HL Deb 09 December 2004 vol 667 cc1034-6

2.36 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

I shall get the procedure right one day. I am very grateful for the way that we are proceeding. I hope that we can continue in such a manner.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 will offer new access rights to information, when the Act is implemented on 1 January 2005. However, in some cases public authorities are barred from disclosing information due to statutory prohibitions in other legislation. Section 75 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives the Secretary of State a power to repeal or amend such enactments, in so far as they apply to public authorities.

The order amends eight pieces of legislation to remove prohibitions on disclosure. The following six pieces of legislation will be amended so that the prohibition on disclosure does not apply to disclosures made by public authorities subject to the Freedom of Information Act: Factories Act 1961, Section 154; Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963, Section 59; Medicines Act 1968, Section 118; Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974; Section 28; National Health Service Act 1977; Schedule 11, paragraph 5, and the Audit Commission Act 1998, Section 49.

The amendment to the Audit Commission Act will allow disclosure by public authorities, unless it might prejudice the performance of any statutory function of the authority. The present sanction of imprisonment is reduced to a fine.

Section 5 of the Biological Standards Act 1975, which relates to information held by members or employees of the National Biological Standards Board, will be completely repealed, as it applies only to public authorities.

In the eighth piece of legislation, Section 20 of the Access to Justice Act 1999, the Government felt it was appropriate for a statutory prohibition on disclosure to apply to current information because it may include sensitive information about individuals that is rightly protected from public disclosure until after the end of that person's lifetime. However, it is not necessary for that information to be protected in perpetuity. The order will introduce a clause into the Access to Justice Act so that, once information is 100 years old, it will become subject to the usual freedom of information rules and exemptions.

I believe that the order represents responsible use of the powers given to government under the Freedom of Information Act. The order removes unnecessary bars to the release of information, and I ask your Lordships to approve it.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 4 November be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee, Session 2003–04].—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I am afraid that I shall take a little longer on this order than I did on the previous ones.

As I understand it, the information referred to in Section 20 of the Access to Justice Act 1999 concerns financial circumstances, with a view to obtaining legal aid. It seems to me that to maintain the restriction for 100 years is absurd. That means that we would just this year be disclosing information about the financial circumstances of someone living in 1904. I accept that the information should not be made immediately available, but I see no real reason why it should not be made available after the usual 30 years or at the most after, say, 50, which would take us back to 1954. I have great difficulty in seeing that any application for legal aid made in 1954 would be sensitive these days.

I want to raise a wider point. The annual report on the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, published last month, states that 430 statutory provisions have been identified that restrict access to information and are being considered in the review process. The annual report states that 44 of those have already been repealed or replaced, and 37 have been agreed for repeal or amendment. The order repeals or amends eight of those 37. When, therefore, will the other 29 provisions in that group be repealed or amended?

The report states also that 247 statutory provisions are still under consideration. It is four years, of course, since the Freedom of Information Bill was enacted, and I wonder why it is that more than half of the reviews are not yet completed. Surely efforts should have been to ensure that they were completed by D-day—1 January 2005—when the right to obtain information under the Act comes into force. Can the Minister give us any indication of when the process is likely to he completed?

Lord Kingsland

My Lords, I should like to associate myself with the probing and pertinent questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord has associated himself with those questions because they are important. I shall endeavour to ensure that I answer them, particularly as noble Lords should know that I have responsibility in my department for freedom of information, which is an area in which I am deeply interested. I would commend the incredible amount of work that has been going on. However, enough of the fluff around the matter.

We have a general policy for certain kinds of information; that is, a 100-year rule. This fell within that general policy. I take the noble Lord's point that one can argue that what one did in 1954 or 1984 is neither here nor there, but the way in which we have approached this is by considering the position of individuals very carefully. We live longer and longer. Some Members of your Lordships' House—not those who are present, who are very young—are demonstrable proof of that. It is important that we have a really robust timescale. The order fits into that approach. It may not be the approach that noble Lords would like, but it is consistent. That is quite important. I am not sure how many requests there would be for that kind of information in any event, but it is about individuals—we have to be clear about that—and that is the principle to which we will be adhering.

The noble Lord was incredibly numerate in adding up the different statutory provisions. As I understand it, we are repealing as we go, looking carefully at the different statutes. The noble Lord is right that it is four years since the Act was introduced. There has been a huge amount of preparation. Some of that work has required a lot of consultation; some of that work has been taking place during the course of the last year, as we have moved closer and closer to the deadline. I make no apology for that, because that is how all organisations operate in thinking through what needs to be done. There will be further orders in 2005. I am confident that we are well placed for D-day. It is an important day. I am looking forward to working with colleagues and departments to make sure that we respond well. This order is all about better government, and we should all support it. On that basis, I hope that both noble Lords will feel able to support the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.