HL Deb 30 June 2003 vol 650 cc599-601

3.8 p.m.

Lord McNally

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Which Minister is now responsible for implementing the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and what progress has been made in preparing for its implementation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, I am responsible for the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, working to my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and Ministers in other departments.

We are making good progress in implementing the Act. Publication schemes approved by the Information Commissioner were adopted and published by all government departments, Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales on 30th November 2002. Schemes for all but a few local authorities and NDPBs came into effect in February this year. Publication schemes come into force today for police forces, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Serious Fraud Office and the Armed Forces.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister remember those heady days of 1997 when the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, was in charge of a radical White Paper on freedom of information; a paper so radical that it cost him his job? Since then freedom of information has gone from the Home Office to the Cabinet Office to the Lord Chancellor's Department and now to the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Is not part of the problem that rather than wanting to destroy the culture of secrecy in Whitehall, the Government are now a fully paid-up member of that culture? Would it not be a good idea to ask the First Civil Service Commissioner to run her eve over these preparations to see whether they are as radical as those introduced by countries such as Ireland, Canada and Australia, which have really tried to bring about change, to see whether that will happen here?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Lord is unduly pessimistic about both the strength of the legislation and our commitment to implement it in ways that deliver real benefits to the public in improvements to public services and a strengthening relationship between government and the public. This summer I shall review the preparedness of government and other public bodies for implementation. As part of that process of review, I shall be meeting the Information Commissioner and discussing with the advisory committee, which has on it some of our strongest advisers and challengers, its views on the legislation. We shall put before Parliament in November, as we have done in previous years, a report on our preparedness. We are committed to making this Act work effectively and it will be done.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, are government departments also ready, when full implementation of the Act is carried out, to continue to protect secret information, such as the particulars of MI5 and MI6, which are important to the national security of our country?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, those are absolutely proper questions. In both cases we wish civil servants to be well organised and prepared to comply positively and effectively with the responsibilities that the Act gives them, while also ensuring that the exemptions that Parliament has given in the legislation, including of course the importance of protecting secrecy, are adequately protected. Those will be some of the questions that I shall be addressing during the summer with my officials and with other government departments in the run-up to the publication of the report in November.

Lord McNally

My Lords, perhaps the Minister can clarify this issue. When the Act is fully operational, if one public servant—say, a director of communications—made a complaint to another public body so that there was, in his own words, "A dossier that thick of complaints", would those complaints and the replies to them enter the public domain? If so, would it not be a lot healthier if that happened now?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, it is difficult without a fertile imagination to understand exactly to which hypothetical example the noble Lord might be referring. Nevertheless, I shall apply my brain to that hypothesis and see whether I can add anything further on subsequent reflections.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, who will bear the costs of obtaining the information? For example, when hospitals are obliged to release records, they are allowed to charge the person who asks for the information. What will be the position if one asks for information?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, there are two kinds of information. In my previous answer I referred to the information that public bodies themselves are meant proactively to publish on their websites. It is important that they are vigorous in doing so, which is what the Information Commissioner is reviewing. Clearly, accessing that information will be free.

With regard to specific requests—provisions for which commence in January 2005, 11 months early—there will be some charges for those, but the amount will be no more than 10 per cent, with a capped figure to that. So those requesting the information will not bear the full cost, nor should they.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, will the Minister repeat the last part of his answer? Did he say the provisions would come in 11 months early?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, indeed so. I said, January 2005—11 months early.