HC Deb 04 April 2000 vol 347 cc910-35

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business), That at this day's sitting, the Freedom of Information Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]

Question agreed to.

As amended in the Standing Committee, again considered.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. Lock

Hon. Members might be interested to know that when the code was introduced there was no such ban against retrospective action. The Conservatives are asking for a measure that they did not consider sufficiently important to include in the code that they introduced.

The amendments pull in opposite directions. Some of them would reduce the scope of the exemption to increase the rights of consumers at the expense of the rights of business. Those amendments would deter firms from sharing commercial information voluntarily with public authorities. The other amendments place prime importance on the rights of business at the expense of the citizen's right to know, which would disadvantage the general public.

That shows how difficult it is to balance the right to know with legitimate rights to privacy and confidentiality. The Government are taking a mediating role between those two opposing sides and ensuring that the public interest is properly taken into account through the operation of clause 13. As a result, particularly after the amendments to the provisions governing disclosure in the public interest, the Government have ensured that freedom of information will make a difference to consumers while ensuring that it will not unduly damage the commercial position of private companies or individuals.

The Bill will for the first time give consumers a right of access to a wide range of information. It will ensure that information is released when that is in the public interest. Freedom of information will lead to better informed and more involved citizens, while giving the commercial sector certainty in conducting its business, confident that the Government will not attempt to know its innermost workings.

I was going to deal with the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central but he is not in his seat, so I shall pass on. Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 would introduce the word "substantial" to the exemption. It is difficult to place a specific meaning on the term "substantial" or to quantify the amendments' practical effects, but as I said earlier, that is not what the CBI wanted. If the word means a lot or a great deal, information that was damaging to a lesser extent would have to be disclosed with no need to show that the public interest required such damage to be caused. That is unacceptable. It would clearly be irresponsible and would not provide a proper balance between the public interest in disclosure and the maintenance of the exemption. The qualification of the term is unnecessary. The Government have consistently said that "prejudice" means prejudice that is actual, real and of substance. It is an ordinary word used without qualification in many Acts. The word is also familiar to the courts and those involved in the day-to-day interpreting of legislation.

We must not forget that the judgment of whether the disclosure of commercial information would be prejudicial to a given interest will not rest with the authorities. The commissioner and the tribunal will be required to consider individual cases to determine whether there is prejudice. If the commission reaches the view that there is no prejudice, the public interest test does not apply and the information must be disclosed.

Under amendments Nos. 102, 103 and 104, companies would have to be given information in advance if their rights were to be affected. Public authorities will consult third parties, where such rights exist, to protect themselves from the threat of legal action. At present such rights must be enforced by the third party at its own risk. The Government do not consider that it would be right or necessary to create a new route for the enforcement of private legal rights, the costs of which would fall on the public purse. Where there are no legal rights at present, the Bill does not create new ones. It would be good practice for public authorities to consult third parties if they might be affected by a disclosure, but a statutory duty to do so would be cumbersome and onerous.

For those reasons, we cannot accept the amendments and I hope that they will not be pressed.

Mr. Hawkins

I shall be extremely brief—unlike the Minister, who solemnly read out his advisers' note.

The Minister said that the Government have listened to the CBI. We say that they have clearly not listened hard enough, as they are rejecting proposals that are vital to the interests of business.

The Minister claimed that he was steering a middle course between the amendments tabled by the cross-party group and those tabled by the official Opposition. However, that is disingenuous, as the Bill came before any amendments were tabled by anyone. To paraphrase Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade", there are cannon to right of the Minister, and cannon to left of him, but he charges on—on to perdition and destruction.

The Minister said that the code instituted by the previous Conservative Government did not deal with retrospection, and claimed that as some sort of justification for what he is doing. However, does he not understand that the Bill amounts to retrospective legislation? There is all the difference in the world between dealing with retrospection by means of a code, and dealing, by means of an Act of Parliament, with retrospective effect.

Mr. Lock

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the code is fundamentally weak and that it has no effect? Is he worried about this matter because the legal rights contained in the Bill have legal value, while the code does not?

Mr. Hawkins

No, of course that is not what 1 am worried about. I am saying that business is right to be worried when any Government—and this Government in particular—introduce legislation with retrospective effect. The Minister knows the arguments put forward by the Opposition, the CBI and other business organisations.

The Government are plainly wrong. They are flying in the face of all the views expressed by business and the Opposition. I invite Conservative Members, and members of the cross-party group as well, to support the amendments, which we intend to press to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 165, Noes 347.

Division No. 143] [10.7 pm
Allan, Richard Gummer, Rt Hon John
Amess, David Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Hammond, Philip
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Harvey, Nick
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Hawkins, Nick
Baldry, Tony Heald, Oliver
Ballard, Jackie Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Beggs, Roy Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Beith, Rt Hon A J Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Horam, John
Bercow, John Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Beresford, Sir Paul Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Blunt, Crispin Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Body, Sir Richard Jenkin, Bernard
Boswell, Tim Keetch, Paul
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia
Brady, Graham Key, Robert
Brake, Tom Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Brand, Dr Peter Kirkwood, Archy
Brazier, Julian Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Breed, Colin Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Leigh, Edward
Browning, Mrs Angela Letwin, Oliver
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Lidington, David
Burnett, John Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Burstow, Paul Livsey, Richard
Butterfill, John Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Llwyd, Elfyn
Loughton, Tim
Chope, Christopher Luff, Peter
Clappison, James Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe) McIntosh, Miss Anne
MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Maclean, Rt Hon David
Collins, Tim Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Cotter, Brian McLoughlin, Patrick
Cran, James Madel, Sir David
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Malins, Humfrey
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Maples, John
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Mates, Michael
Duncan, Alan Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Duncan Smith, Iain May, Mrs Theresa
Evans, Nigel Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Faber, David Moore, Michael
Fabricant, Michael Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway)
Fallon, Michael Moss, Malcolm
Fearn, Ronnie Nicholls, Patrick
Flight, Howard Norman, Archie
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Oaten, Mark
Foster, Don (Bath) O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Fox, Dr Liam Öpik, Lembit
Fraser, Christopher Ottaway, Richard
Gale, Roger Page, Richard
Garnier, Edward Paice, James
George, Andrew (St Ives) Pickles, Eric
Gibb, Nick Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Prior, David
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Randall, John
Gray, James Redwood, Rt Hon John
Green, Damian Rendel, David
Grieve, Dominic Robertson, Laurence
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Ruffley, David Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Tonge, Dr Jenny
St Aubyn, Nick Tredinnick, David
Sanders, Adrian Trend, Michael
Sayeed, Jonathan Tyler, Paul
Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian Tyrie, Andrew
Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk) Viggers, Peter
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns) Wardle, Charles
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S) Waterson, Nigel
Soames, Nicholas Webb, Steve
Spelman, Mrs Caroline Wells, Bowen
Spicer, Sir Michael Whitney, Sir Raymond
Spring, Richard Whittingdale, John
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Willetts, David
Steen, Anthony Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Streeter, Gary Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Stunell, Andrew Yeo, Tim
Swayne, Desmond Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Syms, Robert
Tapsell, Sir Peter Tellers for the Ayes:
Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton) Mr. Stephen Day and
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Mr. Peter Atkinson.
Abbott, Ms Diane Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Chaytor, David
Ainger, Nick Church, Ms Judith
Alexander, Douglas Clapham, Michael
Allen, Graham Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) /Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Ashton, Joe Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Atherton, Ms Candy Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Austin, John Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Banks, Tony Clelland, David
Barnes, Harry Clwyd, Ann
Barron, Kevin Coaker, Vernon
Bayley, Hugh Coffey, Ms Ann
Beard, Nigel Cohen, Harry
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Coleman, Iain
Begg, Miss Anne Colman, Tony
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Connarty, Michael
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Cooper, Yvette
Bennett, Andrew F Corbett, Robin
Benton, Joe Corbyn, Jeremy
Bermingham, Gerald Cousins, Jim
Berry, Roger Cranston, Ross
Best, Harold Crausby, David
Blackman, Liz Cummings, John
Blears, Ms Hazel Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)
Blizzard, Bob
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Boateng, Rt Hon Paul Dalyell, Tam
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Darvill, Keith
Bradshaw, Ben Davidson, Ian
Brinton, Mrs Helen Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Browne, Desmond Dawson, Hilton
Buck, Ms Karen Dean, Mrs Janet
Burden, Richard Denham, John
Burgon, Colin Dismore, Andrew
Butler, Mrs Christine Dobbin, Jim
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen Donohoe, Brian H
Caborn, Rt Hon Richard Doran, Frank
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Dowd, Jim
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Campbell-Savours, Dale Edwards, Huw
Caplin, Ivor Efford, Clive
Casale, Roger Ellman, Mrs Louise
Caton, Martin Ennis, Jeff
Cawsey, Ian Field, Rt Hon Frank
Fisher, Mark Kilfoyle, Peter
Fitzpatrick, Jim King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Fitzsimons, Lorna King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Flint, Caroline Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Follett, Barbara Laxton, Bob
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Lepper, David
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Leslie, Christopher
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Levitt, Tom
Foulkes, George Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Galbraith, Sam Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Galloway, George Linton, Martin
Gardiner, Barry Lock, David
Gerrard, Neil Love, Andrew
Gilroy, Mrs Linda McAvoy, Thomas
Godman, Dr Norman A McCabe, Steve
Godsiff, Roger McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)
Goggins, Paul
Golding, Mrs Llin McDonagh, Siobhain
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Macdonald, Calum
Grant, Bernie McDonnell, John
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) McFall, John
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) McGuire, Mrs Anne
Grocott, Bruce McIsaac, Shona
Grogan, John McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Gunnell, John Mackinlay, Andrew
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) McLeish, Henry
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) McNulty, Tony
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) MacShane, Denis
Hanson, David Mactaggart, Fiona
Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet McWalter, Tony
Heal, Mrs Sylvia McWilliam, John
Healey, John Mahon, Mrs Alice
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Mallaber, Judy
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Marek, Dr John
Heppell, John Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Hesford, Stephen Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Hill, Keith Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Hinchliffe, David Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Hodge, Ms Margaret Martlew, Eric
Hoey, Kate Maxton, John
Home Robertson, John Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Merron, Gillian
Hope, Phil Michael, Rt Hon Alun
Hopkins, Kelvin Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Miller, Andrew
Howells, Dr Kim Moffatt, Laura
Hoyle, Lindsay Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Moran, Ms Margaret
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Humble, Mrs Joan Morley, Elliot
Hurst, Alan Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hutton, John
Iddon, Dr Brian Mountford, Kali
Illsley, Eric Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie
Ingram, Rt Hon Adam Mudie, George
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Mullin, Chris
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Jamieson, David Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Jenkins, Brian Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) Naysmith, Dr Doug
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) Norris, Dan
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn) O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Olner, Bill
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) O'Neill, Martin
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Organ, Mrs Diana
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Osborne, Ms Sandra
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa Palmer, Dr Nick
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Pearson, Ian
Keeble, Ms Sally Perham, Ms Linda
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Pickthall, Colin
Kemp, Fraser Pike, Peter L
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Plaskitt, James
Khabra, Piara S Pollard, Kerry
Kidney, David Pond, Chris
Pope, Greg Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Pound, Stephen Stinchcombe, Paul
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Stoate, Dr Howard
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Primarolo, Dawn Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Prosser, Gwyn Stringer, Graham
Purchase, Ken Stuart, Ms Gisela
Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce Sutcliffe, Gerry
Quinn, Lawrie Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Radice, Rt Hon Giles
Rammell, Bill Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Raynsford, Nick Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N) Temple-Morris, Peter
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW) Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Roche, Mrs Barbara Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Rogers, Allan Timms, Stephen
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff Tipping, Paddy
Rooney, Terry Todd, Mark
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Touhig, Don
Rowlands, Ted Trickett, Jon
Roy, Frank Truswell, Paul
Ruane, Chris Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Ruddock, Joan Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Twigg Derek (Halton)
Ryan, Ms Joan Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Salter, Martin Vaz, Keith
Savidge, Malcolm Walley, Ms Joan
Sawford, Phil Ward, Ms Claire
Sedgemore, Brian Wareing, Robert N
Shaw, Jonathan Watts, David
Shipley, Ms Debra White, Brian
Short, Rt Hon Clare Whitehead, Dr Alan
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Wicks, Malcolm
Singh, Marsha Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Skinner, Dennis
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S) Wills, Michael
Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale) Wilson, Brian
Winnick, David
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Wood, Mike
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Woodward, Shaun
Snape, Peter Woolas, Phil
Soley, Clive Worthington, Tony
Southworth, Ms Helen Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Spellar, John Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Squire, Ms Rachel Wyatt, Derek
Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Steinberg, Gerry Tellers for the Noes:
Stevenson, George Mr. Robert Ainsworth and
Stewart, David (Inverness E) Mr. Clive Betts.

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment made: No. 45, in page 5, line 34, after "day", insert— ', not later than the sixtieth working day following the date of receipt,'.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]

  1. Clause 13
    1. cc915-35
Forward to