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Viscount Ullswater: I hope in replying that I can make the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, more comfortable.

Amendment No. 196 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, would allow the agency to contract out to a third party the management functions in respect of any waterway that it enjoys as a navigation authority, a harbour authority or a conservancy authority. It refers to the agency making agreements for the carrying out by others of its management functions in respect of certain waterways.

It would not be appropriate for the agency to seek to divest itself of its statutory responsibilities. If, on the other hand, it is the intention behind this amendment that where it has those responsibilities the agency should be able to contract out day-to-day running of particular waterways to third parties, I believe that the Bill would allow appropriate delegation or contracting out of the type I have described. I hope therefore that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Greenway: I thank the Minister for his reply and do indeed draw comfort from what he said. It confirms what I hoped was already written in the Bill. In view of that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Lindsay moved Amendment No. 197:


Page 29, line 24, leave out second ("the") and insert ("each new").

The noble Earl said: Amendment No. 197 would extend to SEPA the duty on the environment agency in England and Wales to provide advice and assistance to the Secretary of State or the Minister as requested. It corrects an erroneous reference to a single agency in a provision which should apply to both. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 198 to 200 not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 200A:


Page 29, line 41, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 200A I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 200B, 201A, 224, 224ZB, 224ZD and 224ZF. Those are amendments directed at providing affordable access to information and therefore genuine open government rather than merely lip service.

The first amendment seeks to change subsection 35(b) so that each of the agencies is obliged to make available the results of its research and other matters rather than it having the discretion to do so. The second of the amendments is to provide for a reasonable fee rather than again leaving the appropriate fee to the discretion of the agency.

I tabled the amendments particularly in the light of work undertaken recently by the Campaign for Freedom of Information as regards the charges made by government departments in response to requests for information under the new code of practice on access to government information —a code which is supervised by parliamentary ombudsmen and which promises more openness in Whitehall. My attention to its work was attracted by a short press item which referred to what the campaign describes as being the worst example. Sadly, it is the National Rivers Authority, whose photocopying charge for information is £100 a page for an A3 photocopy and £50 a page for an A4 photocopy. The NRA's comment was that its policy is to properly maximise income. I dare say that some noble Lords would attack its policy on the basis of a split infinitive, but that may be the fault of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution indicated that for the time inspectors spent on deciding whether information about radioactive waste could be disclosed under the environmental regulations, it would charge £993 per day. Following that, I understand that the Department of the Environment said that the charge was calculated on the wrong scale. However, as the Campaign for Freedom of Information comments, it is alarming that that figure was put forward at all.

I accept that there are occasions when charges of some significance need to be made. I appreciate that one can sometimes believe that requests for information made by members of the public are frivolous and time consuming and not perhaps generally in the public interest. Having seen the charges that are made at present—I will not weary your Lordships with further

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examples—I believe it is proper for the criterion of reasonableness to be applied perhaps without specifying the precise charge. I beg to move.

4.30 p.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux): I advise the Committee that, as the noble Baroness is also moving Amendment No. 200B, if the present amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 201.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: This group of amendments is an entirely logical one, which is a great relief to me in that it is so much easier to make speeches. I entirely support what the noble Baroness has said. The aim of my amendments is exactly the same: to increase accountability and information to the public. Amendment No. 201A, which is a rather obscure amendment, refers to the European directive on information relating to the environment which requires that charges for that information should be reasonable. Amendments Nos. 224ZB and 224ZD require that the annual reports of the agencies are published, not just to Parliament. That is consequential upon Amendment No. 224ZDB: the deletion in line 26.

The other amendment to which I speak is Amendment No. 224ZF. That provides that if any advisory committees are set up their reports should also be made public and information should be made available to the public. In relation to the environment where so many hazards to the public and pollution may occur, it is essential that this information is in the public domain, however uncomfortable that may sometimes prove to be for Ministers or public bodies who are responsible for clearing up that pollution. It is essential that what the agency does and the things done in its name should be in the public domain. That is the objective of these amendments.

Lord Marlesford: I strongly support what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has said. I was horrified to hear of these matters. It seems to me that this is an example of the need to protect people from the tyranny of government. I speak in the absence of my noble friend Lord Crickhowell but in the presence of my noble friend Lord Mills, who I understand has some knowledge of the workings of the National Rivers Authority. If these charges are being made they are clearly an abuse of public power, and somebody ought to answer for the agency. I hope that the Government, if not supporting the wording of these amendments, will assure us that they will include at Report appropriate words to give substance to the case that is being made.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I am sorry to differ with my noble friend. Personally, I would go with him to any lengths to stop the tyranny of government, but I do not believe that this amendment, which is a strange one, will do anything of the kind. The agency is required to have an opinion. Surely, that means a judgment. If the agency is compelled to follow its opinion, this seems to me to be unnecessary. It ought to be in a position to consider the practicality of doing something which at first sight seems to it to be reasonable. I very much hope that my

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noble friend will not look with any sympathy at this amendment which I regard as simply plausible but as not having any real effect whatever.

As to the second amendment which deals with cost, I have no brief for the National Rivers Authority. My noble friend Lord Mills can speak much better on this topic. I believe that we are steeped in information of every possible kind today. To put upon authorities the burden of providing information, which may be unimportant and trivial, without putting some deterrent element in the price, is I believe unreasonable. We do not want to inflate the costs of these agencies, or make them inefficient and too bureaucratic. I very much hope that my noble friend will dismiss them summarily.

The Earl of Onslow: Surely, it must be right that the maximum information is available to the public. It seems to me that this is a defence of the future environment protection agency. If it is asked by a hack from the Sun, "Why have you allowed 3,000 gallons of sewage to go somewhere where it should not have gone?" It should be able to say, "There is all the information. You should have been able to look it up. Nothing has been hidden." The moment that somebody says, "But it is hidden. We have not been able to get it because it is too expensive", it builds up a "them and us" situation. It is so much more sensible that the maximum amount of information is in the public domain so that we can all get it without hassle. I say that in spite of my noble friend Lord Peyton saying that it is all ruddy garbage, as I heard him murmur to my noble friend Lord Mills. He may take that view of what I say on frequent occasions; but in this case, I pick him up on the point.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: If it is of any comfort to my noble friend, I did not intend to refer to his utterances as garbage. I was merely referring to the volume of information. I was not making a public remark. Nevertheless, he attributed it to me. I merely say that there is a flood of information about, not all of which is very valuable. A great deal of it can well earn the description that my noble friend has given it, with which I do not disagree.


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