HL Deb 01 March 2001 vol 622 cc1277-9

3.15 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that their continuing failure to publish the documents disclosed for the purpose of the Factortame litigation and referred to in the English courts' decisions to be compatible with the principles contained in the Government's Code of Practice on Access to Government Information and in the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the Government are firmly committed to the principles contained in the code of practice and in the Act to which the noble Lord refers. This particular request has raised several complex issues, which have taken longer than anticipated to resolve. However, we expect to be in a position to release the documents referred to in the Question before the end of next week.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister, not only for her reply but also for being here today to deliver it in view of the other matters of pressing concern to both her and her department. Can the Minister confirm the dismal background to this matter? Is not the position as follows: that the documents in question cover the period 1973–91 and are of historic interest; that they relate to the passing of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988; that the Government waived legal, professional privilege in respect of them in 1997 in the English proceedings; that all of the documents were before the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords in the Factortame litigation and were, in some cases, read out; and that most of them are government documents and not EC Commission documents? Can the Minister explain why the government documents have not been released since I first asked for them in 1999, and why the EU documents were not requested from the Commission many months ago?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, when I looked at the chronology of this particular case, I undoubtedly had some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Lester, because it has taken a long time to resolve. I have to point out to the noble Lord that there were a number of unusual and complex issues that had to be resolved. They include whether, aside from the code, the disclosures that had taken place in the Factortame litigation had placed the Government under a legal duty of disclosure; how the policy and the code should be applied in the case of requests for publication of those documents, given that the code expressly excludes a commitment to provide documents; how the code should be applied in the case of documents recording the deliberations of a previous administration; which documents were covered by legal, professional privilege and whether that privilege still existed after so much detail, as the noble Lord suggests, had been given out in the hearings and in the judgments; what were the key principles for deciding where the balance of public interest lay for the elements of the documents; and which documents required the agreement of other parties as regards disclosure. All that has taken time, but it is all now virtually resolved. I hope that all the documents will be disclosed within the next week.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, it is possible that I am the only person who does not understand what this Question is all about. However, bearing in mind that there may be more than a handful of us who do not understand it, could the Minister in future liaise beforehand with the questioner, like the noble Lord, Lord Lester, so that we can appreciate the "dismal background" to such matters, and, therefore, take more part in the proceedings?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, to put it in simple language: the noble Lord, Lord Lester, asked for these documents a long time ago, and it has taken an awful long time to get them released to him. Perhaps that explains the situation to my noble friend. I was trying to explain that the issues were not quite as clear-cut as being a case of anyone trying to be obstructive or deliberately dilatory. It was necessary to resolve a number of issues, some of which were novel. Having resolved the process issues in this case, I hope that the resolution of any future issues will not prove to be such a long, drawn-out process.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, the Minister did not mention the EC Commission. Can I take it that the problem did not involve the secretiveness of the Commission as regards its documents?

Baroness Hayman

Yes, my Lords. The noble Lord may take it that way. In the case of at least one of the documents, the EC Commission has been one of the bodies with which we have had to consult. However, there is no way in which it has been obstructive in this respect.