under the Bill to assist applicants while ensuring that the duty is both clear and enforceable. I believe that it will make a difference to the culture, which is so important in relation to the effect of the Bill. I commend the amendment to the House.

So far as concerns the amendment referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, we shall accept it when we reach it, but it is separately grouped. So there is good news coming!