HL Deb 13 November 2001 vol 628 cc457-8

3.1 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they plan to bring the Freedom of Information Act 2000 into force in relation to government departments.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)

My Lords, I acknowledge the role that the noble Lord played in ensuring the passage of the Freedom of Information Act through this House. The timing of his Question today is admirable, although little time remains to discuss it. It allows me to announce the Government's decision.

The Act will be fully implemented by January 2005, 11 months before the timetable set out in the Act itself. The publication scheme provisions will be implemented first, on a rolling programme, starting with central government in November 2002. I am today placing a full schedule of organisations and dates of implementation in the Libraries of both Houses. This roll-out will be completed in June 2004, and the individual right of access to information held by all public authorities, including government departments, will be implemented in January 2005.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord accept that his Answer will bring a great deal of relief to those who have been concerned about recent reports in the press that it would be 2005 before central government departments were subject to the Freedom of Information Act? Is what has happened due to a change of mind on the part of the Government, or was there never any strength behind the press reports which strongly suggested that the Government were going to defer central government freedom of information until 2005?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, noble Lords should not believe everything that they read in the press. The decisions I have been pleased to publicly announce to this House are the collective decisions of the Government.

Lord Clark of Windermere

My Lords, I congratulate my noble and learned friend on that announcement. Why will there be a delay for public bodies outside central government? As the information, with exceptions, is not illegal, will the Government encourage public bodies outside central government to release information to citizens in an open manner and at an early date?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, my noble friend and I had the pleasure at one time of co-operating together in the development of freedom of information policy. The schedule which has been placed in the Library shows that, so far as concerns publication schemes, central government comes first in November 2002 and local government follows in February 2003.

It has to be remembered that a much greater level of preparation—n is required. We took two years with the Human Rights Act before the Freedom of Information Act. The Act covers about 70,000 organisations. It could have been made prospective only, but, as my noble friend will remember, we made it retrospective so as to cover all past papers and not merely future papers. The Information Commissioner has to double her staff and she has to approve about 70,000 publication schemes. That will take time. But it will all pay off in the end, in the same way as the Human Rights Act has paid off, with the predicted chaos in the courts being the non-event that we always said it would be.

Lord McNally

My Lords, whether or not we believe what we read in the press, does not this illustrate that getting the machinations of Whitehall out into the open helps those Ministers who want to implement government policy against those Ministers who want to slow it down, however high ranking they may be? If there is any slowdown, would it not be a good idea to bring the noble Lord, Lord Clark, back into the Government? He is clearly still committed to early implementation of the Act.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I believe that I have announced an early and effective implementation of the Act.