My Lords, in moving government Amendment No. 1 and speaking to government Amendment No. 2, I wish, first, to set out the context as we move to the final stage of the Bill's scrutiny in this House. There have been some important debates and useful discussions, both on the Floor of the House and in other meetings, and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have participated. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, speaking for the party opposite, and to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, on the Liberal Democrat Benches, all of whom I met the week before last. I put forward some proposals for meeting their concerns around certain issues, in particular taxpayer confidentiality and public interest disclosures. They responded very constructively, I am glad to say, so the Government have been able to bring forward appropriate amendments. They also asked a number of questions in addition to those concerning public interest disclosure, on the mechanisms for monitoring the effectiveness of integration and the governance and accountability arrangements for the new department. I want to cover those points in our debate on the other amendments that have been tabled.
I think, in truth, there has been little between any of us where the principles of these matters are concerned. But I recognise that there have been genuine and honestly held differences of opinion over the manner in which those principles should be delivered in the Bill. I look forward to a constructive and useful debate on these matters and support for what I hope will be accepted are the Government's genuine attempts to ensure that we reached consensus so that the Bill could leave this House in a form that is fully supported by all.
Collectively, government Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 address the issue of to whom, and to what extent, the commissioners may delegate the function of issuing instructions for disclosing in the public interest. The amendments provide for two things: first, they provide for the commissioners—or a single commissioner, by virtue of government Amendment No. 2—to delegate to officers the issuing of one-off, individual disclosures. Those are defined as disclosures which relate to one or more specified persons, transactions or goods. All such disclosures, I respectfully remind the House, must fall within the categories of public interest disclosure permitted by Clause 20. I shall be moving a later amendment to put those on the face of the Bill.
Individual disclosures are one of two types of disclosure that may be made. The other type of disclosure will be made under general instructions. These will provide for disclosure of similar information in comparable, narrowly defined circumstances. However, it will be for wider categories of circumstances, not one-off cases. Noble Lords have made very clear their preference that such instructions should be approved at not less than commissioner level.
The second purpose of my amendment is to give effect to the principle of the amendment moved by the noble Earl at Report, subject to the exception that I have described above. I accept that general instructions are a rather different matter from instructions relating to individual cases. Because, by their nature, they will apply to more established patterns of disclosure, the question of urgency does not arise. I touched on that point the previous time we debated the Bill.
I also accept that because of the greater breadth of their scope, the case for requiring a higher level of authorisation can be made. It is for those reasons that Amendment No. 1, while permitting authorisation of disclosure in individual cases to be delegated, prevents the delegation below commissioner level of the decision to authorise class disclosure instructions.
Amendment No. 2 does no more than tidy up Amendment No. 5, which was moved by the noble Earl at Report. It achieves exactly the same purpose of ensuring that the issuing of general instructions is delegated no further than to a single commissioner. That is the purpose of the two amendments which I hope meet the objectives of the noble Earl and of other noble Lords.
I should like to turn to a specific question that has been put to me in correspondence from the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and say a little more about the controls on those one-off disclosures that may be authorised by officers below commissioner level. There will be a variety of checks and balances in place to ensure that individual instructions to disclose are made by officers only when appropriate and an appropriate level of management scrutiny occurs in relation to disclosures that have been made. I understand that the noble Baroness particularly wanted me to say something about the latter, and that I will do.
Let me emphasise the first point. The circumstances in which an officer may consider giving a specific instruction to disclose information will be set out in detailed and comprehensive guidance. That guidance will have to be approved by the nominated commissioner. That will ensure that those officers who can authorise public interest disclosures will at all times be acting within guidance and limitations which have been agreed by the named commissioner.
A fundamental part of that guidance will set out the arrangements that will apply for ex-post assurance checks on disclosures. Let me spell out the key features of the regime. Officers will have to log details of all public interest disclosures that they make. Examples include the information disclosed, the identity of the recipient, the purpose of the disclosure and the outcome of the judgments made as to necessity and proportionality. Then senior managers will conduct assurance checks on these records to see that authorisations were given only where appropriate and that the disclosure was carried out only in accordance with the terms of the authorisation. These checks will be based upon a sample of the cases recorded within the records.
In all cases, the officer conducting the assurance check will be more senior than the officer who authorised the disclosure. In many cases, that will mean that checks will be carried out by someone who, in PACE terms, is equivalent to a police chief superintendent or above.
It would not be practical to expect the nominated commissioner to conduct these checks on what may be a high number of cases. But where the checks reveal problems with the guidance or with the way that the disclosure regime is operating in practice, the matter can and will be escalated for consideration of changes to the guidance that may be required. The commissioner will then consider any changes that are necessary.
In addition to this routine, ongoing quality assurance, the nominated commissioner will be consulted where significant issues arise in relation to public interest disclosures, for example on questions arising from operational experience. The guidance will require emerging patterns of individual disclosures to be reported for the nominated commissioner to consider giving a class disclosure instruction—we have discussed that before—and the nominated commissioner may at any time request information from officers relating to any aspect of the public interest disclosure regime, such as information regarding the implementation of procedures or concerning individual cases.
I have taken a little trouble to set out the arrangements in some detail so that noble Lords understand what we have in mind. I hope that they will agree that the arrangements offer substantial and robust mechanisms for auditing those public interest disclosures made by officers which are on an individual basis rather than in accordance with the general instructions.
In conclusion, the amendments represent a real attempt to meet the specific concerns that have been eloquently put by noble Lords on this important topic. I am very pleased to be able to offer these assurances and improvements to the Bill, together with a tightening up of administrative procedures.
I hope that noble Lords will agree that these amendments—and I am grateful for the thought that has gone into the issues that have been raised—strike the right balance between the operational requirements which are necessary and the stringent safeguards that we have all been keen to see in place to protect confidentiality. I hope that noble Lords will therefore be able to support this package. I beg to move.