Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 14th November 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 7:00 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 31B.

I raised the issue of the wording of subsection (4) in Committee in speaking to an amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Lucas. Under subsection (4),

"A public authority shall publish its publication scheme in such manner as it thinks fit".

It was not clear to me at Committee stage that publication of a publication scheme is caught by the provisions governing approval, by the commissioner, of the publication scheme. If it is not covered, then the provision offers the opportunity for an authority that is not well disposed towards disclosing information to devise a way of publishing details of its publication scheme in a restricted manner. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, assured me that it is covered and that publication will be a matter for the commissioner when she determines the set of rules that are to apply to publication schemes.

That assurance is helpful--it goes much of the way to meeting the concern that I expressed--but it still leads to a problem with the wording. If the commissioner has to approve the publication scheme, and that approval extends to the form in which the scheme is published, then I do not see how one can give a public authority the power to publish a publication scheme,

"in such manner as it thinks fit".

Subsection (4) seems to be negated by subsection (1)(a). The intention, as confirmed by the Minister, is not that a public authority shall publish its publication scheme in a manner in which it thinks fit, but rather in a manner in which the commissioner thinks fit.

Given that intention, the present wording of subsection (4) confuses rather than clarifies the situation. My Amendment No. 31A is designed to address the problem. It removes reference to the power of an authority to publish a scheme "as it thinks fit" and stipulates instead that the publication shall be in paper and electronic form. It thus removes a power that is broad and misleading and substitutes a clearer and, I believe, appropriate requirement. I appreciate that the stipulation that publication shall be in paper and electronic form could be embodied in the code of practice; however, I note that no such reference appears in the draft code. Putting the stipulation on the face of the Bill strikes me as sensible. It will then be open to the commissioner to give guidance as to the manner in which paper and electronic copies are made available. It would appear to me, therefore, to make the clause internally consistent.

My Amendment No. 31B makes it clear that copies of the publication scheme shall be made available free of charge. I presume that there is no intention that a charge shall be made; however, on my reading of Clause 20, it may be possible for an authority to make such a charge. I do not believe that a charge should be made and I think that, if my interpretation of Clause 20 is correct, that stipulation should appear on the face of the Bill. I beg to move.