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Lord Hylton: My Lords, on an equally serious note, if, as we know, private Bills can be carried forward from one Session to the next, why on earth cannot that apply to government Bills?

Lord McNally: My Lords, there are three interrelated but not necessarily consequential points here. First, the past 24 hours have been a shambles. The House deserves an apology for that.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord McNally: My Lords, unless Back-Benchers on all sides of the House defend their rights, the power will lie with the Government. I assure Government Back-Benchers that the past 24 hours have been a shambles.

Secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, we have again had an inordinate wait for a Bill. I am sure that the Minister will talk about consultation and listening to representations. However, it is not a good way to deal with legislation. We made this point the other day. In the interests of reforming and improving governance--I say this without trying to score party points--there is a need to address this matter and address it quickly.

My third point is non-consequential. There are suspicions that not just the Opposition--after all, the Conservatives did not introduce a freedom of information Bill during 18 years in office--but even some people in the highest reaches of the Home Office would not mind losing this Bill. I shall be flanked later by the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Lester. I could not afford to employ them if I wanted to. That is some measure of the determination of these Benches to have a freedom of information Bill. I hope that the Government will apologise for the shambles, set to work to improve the workings of the House so that we do not have these delays and move with all possible speed to deliver a freedom of information Act.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I shall respond to the points that have been made. First, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, said that the Second Reading took place on 20th April and that the first Committee day is today. The timing was agreed with the other side through the usual channels. Between 20th April and today a significant number of amendments have been tabled. Indeed, some of them have been changed as a result of further discussion on the Bill. I hope that noble Lords will consider that the amendments which have been tabled improve the Bill and that therefore the period of time which has elapsed between the two stages has been worthwhile.

I shall speak in detail on the situation over the past 24 hours. At about four o'clock yesterday afternoon the Home Office gave the Whips' Office a list of groupings. As the noble Lords, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and Lord McNally, have said, the list

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was inadequate, for which I apologise on behalf of the Home Office. At the request of the Whips, a further list was provided at six o'clock. That also contained substantial errors and further changes were required. The Whips indicated that a further list would be provided at 10 o'clock this morning. I am informed by the Whips' Office that it was provided between 9.30 and 10 o'clock this morning. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, may shake his head but my information comes from civil servants who work in the Whips' Office, not from the Whips.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the Government Whips' Office had an amended list--I shall not go into the details as that would embarrass the people who worked on it--and were busy checking it. We did not receive the list until after 12 o'clock.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, between 10 o'clock and approximately 10 minutes to 12 further work was done on the list by the Whips in consultation with the Home Office. It was then handed over to the opposition parties. I accept that that is not at all a satisfactory state of affairs. There were plainly errors. I do not believe that that situation would happen again, nor that it should, and I apologise to the House on behalf of those involved with the Bill. However, I believe that the whole House wishes to engage in a proper debate on the Freedom of Information Bill. I consider that the right course at this stage is to get on with the Committee stage as expeditiously as possible. If any problems arise out of the incidents of the past 24 hours, I hope that, with co-operation, we can get round them.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I cannot allow the noble and learned Lord to get away with what he said about our agreeing to delay the Bill from Maundy Thursday until today. That is simply not true. Indeed, on many occasions we asked what had happened to the Freedom of Information Bill and were told that the Home Office did not have it ready yet. On that basis we agreed to take forward other Bills.

We always move forward with co-operation and with agreement between the two Benches, as we are doing today. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will reconsider what my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said. This Bill is a shambles and it is not the only one. The Session will end in a few weeks' time. Would it not be better to scrap this Bill and to bring it back, properly drafted, in December?

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, as the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has spoken, I shall respond on behalf of the Government. I believe that my noble and learned friend made the point that the arrangements for the Committee stage--that was the matter that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, challenged--had been agreed through the usual channels. That has been confirmed by the Chief Whip and therefore I believe that that is accepted. The dates for the

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Committee stage and all of the normal processes were agreed. Therefore, to challenge the timing of the first day of the Committee stage is not appropriate.

On the wider and more general political point made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, at every turn we have had this discussion about the number of Bills before your Lordships' House. I do not want to weary noble Lords or to delay the Committee stage by referring again to the fact that we have an average number of Bills before us compared with previous Sessions and previous administrations. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, or, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will get much support from other quarters, except perhaps from their own Benches, in asking for the postponement of the Bill.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, of course we agreed to today's proceedings but we did not agree to the delay. That is the point my noble friend made. Provided it is clearly understood between us that we take no share of the blame for the delay, which has been caused entirely by the Government, we are content for the Committee stage to proceed.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


3.30 p.m.

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 1:

    Before Clause 1, insert the following new clause--


(" . The purposes of this Act are to enable and encourage the provision of information by public authorities to the public.").

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 are grouped with Amendment No. 1. I shall leave it to the proposers of those amendments to advocate their respective merits.

If a freedom of information Bill is to work, it is immensely important that it produces a change of culture among public authorities; and that it is seen and believed to have produced that change of culture by ordinary people who have to make use of the Act. We have discussed extensively our feelings about the way in which the Government have chosen to approach the Bill. However, as drafted, the Bill begins with a right to information and then consists in almost its entirety of complicated and extensive mechanisms for denying that right.

This is a situation which cries out for a purpose clause. A purpose clause is a provision in the light of which all subsequent provisions can be interpreted. It sets the whole direction of the Bill in the minds of the civil servants and the public, and of the commissioner and anyone else who has to take decisions under the Bill. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, referred to achieving the right balance. A purpose clause will make that easier to achieve in practice. It will give us the necessary assurance that this Bill will takes us, perhaps gradually, into a new world of openness and that we shall not experience an

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accumulation of public authorities digging their toes in, trying to find ways of not providing information under the technicalities of the Bill.

I remember Second Reading. I have a good memory. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, was right to point out at Second Reading that the House of Lords Select Committee had agreed not to press for a purpose clause. It was discussed. We came to the conclusion that in the context of the other suggestions we were making about the Bill a purpose clause was not necessary. Unfortunately, the Government have chosen not to accept many of the suggestions we made. In various areas, and in recent amendments, they have gone back on their previous position and have made this a less helpful Bill than the measure before us at Second Reading, in particular as regards government information.

In considering the changes to the Bill since the Select Committee debated it, Clause 34 is new. Such changes to the Bill will weight the decision by officials towards not providing information. However desirable, technically, these changes are, if we do not have some overriding duty, principle and direction to the Bill, they will prejudice civil servants in favour of not releasing information and of using the exemptions in the Bill to decline to provide information--or even to decline to provide the information that there is information.

As we debate other clauses, we may discover that the Government have had a change of heart on Clauses 28, 34 and other major sticking points in the Bill and that we do not need a provision which so clearly sets the direction of the Bill as a purpose clause would do. However, we have had no such indication. In the absence of such an indication, I hope that this Committee will accept a purpose clause--if not now, in due course. I beg to move.

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