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 MacKay of Ardbrecknish Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Crossbench 9:30 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 44, I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 58. The class exemptions in Clause 34 are available only to a government department. Other public authorities which may seek to withhold information about policy formulation would have to rely on the exemptions in Clause 35(2)(b) and (c). The precise definition of "government department" is therefore of some interest. Clause 83 contains the definition which makes it clear that the term extends beyond ordinary ministerial departments to,

"any other body or authority exercising statutory functions on behalf of the Crown".

This means, I presume, that bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive and the Food Standards Agency which exercise functions on behalf of the Crown are government departments under the Bill. Other regulatory bodies may also fall into this category, but I believe that the two I have mentioned do.

There is also a list of public authorities in Schedule 1 but they do not include bodies such as Oftel, Ofwat, Ofgem--I hope that no one asks me to spell out what those letters stand for as we could be here all night--the Office of the Rail Regulator, the Financial Services Authority, the Crown Estate and so on. These may be automatically covered because they exercise functions on behalf of the Crown. Alternatively, some of them may be agencies of a parent government department, in which case my amendments would make no difference to their status. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

The wide definition is helpful in that it automatically sweeps up bodies into the scope of the Bill by virtue of the first entry of Part I of Schedule 1, which provides that any government department is a public authority. But it also means that bodies which are government departments only because of the definition in Clause 83 also enjoy some of the wider protections for policy formulation offered by Clause 34--the very matters about which we spoke. This point has not been considered at any stage of the Bill. I am not sure whether the Government intend bodies like the HSE and the FSA to enjoy this wider protection; it may be an incidental effect of the drafting.

Amendment No. 44 provides that bodies which are government departments merely because they exercise statutory functions on behalf of the Crown are not entitled to invoke the policy formulation exemption. This will be restricted to ministerial government departments. The remaining government departments will be placed in the same category as other public authorities which would have to justify the withholding of internal policy documents under the relevant provisions of Clause 35.

Amendment No. 58 relates to a similar point arising in relation to Clause 52(1)(a). The ministerial veto can be exercised in relation to a government department or any other authority designated for this purpose by an order made by the Secretary of State. Until now it has been assumed that only ministerial government departments would fall into the former category, but it may be that a variety of other authorities are also government departments because of the breadth of the definition of the term in Clause 83. Again this might mean that the Health and Safety Executive and the Food Standards Agency and any other body exercising statutory functions on behalf of the Crown could ask Ministers to exercise a veto on their behalf. I believe that it is inappropriate that safety bodies of that kind should enjoy a veto in this way. My amendment would limit the veto to ministerial government departments only. I beg to move.