Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:34 pm on 14th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Crossbench 7:34 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, Clause 26(2) is presumably designed to protect diplomatic relations with foreign states. The amendment would prevent it being used to suppress information about the activities of the EU, including information relating to intra-EU political debate.

At the heart of the Bill is the proposition that information should be freely available unless disclosure could in general terms be said to harm the national interest or relationships with other states. When I spoke to the amendment in Committee, I argued that the European Union was in some ways akin to a government department, as many of its policies, particularly on agriculture, fishing, environmental issues and even some trade and industry issues, are deeply influential on all member states, including the UK, and are often broadly adopted by them.

I realise that such a parallel has its limitations, but it is sufficient to warrant the proposal that information from appropriate European sources should be made at least as freely available as the Bill's restrictions allow. All information from that quarter would naturally be subject to the usual harm tests, so no diplomatic or national security material would be included, because that is already safeguarded by the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, reminded me in Committee that the European Union was committed to increased openness by virtue of Article 255 of the Amsterdam treaty. Of course we are aware of that, but the simple fact is that the EU has suffered from a culture of secrecy and we would do well to encourage it in the right direction by our example. It may be a bit embarrassing to hold up this Bill as an example, but it is better than any of the European Union's freedom of information rules.

I think that I even had some friendly support on the issue from the Liberal Benches in Committee, although the general advice that I got from that quarter--I do not remember whether it was from the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, or the noble Lord, Lord Lester--seemed to be that we should leave it to Europe and that if European regulations were more restrictive than ours we should accept the more restrictive regime. I am not sure that I agree.