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 Bach Lord Bach Government Whip 7:00 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, requiring public authorities to publish their publication schemes in both paper and electronic forms and to make them available to the public free of charge might seem at first sight--even at second sight--laudable attempts to promote maximum openness and the maximum public access to information. There are, however, some sound reasons to doubt whether these proposals would achieve what the noble Lord hopes that they will achieve.

First, we have to bear in mind that this legislation will apply to a vast range of authorities. What would involve a minimal cost to a large government department or even a medium-sized local authority might represent a sizeable additional expense for a school or a parish council. Requiring bodies such as these to publish in both paper and electronic form could involve considerable outlay on new IT equipment and possibly extra staff to operate it, making it even more difficult to justify telling them to provide the publication scheme to the public free of charge. I question whether the House wants to see this kind of cost imposed on a small business, without its being allowed to increase its revenue in some way.

No one wants public authorities to use charging as a way of defeating the new culture and the drive towards greater openness that the Bill genuinely seeks to achieve. The Government are confident that public authorities will not wish to embarrass themselves by making people pay unreasonably for copies of their publication schemes. We have made it clear all along that we expect public authorities to bear most of the additional cost of freedom of information and there is no reason to suppose that that will not apply in the area of the legislative framework.

Perhaps I may remind the House that all publication schemes will have to have the approval of the information commissioner. She is bound to question any unreasonable proposals with regard to charging. She will also be best placed to judge what is the most appropriate form for the publication of these schemes in individual cases. Therefore, we believe that the Bill as drafted achieves the right balance. It offers the best way of ensuring that public authorities will publish their schemes in the manner most appropriate in the circumstances and that they will make them available either free or at minimal cost.

The commissioner will not have the power to approve the manner of the publication of the scheme, but she can issue guidance as to how it is done. In any event, we believe that it is the interests of the authority--the public body--to make its scheme known widely, as the aim of such schemes is to minimise the burden on an authority from individual requests for information that it makes available generally. I invite the noble Lord to consider my response and to withdraw his amendments.