Freedom of Information Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:30 pm on 14th November 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish Crossbench 11:30 pm, 14th November 2000

My Lords, I start with Amendment No. 56. I am not sure what Ministers mean when they say that an amendment is "misguided". Does it mean that I have not hit the right target but there is another one which I should have tried to hit? I shall consider that.

I am always amused to hear that we should not qualify the test. It is interesting that, as far as I know, the Scottish executive is still going to use the word "substantial" before "prejudice". However, I am rather unsighted as to the position there. I do not know whether a Bill has been produced or whether the White Paper is still being considered.

I heard what was said about introducing a different test late in the proceedings. I agree that it is late in the proceedings but it is at a very serious stage in the proceedings. I remain to be convinced whether one should increase the size of the hurdle before one goes to the serious step of a Cabinet Minister issuing his veto. However, for the moment, I shall certainly withdraw that amendment.

As I listened to the Minister on Amendment No. 57, I wondered whether what he was saying was consistent with what he said on 25th October in relation to parliamentary accountability. He referred to explaining to Parliament the grounds on which the certificate had been requested and approved. I am not sure whether in his summing up he was agreeing with what he said. It seemed to me that he was backing off from what he had said. I am puzzled as to how a Minister would be called to account, especially if there were no obligation on the Cabinet Minister to report to Parliament. If he reported to the commissioner months down the road, Parliament may find out after many months had elapsed.

The complainant may have been told and he may raise it with his Member of Parliament. I am not sure how it would be raised. Would the MP have to wait until the next Question Time when the Minister was on his feet? Would he be able to put down a Question? Would he be able to put down a Motion on the Order Paper and hope that the Government are decent enough to find time? Governments are not noticeably decent enough to find time for Early Day Motions and the like on the House of Commons Order Paper, although I am not surprised, given the quality of some Early Day Motions that appear on the House of Commons Order Paper. I believe that noble Lords are well advised to steer clear of that particular route.

My serious point is how would Parliament call the Minister to account? The noble and learned Lord has not really addressed that. As I listened to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, I felt that his proposition was more attractive. If matters such as national security are dealt with, there is already a Select Committee in another place that takes those matters into account. If the noble and learned Lord says that that would be second-guessing the Cabinet Minister, I do not know why he used the words that he used on 25th October because the other place, in holding the signatories accountable for their actions and in explaining to Parliament the grounds on which the certificate had been requested, seems to involve parliamentary accountability.

I believe that my amendment and that of my noble friend put in place a method by which that parliamentary accountability can be carried out. However, I shall look seriously at what has been said and take account of the points made by the Minister, which I understand. I am quite attracted to the route chosen by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, which I believe goes a long way to meet the criticisms of the Minister. Perhaps when we have taken advice and discussed the matter, we may return at Third Reading with a way in which the Minister can honour the words that he used to your Lordships' Committee on 25th October. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.