Moved by Lord Clement-Jones
6: Clause 2, page 2, line 18, at end insert—“(7) ARIA is a public authority within the meaning of section 3 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and Schedule 1 to that Act is amended accordingly.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would subject ARIA to Freedom of Information requests.
My Lords, Amendment 6 is in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Fox, the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate. As my noble friend said in Committee, without the FOI amendments, ARIA would follow in the footsteps of a very small number of institutions that currently do not have Freedom of Information Act obligations. I will not extensively rehearse all the arguments, but suggest that the organisations involved, which include the Royal Family and security and intelligence bodies, are not natural bedfellows to ARIA. The Minister complained about the burdens for ARIA of responding to FOI requests but nowhere, not even in Dominic Cummings’s evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Committee last February, was the FoIA identified as an obstacle to ARIA’s success.
The Minister has continually highlighted that ARIA is modelled on DARPA. ARPA was subject to the US Freedom of Information Act and DARPA is subject to it as well. This has not prevented them achieving the successes which the Government wish ARIA to emulate. We talked in Committee about the equivalent number of requests received before the restructuring of the research bodies, which were exactly equivalent to those of DARPA. The argument that DARPA charges fees falls away too. The main classes of requester—the news media and educational staff—and requests in the public interest are not charged. In practice, only commercial requesters have to pay.
As I said in Committee, there is no question that, under the FoIA, ARIA’s research programme could be prejudiced, given the clear exemptions under the Act for research interests. In Committee, the Minister gave away the real reason for the Government’s refusal to include ARIA under the FoIA. He illustrated his general contempt for freedom of information legislation, saying:
“From my point of view, it is a truly malign piece of legislation”, and that
“there must be many hundreds of civil servants engaged in doing nothing other than responding to these fishing expeditions”.
It looks like this is personal—or is the truth that the Government find the daylight shed on them by the FoIA truly inconvenient, and ARIA is just the start of an erosion of FoIA rights?
Transparency is crucial for all our public institutions. ARIA will be in receipt of a substantial amount of public funding—£500 million over the next three years—so there are compelling grounds for its inclusion. Coming under the FoIA is an essential part of retaining public trust.
As regards Amendment 7, which relates to procurement, the Minister said in Committee that:
“When ARIA is commissioning and contracting others to do research for it, it will be operating in a fundamentally different way from traditional R&D grant-making where procurement rules do not apply.
In my view, it is therefore appropriate for ARIA to be given freedom from procurement rules to ensure that the agency has greater flexibility in its contractual arrangements.”—[Official Report, 22/11/21; cols. GC 147-49.]
If ever I heard a circular argument, that was it.
Why are the Government having to perform drafting contortions to exclude ARIA from these procurement requirements in the Bill? Why on earth should ARIA not be subject to exactly the same procurement regime as other public bodies? UKRI is subject to rules and procures and commissions services, including research services. What makes ARIA so different? I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 6, to which I added my name. This is a subject I raised at Second Reading, but I reassure the noble Baroness acting as the Whip that, on this occasion, she can relax; there is unlikely to be any need to interrupt me on the grounds that I have gone on too long, because I want to be very brief.
There are two reasons why ARIA should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The first is one of principle. Public bodies set up in statute should be subjected to the same FOI requirements as apply elsewhere. In this country, I submit that FOI legislation is an essential safeguard in the political world in which we now live. To reject this amendment will send a bad signal and set a bad precedent. I even suggest to the Minister that he may reconsider his view as and when he sits on these Benches in the future.
The second reason is practical. We do not want to allow ARIA to come to be viewed with public suspicion and distrust, especially as it has the right to fail, so being open about its work will be beneficial. If it turns out that it is not easy to discover what it is doing, public support for ARIA might be damaged, to the detriment of its wider role. It is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which a campaign is waged against ARIA for excessive secrecy, possibly utilising inaccurate information about it, and for public support to be damaged; nor, in my judgment, would making ARIA subject to freedom of information turn out to be an excessive practical burden. Moreover, if there are aspects of ARIA’s future work that turn out to be sensitive, the Government already have powers elsewhere in the Bill for the Secretary of State to intervene on grounds of national security.
I will leave my remarks there, but I strongly urge the acceptance of Amendment 6.
My Lords, I spoke about the freedom of information aspects of these two amendments in Committee, and I repeat that I think it is reasonable to exclude ARIA from the freedom of information requirements.
I do not regard the Freedom of Information Act as malign, and I am sure my noble friend does not either. It is appropriate in many cases that our public bodies are opened up, but it is true that it is burdensome. That has been a constant complaint, and certain kinds of organisations attract lots of fishing expeditions which increase the burden, and this goes beyond what would be regarded as being reasonable.
In Committee, I quoted both Tony Blair—who, having introduced the Freedom of Information Act, had a Damascene conversion and did not regard it as a helpful thing in the end—and Professor Philip Bond, the Professor of Creativity and Innovation at the University of Manchester. Both of them highlighted the fundamental reason why ARIA should be free from the Freedom of Information Act: because the last thing our scientists need when looking at the next internet, or whatever it is, is to be overcome with excessive caution because they are worried about what would happen if their conversations had to be revealed through Freedom of Information Act requests. Creativity thrives in an environment where it is not subject to ex-post analysis.
The other reason why I wanted to speak this evening is that I do not understand why Amendments 6 and 7 have been positioned as they are in Clause 2. They seem to set up a conflict with the provisions of Schedule 3, which is introduced by Clause 9. I have not followed through the detailed drafting in respect of freedom of information, but I have followed it through in respect of the Public Contracts Regulations. Basically, Amendment 7 says that the regulations will apply to ARIA, while paragraph 17 of Schedule 3 says that the requirements do not apply to ARIA.
So, the effect of these amendments—and I believe the same is true of the freedom of information amendment, but I have not completely followed that through—is that one part of the Bill would say that the requirements do not apply, but the next part would say that they do apply. That does not seem to me a very clever way to write amendments or legislation, so I suggest that the amendments themselves are defective. Also, I think they are defective in drafting terms—in particular, the public contracts amendment does not mention the separate Scottish regulations, which are included in paragraph 17 of Schedule 3. Paragraphs 13 to 15 are much more complex than Amendment 6, so that may well not be as effective as noble Lords seem to suggest.
My Lords, Labour tabled a combined version of Amendments 6 and 7 in Committee, and we welcome the re-tabling of the text by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. We debated FoI extensively at Second Reading, in Grand Committee and in private meetings with the Minister and his officials. Despite the strong feelings expressed, the Government have offered us absolutely nothing—not just on FoI but on transparency more generally.
The Government’s determination to keep ARIA’s projects and decision-making secret is worrying. This is a matter of principle: do they believe in transparency, or not? If they do, such a measure should be put in the Bill. If they do not, they have not really given us a sufficiently good explanation for their reluctance to do this. We believe that it is in ARIA’s best interests to have the benefit of engagement of the public through the use of FoI. Failing to do that is not going to stop ARIA’s activities becoming known; it will just happen in a less controlled manner and create more suspicion.
Previous arguments about the huge burden of FoI—in the Minister’s terms—appear to be somewhat disingenuous. We appreciate the Government’s desire for ARIA to be a small and agile body, but they have produced no evidence at all that such a body would be overwhelmed by requests. Indeed, at earlier stages, there was an extensive discussion about DARPA, which receives an average of just under one FoI request per week.
In Committee, the Minister said that this comparison was not appropriate as DARPA charges fees for such requests and this keeps the numbers manageable, but he must accept that that statement was not a full reflection of what happens with DARPA. Other than a small bill for a large photocopying job, for example, fees are not payable by the news media, educational staff or non-commercial scientific researchers, and waivers are granted if requests are in the public interest.
We remain concerned about the issues with the Public Contracts Regulations. The Minister knows we are not happy about his approach to that, but our priority on this group is the issue of FoI, and we will support that amendment if it is put to a vote.
I thank noble Lords who have contributed on this group of amendments. Turning to Amendment 6 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox, the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, I start by thanking my noble friends Lady Noakes and Lord Patten for their supportive statements in general as the Bill has progressed through this House.
ARIA will be a lean, streamlined agency which we expect to employ people in the tens. It will recruit a small team of exceptional individuals with both technical expertise and scientific vision. I contend that it is appropriate that we consider how their time, focus and energy is best applied.
We have designed this new, unique agency to operate and behave in a way we do not usually see in the public sector—with leanness, agility and efficiency being core to its function. We have also tasked it with embracing risk and failure. As noted by my noble friend Lady Noakes during consideration in Grand Committee and again this evening, these exceptional scientists should not be fearful of or driven to risk-aversion by the prospect of FoI disclosures, nor should they be distracted or bogged down by the bureaucracy of fulfilling such requests.
The issue of the volume of FoI requests we expect ARIA to be subject to has been raised throughout the passage of this Bill, and comparisons have been drawn between the number of requests received by smaller public bodies such as parish councils, and other research organisations such as UKRI. Pursuing this exemption reflects our expectation that, given ARIA’s profile, its focus on high-risk research and the speculation on its activity so far, it would indeed be subject to a disproportionately high number of FoI requests. It is not accurate to suggest that ARIA would get the same number as a single UKRI research council or other small organisations. It is already clear that its activities will generate a much higher degree of interest and, therefore, corresponding requests.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, made a comparison to the number of FoI requests to DARPA. Let me remind the noble Lord that when making an FoI request in the US, requesters are required to consider paying applicable fees up to $25. If requests are expected to exceed this cost, the requester is notified to agree additional payment. While fee waivers or reductions can be granted in certain circumstances, it is not a like-for-like comparison to the FoI process in the UK. Therefore, in my view it is not right to assume that ARIA will receive a similar number of FoI requests to DARPA.
I also reassure noble Lords that our reasons for placing ARIA outside FoI legislation are specific and do not extend to other new public bodies, which will not have the same requirement for flexibility and agility and therefore will not require the same exemption.
However, to suggest that the agency will therefore be operating under a veil of secrecy is, in my view, not accurate. We expect ARIA to be an outward-facing and transparent body, which will proactively provide information about its activities to encourage collaboration around its programme goals, increase public understanding of its work and build public trust. Alongside this, it will be held to account by robust transparency arrangements. Let me remind noble Lords about them. It will publish its annual report and a statement of accounts, which will be laid before Parliament. It will be subject to annual audits by the National Audit Office. It will appear before and be accountable to Parliament through its chief executive officer and it will remain, of course, an arm’s-length body of my department in BEIS.
That said, I have also taken into account the opinions of noble Lords on this matter. To reflect the considered debate in Grand Committee on the balance of ARIA’s transparency and accountability arrangements with this unique freedom, I am happy to provide further assurances to noble Lords on ARIA’s reporting requirements. Annually, ARIA will proactively publish information on its regional funding and will make information publicly available on all delivery partners supported through the full range of its funding mechanisms. Taken alongside and together with ARIA’s annual report and accounts, these are significant and robust transparency arrangements which will ensure Parliament and the general public are informed of ARIA’s activities, the projects it funds and where it funds them.
I hope that, given these reassurances, noble Lords are satisfied that the FoI exemption serves an important function for ARIA and that we have struck the right balance here. I thank them for their input.
Before the Minister moves on to the next amendment and off the FoI amendment, has he read the Department of Defense information handout? That makes it clear that the vast majority of those who request information from DARPA would not have to pay any fee at all. Can the Minister share—either now or at some point—with noble Lords the genesis of his belief, which he has now repeated a number of times, that everyone who asks for information from DARPA has to pay a fee in the United States? If that is not true, then the comparison that we all make is a relevant comparison and is the only data; the only other thing we have is the Minister’s animus against freedom of information requests. And is he aware of the provisions of Section 19 of the Freedom of Information Act?
I think the noble Lord will find, if he looks at my remarks, that I did not say that every applicant will pay fees but that there is a general expectation that a fee of $25 will be charged, or even more in some cases if more information is required. However, there are exemptions to that, which can be exercised. If the noble Lord looks back at Hansard, he will see that I did not say that everyone would be charged a fee. In most cases, a fee would be applicable, but there are certain exemptions.
I turn to Amendment 7, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Fox, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, which relates to procurement regulations. I note that the noble Lords did not address this, but it is worth while setting out the Government’s position on that amendment. I believe there are clear reasons why this exemption is beneficial to ARIA and why it will be integral to the agency’s effective operation. First, unlike other R&D funders, ARIA will be commissioning and contracting others to do research for it in pursuit of its own technological visions or research goals. The process of contracting and commissioning means ARIA will be operating in fundamentally different ways from traditional R&D grant making, where procurement rules already do not apply. Placing ARIA outside the existing public procurement rules will mean that the agency can freely procure expert investment and consultancy advice, which will be important given the highly varied and technical nature of the agency’s work.
While we imagine that the bulk of ARIA’s research activities will be carried out by its partners and funders, it remains possible that ARIA may wish to procure and own a piece of research equipment to crowd-in interest from other research partners, or to accelerate the progress of a project. Freedom from traditional procurement rules will facilitate ARIA making those investments quickly and with ease. In my view, it is appropriate for ARIA to have greater flexibility than the R&D exemption would afford it so that it can design and tailor its contractual arrangements to precisely suit its research endeavour.
Secondly, in designing ARIA, we have put a premium on the agency investing and acting quickly. In our view, this agility would be incompatible with the public tendering process mandated in the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which can require contracting authorities to put contracts out to open tender for up to two to three months. Such a delay could prevent critical investments being made with sufficient speed or, indeed, at all. In choosing to exempt ARIA from standard procurement rules, we have learnt from the successful approach taken by DARPA, which benefits from “other transactions” authority, giving the agency the flexibility to operate outside traditional US government contracting standards. It is our belief that ARIA should benefit from similar flexibilities.
I also dispute the notion that taking ARIA outside traditional procurement rules will leave the agency vulnerable to cronyism. I think this was a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, in Committee. This exemption will ensure ARIA’s leadership and programme managers—who have been recruited for their technical expertise and scientific vision—can take decisions on ARIA’s procurement with autonomy, as they will have the freedom to procure at arm’s length from government and Ministers.
As I have already detailed, ARIA has clear lines of accountability, transparency and scrutiny in the preparation of its an annual report, scrutiny by the NAO and an annual independent audit to report on its procurement activities. As I have already alluded to, to reflect the constructive and considered debate in Grand Committee, ARIA will publish information on its delivery partners, and this expectation will be detailed in ARIA’s framework document. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, for tabling an amendment to that effect previously. I hope she and other noble Lords welcome this principled commitment to transparency, which would extend to delivery partners supported through the full range of ARIA’s funding mechanism.
In conclusion, I hope noble Lords have been assured that exempting ARIA from traditional procurement rules will be integral to the agency’s effective operation. The package of accountability, conflict of interest procedures and governance provisions that sit within this Bill are an appropriate counterbalance to that. Taken in the round, this represents an essential, proportionate and balanced freedom, placed in the hands of ARIA’s incoming leadership and programme managers. Taken together, I hope that the assurances and explanations I have been able to provide for noble Lords will allow the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response and thank noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. There is clearly an argument to be had on our Amendment 7 and the whole procurement regime. The one argument that the Minister has is that DARPA is not subject to procurement rules.
However, the position is quite other on Amendment 6, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, has said. This is a matter of principle. The Minister keeps coming up with some quite colourful phrases. This evening he said that scientists should not have to be fearful at the prospect of FoI disclosure. That is quite an interesting phrase—those scientists quivering in their labs, waiting for freedom of information disclosure. I must say it is quite a colourful way of looking at the situation, but, clearly, we have a matter of principle to decide on here, and I would like to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 126, Noes 134.