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 Bach Lord Bach Government Whip 7:15 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, we have some sympathy with the clear desire of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to ensure, by way of these amendments, that applicants are able to receive information in a format that they choose rather than that which is convenient for the public authority. We recognise that there is some strength to that argument; indeed, Clause 11 provides that, where an applicant under this Bill states a preference, it must be complied with where "reasonably practicable" to do so.

There is nothing in the Bill that would prevent an authority from complying with the applicant's wishes in such circumstances. However, as the noble Lord acknowledged, Clause 11 recognises that the applicant's wishes, while important, are not the only consideration. The question of a public authority's resources and administrative capability is also relevant.

As the noble Lord said, his amendments are aimed at circumstances in which a public authority has made information available pursuant to an existing statutory duty. Their effect would be that the authority would no longer be able to rely on the exemption at Clause 20 in the circumstances described by Amendment No. 33 but would be required to provide the information in another format, if that was the applicant's preference and it would be reasonably practicable for the authority to do so.

I say with much flattery that the amendments have a commendable simplicity in the way they propose to amend all other statutory obligations on persons (public authorities and others) which require disclosure of information. However, sympathetic though we are, we do not believe that such an approach is possible or even sensible. Each regime has to be considered on its merits and the amendment proposed considered in its proper context. Furthermore, we are concerned that a statutory duty of this kind in relation to information which must be made available by other enactments would present significant problems for many authorities. The kernel of our arguments is that authorities will already have well established procedures to meet their existing statutory obligations in this respect. Changes of the kind now being suggested will carry additional and possibly significant resource implications, both financial and in terms of the authority's administrative flexibility.

We believe that the way round the problem that the noble Lord mentioned is perhaps better handled through the development of what can be described as "good practice". Public authorities should do what is practicable and what could reasonably be expected of them under the circumstances. It is the particular circumstances that are relevant to what could be reasonably expected. The commissioner has an important role in advising public authorities what she considers is good practice and in ensuring that public authorities are following good practice. We consider that that is the way forward rather than to place this additional statutory duty on public authorities. Having praised the noble Lord's amendments both for their simplicity and for the point that he makes in them, we think that our proposal is better. We invite him to withdraw the amendment.