§ 3.14 p.m.
§ The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham)
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
§ Moved, That the First Report from the Select Committee (HL Paper 25) be agreed to.—(The Chairman of Committees.)
§ Following is the report referred to:
§ 1. Freedom of information: applicability to the House of Lords
§ Parliament is included in the list of public bodies covered by the Freedom of Information Bill. The Bill would enable the authorised officer of each House to refuse to disclose information either on the ground of parliamentary privilege or prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs. In the House of Lords the authorised officer is the Clerk of the Parliaments. In the case of other public bodies, the Bill provides that a dissatisfied applicant for information can appeal to the Information Commissioner. But there will be no such appeal in the case of Parliament. In the interests of equity the Committee recommends that the House should have a mechanism to consider whether a refusal by the Clerk of the Parliaments to disclose information is reasonable.
§ The Committee recommends that in cases where the Clerk of the Parliaments is minded to refuse to disclose information on the ground of parliamentary privilege or prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs he should ask applicants whether they accept his decision or whether they wish him to reconsider. If he is asked to reconsider, he should refer the matter to a panel of members of the House for advice. The panel should consist of 5 persons, chaired by a Lord of Appeal or a retired Lord of Appeal. The other members should include a representative from each of the parties and the Crossbenches. The panel should have the assistance of the Information Commissioner.
§ 2. Scrutiny of amendments at committee and report stage
§ The Committee considered how major new amendments tabled at report stage could be scrutinised properly, given the restrictions on debate at that stage. The Committee reminds the House that whole Bills or certain clauses or schedules may be recommitted to 1288 a Committee of the whole House at any time between committee and third reading. Recommitment allows the House to give further detailed consideration to a Bill or certain parts of it without the limitations that apply on report and at third reading. In addition the Committee recommends that, in order to improve the scrutiny of legislation, the House should whenever possible have the benefit of a further report from the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, if appropriate, on any significant amendments containing delegated powers tabled to a Bill after the committee's initial report.
§ 3. Starred Questions
§ The Committee agreed that the Clerk of the Parliaments should inform the House at the beginning of Question Time when he knows that a Starred Question on the Order Paper is not to be asked.
§ 4. Revision of the Companion to the Standing Orders
§ The Committee was informed that a comprehensive revision of the Companion to the Standing Orders was being undertaken. The Committee recommends that for the convenience of members the new edition should be in two volumes. Volume 1 should be an essential practical guide to conduct and procedure in the Chamber; volume 2 would contain more technical information. Both volumes would carry the same authority. The Committee will appoint a small sub-committee to undertake detailed examination of the revised text.
§ Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe
My Lords, I have a brief query. Paragraph 1 of the report contains the reference:in cases where the Clerk of the Parliaments is minded to refuse to disclose information on the ground of parliamentary privilege or prejudice".In a long and undistinguished life in public service I have managed all these years, as has everyone else, without the phrase, "is minded". What does it actually mean? Surely there is a phrase in common usage which can be employed instead. Otherwise, we are just falling into the spin doctors' trap.
Lord Bruce of Donington
My Lords, the Select Committee report informs the House that Parliament is included in the list of public bodies covered by the Freedom of Information Bill. I am not aware that the Bill in its final form has come before this House. I should very much like to examine the Freedom of Information Bill before I am prepared to consider the proposition that is reproduced at paragraph 1 of the report. The paragraph states that,The Bill would enable the authorised officer of each House to refuse to disclose information either on the ground of parliamentary privilege or prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs".I venture to draw your Lordships' attention to the last part of the sentence referring to the "effective" conduct of public affairs. Public affairs can be conducted very effectively but not necessarily properly. I should have thought that it would have been far better to have inserted the words, "proper conduct of public affairs".
The second part of the paragraph states that,The Committee recommends that in cases where the Clerk of the Parliaments is minded to refuse to disclose information on the ground of parliamentary privilege or prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs, he should ask applicants whether they accept his decision or whether they wish him to reconsider".1289 I give way to no noble Lord in this House in my very great respect for the Clerk of the Parliaments, who is of enormous assistance to everyone and whose reputation, and indeed strength, is well known to us all. I should have thought, on the whole, that before we commit ourselves to approving the report of the Select Committee on Procedure, we might also refer the matter to the Committee for Privileges. The privilege of this House to receive information of one kind or another is a vital issue.
We are presently witnessing—as I have attempted to show on a number of occasions and hope to be spared to do so on a few more occasions—the progressive erosion of parliamentary powers from outside the United Kingdom. I therefore suggest that we return the report to the Select Committee on Procedure, together with as polite an indication as possible—copied to the Clerk of the Parliaments—that we should prefer this matter to be considered after detailed consideration has been given to the Freedom of Information Bill.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, at the end of the report reference is made to an examination of the Companion to the Standing Orders with a view to possible revision. Can the Chairman of Committees tell the House the object of that possible revision? Who is to conduct it, and will Members of the House be invited to comment before it is published?
§ The Chairman of Committees
My Lords, I deal first with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe. I was not aware that the terminology to which he refers was the invention of spin doctors, whatever they may be. The term has historic connections with judicial proceedings and is frequently used by both noble and learned Lords and others of lesser standing within the justice system. Your Lordships may feel that it has impeccable origins. I do not believe that I can help the noble Lord further.
I turn next to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. He quoted the words,effective conduct of public affairs",in paragraph 1 of the report and suggested that the term "proper" might more properly be substituted. The words used by the committee in its report have been taken from the Bill itself. The proposal in paragraph 1 of the report was given careful consideration by the Procedure Committee before the decision was taken. It was thought that this was a proper way to proceed.
I do not believe that I can help the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, in regard to his suggestion that these matters should be deferred until the Bill has been considered. I would have thought—I am sure that I speak for the committee—that it was right for these matters to be considered by your Lordships' House at the earliest possible moment. There was no doubt within the Procedure Committee that this provision was required 1290 and that it was right and fair to all concerned. I would, therefore, commend to your Lordships this proposal along with the others in the report.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.