HL Deb 09 January 2002 vol 630 cc559-61

2.59 p.m.

Lord Goodhart asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have been given any reasons by Elizabeth France for her decision not to reapply for appointment as the Information Commissioner.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)

My Lords, in her letter of 15th October last year to my officials, the Information Commissioner informed them that she would not be reapplying in the competition for the post. In a message to her staff on 19th December, she said: When I was appointed in September 1994 I had no expectation of serving more than two terms". She added that, the reasons for limiting the terms of those in positions such as mine are sound". She said that it was, healthy for there to be change", that, in a small non-departmental public body, two terms is, I think, enough", and that, after eight years, I am sure that the organisation, the stakeholders and the postholders would all benefit from a change". She leaves with goodwill on both sides. I personally have a very high regard for Elizabeth France, as do the Government.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor accept that there have been serious concerns about the decision of that distinguished public servant not to seek reappointment to her important post? Can he dispute the widespread belief that an important part of the reason for Mrs France deciding to go was the Government's decision to defer the introduction of the public right of access to government information until January 2005, which means that until that date the job of the Information Commissioner is significantly downgraded?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I not only dispute that; I completely rebut it. The commissioner did not want to reapply. Her decision was not prompted by the Government's decision on the timetable for implementing the Freedom of Information Act. I asked Mrs France on 10th October to let me have a paper setting out her views on a timetable. I wanted to know her views. She responded promptly, on 18th October. Her letter to my officials informing them that she would not be reapplying was sent three days earlier, on 15th October. In that letter, she offered assistance in drafting the advertisement and job description for the forthcoming exercise. As noble Lords will recall, it was not until 13th November that the first announcement of the Government's timetable was made by me to the House in response to a Question from the noble Lord. Any suggestion that her not reapplying was any kind of protest at the Government's timetable decision is nonsense. I see no basis for questioning the sincerity of what she said to her staff. There is no rabbit for the noble Lord's dog to chase.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, what are the procedures for making the appointment? Does my noble and learned friend feel that they are sufficiently transparent, given the public interest in the post?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it is well recognised that public appointments may be renewed once without open appointment, but after two terms the usual practice is to have an open competition. The Home Office informed the Select Committee on Public Administration in 1999 that that would be the position. It has always been absolutely up front. Section 18(5) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 provides that the office vacates two years after the date on which the Act is passed, but expressly provides that the commissioner is eligible to be reappointed. She did not seek reappointment, for the reasons that she gave to her staff. Advertisements will appear for the post of Information Commissioner next week. The selection panel, with an independent member, will be chaired by my permanent secretary, Sir Hayden Phillips. A shortlist will be made, which I shall be asked to approve, and I shall in due course inform the House of the successful candidate.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor agree that, in view of the very wide exceptions contained in the Freedom of Information Act, it is vital that the Information Commissioner should have the robust independence and wisdom demonstrated by the present commissioner throughout her distinguished terms of office? Will he do his best to ensure that her successor is as independent, wise and effective as she has been so that we can begin to have more confidence in the effective coming into force of the Freedom of Information Act when that eventually happens?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the noble Lord's ambition and wish is shared by me 100 per cent.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor recall that when the Freedom of Information Bill was going through Parliament, Mrs France's specific experience and the fact that her role would roll into the implementation of the Act commended her as overseer of the Act rather than an entirely new appointment? Does he therefore believe that her resignation dangerously damages the implementation of the Act?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, Mrs France did not resign. Her post was vacated by force of statute. She was free to reapply. I personally would have been delighted if she had reapplied. She chose not to do so for the reasons that I have already given to the House.