Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 14th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State, Cabinet Office 9:30 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, on freedom of information have been based on the premise that the BSE material should be the bench-mark by which we measure this particular Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, frequently says that the code of practice is better than the Freedom of Information Bill; indeed, he has said so repeatedly during both the Committee and Report stages. However, when confronted with the BSE test, he is unable to explain to us why the code of practice produced not one material document in relation to the BSE inquiry. Therefore, if we apply the bench-mark of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, the code of practice does not look very convincing.

The amendment now before us is important because it raises the issue that was at the heart of this evening's earlier debate on Amendments Nos. 42 and 43. The Government have always said that there should be a class exemption under Clause 34 to provide the protection in respect of which policy decisions could be taken. However, that is subject to Clause 2, which, with the addition of the amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats, now means that not just factual material but all material--whether it be advice or analysis--must be disclosed, unless there is a good reason for it not to be disclosed.

Moreover, if the factual material "steer" included in the amendment of the Liberal Democrats is accepted and inserted into the Bill, that will apply not only to factual material in relation to decisions that have already been made; it will apply also to factual material that is intended to be used in the future in relation to policy decisions. So, again, if we apply the bench-mark of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, regarding BSE, there are not the inhibitions referred to in the code of practice. It provides a structure within which that material could and would have been disclosed. I do not necessarily accept the way that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, puts it, but his provision aims to achieve the same objectives that those promoting this amendment seek. Therefore, I respectfully suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, that he considers not only the effects of the amendments that have been made, in particular to Clause 2, but also the effect of Amendment No. 43 to Clause 34--if it is accepted--before he presses the amendment.