HL Deb 17 October 2000 vol 617 cc883-954

3.19 p.m.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I do not want to make a habit of this but, like the political parties Bill, the way the Government have dealt with this Bill is entirely unsatisfactory. I wonder whether the Government should not reconsider their decision to start the Committee stage today and leave the Bill to a later date when they might, with a bit of luck, get it right. They could do so because clearly there is no sense of urgency. This is the first day in Committee; the Second Reading took place on Maundy Thursday. In case noble Lords have forgotten when that was, it was 20th April. Urgency is not key to the Bill, so we could give the Government a little more time to get it right.

The Government tabled a series of amendments some time ago. Shortly afterwards they tabled another series of amendments and withdrew the original amendments. Noble Lords can imagine the confusion that that caused among those of us who are interested in the Bill. However, chaos broke out—this is the burden of my complaint—when the groupings list was produced last evening. I do not believe that any noble Lord will ever have seen so many errors. For example, Amendments Nos. 6 or 7 appeared after Amendments Nos. 26 and 27. Whole rafts of amendments were left out. It was a shambles. It took staff at the Home Office all morning to try to sort it out. They still have not sorted it out. I shall explain the details later if we go ahead with the Bill. That will be a little treat for the Minister.

If the Bill team cannot even get the groupings right, I suggest that the Government give them a little more time and bring the Bill back in the next Session. Clearly, minds are not concentrated on the Bill. I refer to the Home Office with all the Bills that it has in progress and all the problems that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has further down the river. I suggest that if we are to get this important Bill right it would be better for the Government to abandon it today and bring it back in a proper form in the next Session.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, on an equally serious note, if, as we know, private Bills can be carried forward from one Session to the next, why on earth cannot that apply to government Bills?

Lord McNally

My Lords, there are three interrelated but not necessarily consequential points here. First, the past 24 hours have been a shambles. The House deserves an apology for that.

Noble Lords


Lord McNally

My Lords, unless Back-Benchers on all sides of the House defend their rights, the power will lie with the Government. I assure Government Back-Benchers that the past 24 hours have been a shambles.

Secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, we have again had an inordinate wait for a Bill. I am sure that the Minister will talk about consultation and listening to representations. However, it is not a good way to deal with legislation. We made this point the other day. In the interests of reforming and improving governance—I say this without trying to score party points—there is a need to address this matter and address it quickly.

My third point is non-consequential. There are suspicions that not just the Opposition—after all, the Conservatives did not introduce a freedom of information Bill during 18 years in office—but even some people in the highest reaches of the Home Office would not mind losing this Bill. I shall be flanked later by the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Lester. I could not afford to employ them if I wanted to. That is some measure of the determination of these Benches to have a freedom of information Bill. I hope that the Government will apologise for the shambles, set to work to improve the workings of the House so that we do not have these delays and move with all possible speed to deliver a freedom of information Act.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I shall respond to the points that have been made. First, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, said that the Second Reading took place on 20th April and that the first Committee day is today. The timing was agreed with the other side through the usual channels. Between 20th April and today a significant number of amendments have been tabled. Indeed, some of them have been changed as a result of further discussion on the Bill. I hope that noble Lords will consider that the amendments which have been tabled improve the Bill and that therefore the period of time which has elapsed between the two stages has been worthwhile.

I shall speak in detail on the situation over the past 24 hours. At about four o'clock yesterday afternoon the Home Office gave the Whips' Office a list of groupings. As the noble Lords, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and Lord McNally, have said, the list was inadequate, for which I apologise on behalf of the Home Office. At the request of the Whips, a further list was provided at six o'clock. That also contained substantial errors and further changes were required. The Whips indicated that a further list would be provided at 10 o'clock this morning. I am informed by the Whips' Office that it was provided between 9.30 and 10 o'clock this morning. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, may shake his head but my information comes from civil servants who work in the Whips' Office, not from the Whips.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the Government Whips' Office had an amended list—I shall not go into the details as that would embarrass the people who worked on it—and were busy checking it. We did not receive the list until after 12 o'clock.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, between 10 o'clock and approximately 10 minutes to 12 further work was done on the list by the Whips in consultation with the Home Office. It was then handed over to the opposition parties. I accept that that is not at all a satisfactory state of affairs. There were plainly errors. I do not believe that that situation would happen again, nor that it should, and I apologise to the House on behalf of those involved with the Bill. However, I believe that the whole House wishes to engage in a proper debate on the Freedom of Information Bill. I consider that the right course at this stage is to get on with the Committee stage as expeditiously as possible. If any problems arise out of the incidents of the past 24 hours, I hope that, with co-operation, we can get round them.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I cannot allow the noble and learned Lord to get away with what he said about our agreeing to delay the Bill from Maundy Thursday until today. That is simply not true. Indeed, on many occasions we asked what had happened to the Freedom of Information Bill and were told that the Home Office did not have it ready yet. On that basis we agreed to take forward other Bills.

We always move forward with co-operation and with agreement between the two Benches, as we are doing today. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will reconsider what my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said. This Bill is a shambles and it is not the only one. The Session will end in a few weeks' time. Would it not be better to scrap this Bill and to bring it back, properly drafted, in December?

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, as the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has spoken, I shall respond on behalf of the Government. I believe that my noble and learned friend made the point that the arrangements for the Committee stage—that was the matter that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, challenged—had been agreed through the usual channels. That has been confirmed by the Chief Whip and therefore I believe that that is accepted. The dates for the Committee stage and all of the normal processes were agreed. Therefore, to challenge the timing of the first day of the Committee stage is not appropriate.

On the wider and more general political point made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, at every turn we have had this discussion about the number of Bills before your Lordships' House. I do not want to weary noble Lords or to delay the Committee stage by referring again to the fact that we have an average number of Bills before us compared with previous Sessions and previous administrations. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, or, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will get much support from other quarters, except perhaps from their own Benches, in asking for the postponement of the Bill.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, of course we agreed to today's proceedings but we did not agree to the delay. That is the point my noble friend made. Provided it is clearly understood between us that we take no share of the blame for the delay, which has been caused entirely by the Government, we are content for the Committee stage to proceed.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


3.30 p.m.

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new clause—

  1. PURPOSES OF THIS ACT 19,207 words
  2. cc923-30
  3. EFFECT OF EXEMPTIONS 3,078 words
  4. cc930-8
  6. cc938-54