HL Deb 09 December 2004 vol 667 cc1032-4

2.30 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 4 November be approved [33rd Report from the Joint Committee, Session 2003–04].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the note I have received states that ITMA predates Tommy Handley's radio show of 1934. I beg your Lordships' pardon; I am sure that is completely out of order, but I wanted to state it nevertheless.

Freedom of information requests must normally be answered within 20 working days. This represents a tight deadline and will focus attention on the importance of answering requests. It is right that people making requests should receive a prompt answer. However, there will be occasions when this deadline is impractical. That is why these regulations will extend the deadline for answering requests in certain, limited circumstances.

The regulations will make provision for the deadline for answering requests to be extended in the following circumstances. Without these regulations schools would have particular difficulty answering requests during school holiday periods when they would be unstaffed. This is a particular issue during summer holidays, which can be around six weeks long and thus longer than the 20 working days allowed to answer requests. The regulations make provision that school holidays should not be counted for the purpose of calculating the 20 working days, provided that the request is answered within 60 working days.

The regulations affect archives services holding transferred public records. The extended time limit will apply only where information is contained in transferred public records that have not been designated as open for the purposes of Section 66 of the Freedom of Information Act. In these cases the Freedom of Information Act requires that consultation takes place with the authority that transferred the records on whether the information should be exempt or whether it is necessary neither to confirm nor deny that the information is held. Because of the requirement for formal consultation, the regulations will allow these archives services an extra 10 working days to comply with freedom of information requests, but only—I stress that—in these cases.

Section 10(5) of the Freedom of Information Act allows the Information Commissioner discretion to alter the time limits for responding to a request in circumstances specified by regulations made under Section 10(4) of the Act. The regulations will allow the Information Commissioner discretion in cases where we anticipate that there may be occasions when the time limits will need to be extended, but where it is not always possible to specify exactly the circumstances in which this would be needed. The regulations specify that the Information Commissioner can extend the time by which authorities must comply with freedom of information requests to up to 60 working days following receipt of request in the following two situations: first, if the authority cannot comply with the usual time limits because it has to obtain information from an individual actively involved in an operation of the Armed Forces or in the preparations for such an operation. There will, of course, he occasions when the authority could comply with the request within the usual time limits, and we would expect it to do so. The discretion granted to the Information Commissioner is intended to cover circumstances where there are strong practical reasons why the deadline could not be met.

The second situation is when the information needed to answer a request is held outside the UK, and the authority could not comply with the usual time limits for this reason. This could either be because the information itself is not held in the UK or additional information must be obtained from outside the UK before answering. The Information Commissioner will be given discretion to extend the time limits if appropriate.

These regulations will not allow authorities to avoid their obligations to answer requests under the Freedom of Information Act. They recognise that in a limited number of cases authorities would have particular difficulty complying within the usual time limits for strong practical reasons. However, at the same time they strengthen the Government's commitment to freedom of information by making it clear that in all other situations public authorities would be expected to comply with the time limits as set out in the Act.

I believe that these regulations represent responsible uses of the powers given to government under the Freedom of Information Act. The Freedom of Information (Time for Compliance with Request) Regulations make reasonable allowances for circumstances in which public authorities will unavoidably be unable to comply with the time limits provided for in the Act. I therefore ask your Lordships to approve the regulations. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations 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 sorry. Are the regulations and the order being taken together?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I have another speech.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I believe that originally it was suggested that the two would be taken together. I shall therefore speak only to the regulations.

While obviously any move to extend the time limits requires very careful consideration, having looked at the limited number of circumstances in which a time limit will be extended by these regulations, it seems to me that there are acceptable grounds in each of those cases. Therefore, I do not oppose the regulations.

Lord Kingsland

My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and have nothing to add.

On Question, Motion agreed to.