Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 14th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 7:15 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, in moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 33. Again, this amendment relates to the Internet age, which the Government are supposed to be ushering in for all of us--remarkably slowly and reluctantly in some respects. The rights that will be granted by Clause 11 seem to me to be enormously important. Where an applicant expresses a preference as to the form in which he wishes to receive information, subsection (1)(c) says that,

"the public authority shall so far as reasonably practicable give effect to that preference".

Many of the people who make requests under this Bill will be running their lives electronically. That is the way in which information is disseminated these days. People who seek information will generally be using the web and other electronic methods of communicating information. That provision enables someone to ask for the information in electronic form. Where it is practically possible--which covers the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, in response to the previous amendment--that person may receive such information in electronic form.

However, that right does not exist in relation to items covered by Clause 20; namely, those that are already available to the applicant "by other means". Let us suppose, therefore, that we have a list of schools that have been awarded Ofted's gold stars for good performance over the past three years. As it happens, that information is not available to the public in electronic form. It is not on the Ofsted website, but a list of those schools can be found in its published report. As a result of Clause 20, if I wished to access that piece of information I would not be allowed to request it in electronic form. I would not be allowed to insist on my right under Clause 11 to receive it in electronic form. I would be forced to make do with a paper copy.

That is a relatively trivial example, but a great deal of public information that is available at present in printed form is not available publicly in electronic form. But Ofsted has electronic copies of all this information and could easily supply me with an electronic copy; it just refuses to do so. I do not see why the advent of the electronic age should be obstructed by the provisions of Clause 20 which say, "No, you have it in paper form. Because it is available to you in paper, you cannot have it in electronic form", even though it could easily be provided in electronic form. If we are to usher in the information age, we must, in the format set out in Clause 11, give people the right to receive such information in electronic form whenever it is reasonably possible for local authorities to do so. The purpose of my amendments is to make that possible. That duty has not been included in Clause 20. I believe that it should be. I beg to move.