Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:55 pm on 14th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Crossbench 10:55 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, in most cases, the exemption for personal information applies if disclosure would contravene one of the data protection principles set out in the Data Protection Act 1998. In many cases, there will be no contravention of the principles if the data subject--the person to whom the information relates--consents to the disclosure. This amendment would require the authority to take reasonable steps to ask whether the consent will be given, provided that it is reasonable so to do. Where the individual is, for example, a civil servant and the personal data involve information about what he has done in that capacity, the information may technically be personal data, and therefore exempt, but it would probably be reasonable for the department to ask for his consent. However, where someone is seeking information on the health of a neighbour, it is clear that that would not be reasonable.

The amendment states:

"the authority shall, if it is reasonable in all the circumstances to do so, take reasonable steps to enquire whether the data subject consents to the disclosure".

I believe that the amendment is quite unusual in that it means exactly what it says and is fairly easy to understand. Furthermore, it is not subject to some of the disagreements that we have had during most of our debates tonight as regards what exactly the Bill means.

One reason I have tabled the amendment is because the Campaign for Freedom of Information brought to my attention the fact that it had recently been refused information as regards the identity of private sector employees who were seconded to the DTI, on the grounds that identifying such staff would contravene data protection principles. I doubt whether the individuals concerned were even asked whether they wanted that kind of protection. The concern here was that a member of the public might contact the department to raise worries about a company, but it could be that they then found themselves dealing, not with a career civil servant, but with an employee of exactly the same company. For that reason, I believe that information of this kind ought not to be kept secret but should be made available to those who inquire.

The amendment seeks to ensure that the authority, whether it is one of the 50,000 bodies that have been referred to, takes reasonable steps to ask the subject whether he will consent to the disclosure. I beg to move.