HL Deb 08 March 2005 vol 670 cc620-3

2.44 p.m.

Lord Fowler

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the operation of the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 relating to the disclosure of documents.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, the Freedom of Information Act is working well. More and more information is being released and there is a move to greater openness across the public sector.

Lord Fowler

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. Papers have been released containing the views of officials on our withdrawal from the ERM. Will she say when the views of officials will be available on the decision to invade Iraq? Will she also confirm that ministerial papers relating to Iraq will still be covered by the 30-year rule?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that the 30-year rule does not exist in its previous form. We have made sure that in the work of the national archives and each department information which falls within the Act's framework and beyond its exemptions is made available. The noble Lord will recognise that I cannot comment on individual requests before departments at present; not least because for the 4,000 requests that we know of it would be a huge amount of information to obtain.

However, the Act is working well and information is being released as appropriate within the rules. The information retained by departments or the archives is under the auspices of the Act and not the 30-year rule.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, does the Minister agree that 23 categories of exemption are too many? Do the Government accept that when we have had a few more months' experience of the Freedom of Information Act, it will be necessary to set up an independent review to reconsider whether further access to information will be necessary?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Lord will know better than I, because he was involved in passing the Act, that the exemptions were carefully considered; not least in your Lordships' House and another place and consequently. We are clear and open about the reasons for those exemptions. It is true that as the Act comes into operation properly and we see what happens, we will look at how effectively it is working, but there are no plans at this time to review formally the exemptions.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I do not suppose that the noble Baroness will agree, but her original Answer to my noble friend seemed optimistic and opaque in the extreme.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am an eternal optimist and I have no difficulty in being optimistic about something as fundamental as the Freedom of Information Act, which is an enormous tribute to the Government. I hope that it will stand the country well. As people begin to understand better how government works we will create greater confidence in the working of government both locally and nationally and the 100,000 organisations covered by the Act.

In terms of opaqueness, I hope that I answered the Question in the right way. I believe that the Act is working well. It is early days—I would be the first to say that—but in terms of looking across government both locally and nationally, I believe that it is working well.

Lord Clark of Windermere

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that every government department has had an in-depth training system for freedom of information? Will she ensure that that training continues, because the Act's good start is based on the release of information? Will she continue to emphasise to the people implementing the Act that they should err on the side of openness?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I could not agree more with my noble friend. I pay tribute to his work in the area. It is important to ensure that people understand in detail what is required, not least because, as noble Lords would expect—particularly of the other organisations outside central government—this is also about local people obtaining information locally. It is important that requests do not come with a freedom of information badge on them; they simply come as requests for information.

However, the spirit of the Act as well as the way in which we have placed it on the statute book ensure that we look to give information. It is right and proper: it is the right to know replacing the need to know.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, many of the papers released from the Treasury, to which the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, referred, and which have been reproduced in the press, have shown a number of excisions in black ink. Will the Minister tell us whose authority has to be given for those excisions to be made; and whether the excisions remain in perpetuity when the papers are returned to the Public Record Office?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, there is a process within government—I am happy to write to the noble Lord to lay that out formally and to put a copy of the letter in the Library—which ensures that within each department the request is looked at to see whether it is covered by exemption or whether it should go forward. That covers papers of previous administrations. Noble Lords will know the process that is in place and the dialogue that continues between the different parties on that process. We are very clear about the responsibility to ensure that Ministers of current administrations do not veto, vet or look at papers of previous administrations. That is the custom and practice. As I say, a process is in place.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, notwithstanding the number of black excisions from the records of the management of our exit from the exchange rate mechanism, there was sufficient information there for every citizen to be clearly informed about the thundering mess that was made of economic management at that time?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, what can I say? We must recognise that the opportunity for our citizens to understand how government works, for good or ill, is very important. We should celebrate our Freedom of Information Act and the opportunity it gives for all of us—for we are all citizens—to understand better how government works arid to recognise—I say this to every current and every previous Minister—that it is tough as well.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords—

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, as a former—

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister is aware—

Noble Lords


Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I think that it is our turn.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, it is the turn of the Liberal Democrats.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I am grateful. I hesitate to puncture any optimism or joyfulness, but is the Minister aware that when I asked the previous Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, and the former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, whether I could see the concluded studies for the Human Rights Act—I explained that I did not want to see anything to do with ministerial responsibility—I was given two answers? One was from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who has a developed sense of humour, who suggested that I waited until I was 94 under the 30-year rule. He said he was sure that my health would ensure that I would see the document. Secondly, when I finally saw, after the ombudsman intervened, 32 pieces of paper, they were crudely excised and one of the excisions was where the noble Lord, Lord Warner, had given advice to the Labour Party. I was told that I could not be informed that it was the noble Lord, Lord Warner, as he was not a government official. Is there now a spirit of glasnostandperestroika breaking out which will ensure that that will no longer happen?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Lord found out that the relevant person was my noble friend Lord Warner, so clearly there is a spirit of openness within this area. I know that the noble Lord does not expect me to comment on the individual circumstances as, of course, I do not know about those. However, it is very important that, as the noble Lord rightly says, we approach this matter in a spirit of openness and that it becomes normal practice for all of us to view our work as being much more in the public domain. That is the critical part of this matter. I think the noble Lord will see that this process will settle down into a very well established pattern not just for the benefit of noble Lords but, as I say, in everyday situations where people of this country want to find out about their local hospitals, schools, councils and so on. A better dialogue will begin to develop in both directions with government central and local.