HL Deb 24 June 2002 vol 636 cc1053-5

2.45 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When it is proposed to bring into force Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)

My Lords, Section 77 is not yet in force. When it is, it will make it an offence for a person to destroy or alter a record requested either under the Freedom of Information Act or the Data Protection Act where this is done for the purpose of preventing its disclosure.

As I announced to your Lordships on 13th November last, the Freedom of Information Act is to be implemented in stages: first, rolling programmes of publication schemes and then the individual right of access to information in January 2005. It had been contemplated that Section 77 should also come into force on 1st January 2005. However, consideration of the noble and learned Lord's Question, as well as representations made by others, has prompted me to consult within government about the possibility of bringing the section into force earlier. I hope by October to be in a position to announce the Government's decision once consultation is complete.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, while thanking my noble and learned friend—not only formally—for that encouraging Answer, while I am on a winning streak may I tempt him a little further? Does he recollect that some time has passed since Mr Maurice Frankel pointed out that if Section 77 remains unimplemented while other sections of the Act are in force and applications are made, we may find that the quarry has escaped through a back window? Does my noble and learned friend agree that if burglars were given more than two years' warning that the police intended to visit their house with a search warrant, we might have less overcrowding in our prisons?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, that is a colourful way of putting it but a little wide of the Question. Certainly two members of the advisory group on implementation of the Freedom of Information Act—the Information Commissioner herself and Mr Maurice Frankel, the director of the campaign for freedom of information—made representations on the subject of earlier implementation of Section 77. Mr Frankel made the point that Section 77 would merely penalise what public authorities must already recognise would be unacceptable—that is, the destruction of requested records to subvert an applicant's right of access. On the other hand, I hasten to say that there is no evidence whatever that any government department is deliberately destroying records to frustrate valid access requests. None the less, as I said, prompted by the noble and learned Lord's Question and the representations that I have described, I am consulting across government about the possibility of an earlier implementation of that section.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, when is it intended that Sections 19 and 20 of the Act dealing with publication schemes should be brought into force? Has the noble and learned Lord had equivalent second thoughts about accelerating the regrettable decision not to bring the main part of the Act into force until January 2005?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, no, I have not had second thoughts, and that remains the position. As regards Sections 19 and 20, I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Desai

My Lords, in as much as Section 77 applies only to public authorities, are there any plans to extend it to the private sector?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, when Section 77 is brought into force, it will apply to a request under both the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act. The Freedom of Information Act applies only to public authorities. The Data Protection Act applies to both public and private bodies, but the offence under Section 77—as Section 77(1)(a) makes clear—applies only to requests to public authorities.

The Section 77 offence was created to ensure consistency of approach between freedom of information and data protection in the public sector. The Freedom of Information Act, unlike the Data Protection Act, does not apply to the private sector.

I have no evidence at all that destruction of records to which people are entitled under the Data Protection Act is occurring in the private sector, but if any noble Lords have information in that regard, I shall, of course, consider it.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I welcome the noble and learned Lord's reply, particularly as regards the earlier implementation of Section 77. As Section 77 applies to public authorities and creates an offence in relation to withholding information, are the Government primarily concerned with protecting government departments, for the time being at any rate? That was not the impression given previously.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the Government do not intend to protect government departments. Section 77 will provide a protection for the individual when it is introduced; but there is no evidence whatever—and the Information Commissioner would confirm this—that any destruction of documents by government departments is taking place.