Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 14th November 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Archer of Sandwell Lord Archer of Sandwell Labour 8:45 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, one of the exemptions from the right of the public to be given information relates to information held by a public authority if it is held or if it has been held at any time for the purpose of conducting an investigation to ascertain whether someone should be charged with an offence or whether someone is guilty of an offence or in connection with criminal proceedings or if it is obtained or recorded for the purpose of certain other investigations.

Therefore, the exemption relates to two categories of information. The first is information which may lead to decisions relating to criminal proceedings. The second concerns decisions about informing the public as to a wide spectrum of investigations. Reference is made to the long list of purposes set out in Clause 30(2). It is an interesting list. I take from it at random,

"the purpose of ascertaining whether circumstances which would justify regulatory action in pursuance of any enactment exist or may arise".

The letters "BSE" seem to rise before one's eyes at the very sight of those words. Or,

"ascertaining a person's fitness or competence in relation to the management of bodies corporate".

Therefore, an investigation into the conduct of a children's home or into the way in which a hospital is being managed seem to be included in the list. Or,

"the purpose of ascertaining the cause of an accident".

Therefore, railway accidents, accidents relating, for example, to the "Marchioness" or those relating to a nuclear installation are included. Or,

"the purpose of protecting charities against misconduct".

I do not propose to read out the whole list. However, it is substantial. Your Lordships will have noticed that many of these matters are precisely those on which the public wants and needs information because they most closely concern the public. They relate to inquiries into food contamination, the causes of railway accidents, the falsification of reports on nuclear quality control, the way in which Westminster City Council conducted its affairs, and the manner in which other inquiries have been conducted, such as the way that the police dealt, particularly in the initial stages, with the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

In Committee the noble Lord, Lord Lester, accepted that there may be a case for the exclusion in relation to criminal proceedings. However, linked with the list in Clause 30, it is, as the noble Lord expressed it rather moderately, unattractive. The argument at that time largely concerned the need to protect sources. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, pointed out that there may be occasions when the identity of the source is very much a matter of public interest; for example, did the information come from someone qualified to pronounce on the subject or from someone in a position to know the facts? As I recollect, the noble Lord tabled an amendment which sought to introduce a harm test.

It may be worth adding that a matter about which the public may be concerned is not simply the content of an investigation but the way in which it is conducted. The content of an investigation may depend to a great extent upon the way in which the investigation is carried out.

In reply, my noble and learned friend pointed to the need to protect confidentiality. As he explained, there are occasions when witnesses will come forward only if confidentiality can be guaranteed. I understand that. However, I should have thought that that would be dealt with as a separate matter in Clause 29(2)(b). It is not clear why that problem, which I accept is real, requires such an all-embracing soundproof wall.

The second point which my noble and learned friend raised in reply was that decisions about disclosing--