Freedom of Information Bill

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

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

My Lords, I have now grasped the point. I believe that I probably did misread it in the first instance because I thought that it went only with sub-paragraph (iv). But my noble and learned friend is probably right that it goes with the whole of paragraph (a). If we are dealing with the matters set out in paragraph (a), then I understand the point which the noble Lord makes.

I am grateful for that intervention. I was probably going down the wrong path at that point in the argument.

The second point which my noble and learned friend raised was that decisions about disclosure are subject to the public interest test in Clause 2. I might have been minded to accept that argument--I am not so convinced as the Government are of the need for belt and braces in these matters--but for one thing: the public interest test in Clause 2 is subject to the provisions of Clause 52. So the final judgment on where the public interest lies is not with the commissioner but with the accountable person. As Clause 52(7) impresses on us, an "accountable person" is a Cabinet Minister or a senior Member of the Government or of the Northern Ireland or Welsh Assembly--presumably, those who may have an interest, or at least may be suspected of having an interest, in evading responsibility for the problem which is the subject matter of the inquiry.

Many of us have regarded Clause 52 as a major flaw in the Bill. But since the Government's mind is clearly made up on that matter and rather beyond argument, we have not sought to amend the Bill in that respect. But it seriously dulls the edge of an argument to say that the absence of a harm test does not matter because a decision on disclosure will have to pass the public interest test when it will be a public interest test in relation to which the Minister will be judging his own cause:

"'I'll be judge, I'll be jury', said cunning old Fury;

'I'll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death'".

So my amendment is quite modest. It holds out a hand to the Government in the hope that it still may be possible to build a bridge.

If all this is to protect the confidentiality of witnesses and if the Government are not prepared to confine it to that purpose, would the Government be interested in having as a possible solution an interest in having regard to the problem which is the subject of the inquiry? I beg to move.