Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 14th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Crossbench 10:15 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, I do not think it does quite that. I believe it shows widespread support among the people with whom he has done a deal. Perhaps if he had done a deal with some of his noble friends or even with myself, he might be receiving widespread support.

I am totally puzzled as to exactly what the truth is. I have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I have here the letter from Charter 88 from which I have quoted before but I have not quoted this part and I feel, therefore, that I should do so. It talks about the Clause 35 prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs. It states:

"This 'catch-all' protects any information whose disclosure 'would in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs'. This qualified person would be a minister or official. By giving weight to a minister's opinion, the decision is protected from review by the Commissioner", which is exactly the point which the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, was making.

Perhaps Charter 88 is wrong and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, is right; I do not know. It goes on to state:

"This is considerably weaker than the current Open Government Code".

It is not as though I am in love with the current open government code. I just think that if this Bill is to be an improvement, then it jolly well should be an improvement, and not be either the same or weaker. The letter goes on to state:

"Lord Archer has proposed amendments to remedy this provision".

In the Commons, Mike O'Brien, the Home Office Minister, in Standing Committee B on 27th January--this Bill really has been a long time in Parliament, has it not?--said:

"The Government consider that only a qualified person can have a full understanding of the issues involved in the decision-making processes of a public authority".

I must say that that is good government-speak. He has learnt to be a government Minister pretty quickly. He goes on to say that,

"we do not consider that it would be right for the prejudice caused by that sort of information to be determined by the Commissioner".

Therefore, I am left absolutely puzzled when the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, tells me that the commissioner does have a role. The Home Office Minister did not seem to think so and Charter 88 does not seem to think so.

The freedom of information people say:

"We do not believe a self-respecting legislature would accept this objectionable principle on the face of a freedom of information Bill".

My Lords, are we a self-respecting legislature?