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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: It may be for the convenience of the Committee if I speak now. In this group of three proposed purpose clauses I have put forward my effort in Amendment No. 2 in which I indicate that,


In 1994, the Conservative government introduced the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, and in strengthening that code in 1997 there was a purpose clause. Although it was not a statutory code, it made clear that it required public authorities to make available information subject to a limited number of exemptions--a more limited number of exemptions than we have before us in this Bill.

The purpose clause in the code was located at the beginning of the document. It set out clearly that the approach of public authorities must,


    "in all cases be based on the assumption that information should be released except where disclosure would not be in the public interest".

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As drafted, the Bill contains no clear statement of the purpose of the legislation. Government Bills in this Parliament have contained purpose clauses. I have been reminded of that by the sad events of the past week. Section 1 of the Scotland Act says that there shall be a Scottish Parliament. That was a purpose clause. It was totally unnecessary to the Act but the purpose of the Act was clearly set out.

I do not say that my proposed purpose clause is the best. I shall not adjudicate between my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. I anticipate somewhat what the noble Lord will say, but I believe that we all want stated at the beginning of the Bill a clear declaration of its purpose. We are not alone in wanting that. The Public Administration Select Committee of another place said clearly in its report of July 1999:


    "Purpose clauses can be used to indicate clearly which of two or more competing values should be uppermost when a decision is made. In this Bill, such a clause could have the effect of encouraging Commissioner, Tribunal and judges to lean towards disclosure. Perhaps more important, though, it could influence those people in departments and other authorities who actually have to operate the legislation.

In addition to the Public Administration Select Committee of another place, the Data Protection Registrar, Dame Elizabeth France--under the proposals she will become the information commissioner--has argued for a purpose clause. The Select Committee reported that,


    "The Data Protection Registrar argued that a purpose clause was required to make clear the balance that should be struck between privacy and Freedom of Information, and especially to ensure that the inbuilt advantages which privacy possesses--from the European Data Protection directive and the European Convention on Human Rights--would not overwhelm the right to information".

These are tensions to which we shall return later.


    "[Mrs France] argued that the balance should be defined in the Act, and not left to the Information Commissioner and Tribunal".

The Government responded. They amended the title of the draft Bill and made the clause relating to the right of access to information the first clause. However, I do not believe that that is a substitute for a purpose clause at the beginning of the Bill. Where other countries have freedom of information Acts--I look to New Zealand and Australia--they have purpose clauses. I believe that there is much merit in a purpose clause especially when we know that further down the track there will be considerable arguments as to whether a piece of information should be disclosed. If there were a clear statement of its aims at the beginning of the Bill, it would guide people. I hope that the Government will at least accept the principle of a purpose clause even though they may not like the specific wording of the amendments before the Committee today.

Lord McNally: I welcome the Minister's consideration before Report of the three proposed new clauses--and even perhaps the Government's own suggestion of a fourth. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, indicated, I hope that the noble Lord will not cling to the absence of a recommendation by the committee,

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ably chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, of which I and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, were members. He can only call us in aid if he accepts our other recommendations as well.

More importantly, there has been a 25-year commitment by the Labour Party and an initial White Paper which was universally acclaimed by those who had campaigned for freedom of information. There was then the long retreat by the Home Office. The issue was moved from the Cabinet Office to the Home Office. I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord's presence means that he has dragged it from the Home Office's scaly grip. Nevertheless, a purpose clause would restore confidence that the Government are sincere as regards freedom of information.

We have been aware from the beginning that the main danger was not whether the Bill would fail to be enacted--we shall get it through--but whether, once it had been enacted, the culture of secrecy that still pervades Whitehall would overwhelm it. Those who are aware of freedom of information Acts in other countries and who have studied the case for Britain often argue that a purpose clause would provide the confidence and guidance that is needed to overcome the culture of secrecy that we must overcome if freedom of information is to become a reality.

I want to put one further point to the Minister at the start of our debate. Today's Guardian mentions an opinion poll that contained one remarkable but encouraging finding. The poll asked whether Britain was becoming a more modern democracy, to which 64 per cent said "Yes". The Minister will recall from the Maclennan agreement, which was made before the election, that the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party were committed to trying to create a modern democracy. Several pieces of legislation that have already been enacted during this Parliament have made contributions in that regard. It is encouraging that public opinion recognises those efforts to modernise our democracy.

History will judge the Government by the quality of this Bill. If we can improve it in such a way that we are all proud of it--we shall be as constructive as we can be during the next few days in that regard--we shall have done a good few days' work. We are convinced that Clause 1, which clearly sets out the Bill's objectives, will counter the culture of secrecy and give confidence to those who want a proper working freedom of information Act.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: I was not able to participate in the Second Reading debate because I was out of the country at the time. Had I been here, I should have welcomed the fact that at last the House is discussing a freedom of information Bill to which, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally reminded us, my party has looked forward for a long time. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, some of us on

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this side do not view with equanimity a proposal to defer the Bill yet further. I should also have welcomed the fact Clause 1 begins with a general declaration of principle. It states that a


    "person making a request for information ... is entitled ... to have that information communicated to him".

However, my welcome might have been somewhat restrained because the Bill goes on to state that that entitlement is subject to Part II of the Bill, which adds up to a less than resounding declaration. But the general principle is that there is an entitlement subject to exceptions--the relationship is not the other way round.

Unhappily, the Bill does not fulfil that early promise. I understand why the three noble Lords who have spoken may want to redress the balance somewhat by spelling out a more enthusiastic sense of purpose than the Bill presently conveys. I am sorry that, at this early stage in our debate, I have the misfortune to differ from them.

Two noble Lords have already pointed out that the Select Committee, of which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, the noble Lord, Lord McNally and I were members, considered the matter and decided not to recommend a purpose clause. We addressed the arguments that have been persuasively advanced this afternoon. We said that a purpose clause could serve one of two objectives--or perhaps I should say that an objects clause could serve one of two purposes. It could make a difference to the way in which those who have to construe the Bill approach their task, and it could redress the balance that the Bill was trying to strike between freedom and confidentiality. We thought that it was better to consider the balance that we want to achieve and to try to reflect that in clear drafting, which would help us to understand what we are enacting. I still hope that, with my noble and learned friend's co-operation, we may achieve that, thus making a purpose clause unnecessary.

Alternatively, the committee said, the object of a purpose clause is to resolve ambiguities. We preferred to eliminate those ambiguities if we could. We saw the point of having a provision which reflected the vision that we all shared of the changes that were necessary. We wanted, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said in the preface to the White Paper, to change the culture of secrecy. We therefore added that we wanted to amend the Bill's long title. We wanted to replace the phrase,


    "Make provision for the disclosure of information"

with the phrase,


    "Facilitate the disclosure of information"

because we believed that that was the Bill's purpose, and we did not want the trumpet to give an uncertain sound.

It may be too much to hope that my noble and learned friend has noticed my Amendment No. 368, which, admittedly, is a very long way ahead and which was tabled at a rather late stage. It would amend the long title in the way that I have described. I had ventured to hope that it might have been included in

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the grouping that we are currently considering, but I fully understand the reasons why it was not--I share part of the blame in that regard.

When my noble and learned friend replies, I hope that he will explain the way in which the Government propose to clothe the bare words of the Bill with a sense of purpose. I hope--the Select Committee made this suggestion in paragraph 58 of its report--that the Government will launch an intensive programme of training for the officials whose daily work we hope will be infused with a new readiness to open the windows, to let the public see inside and to blow away the cobwebs. We heard about how effectively the Irish Government had undertaken that project.

My noble and learned friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, who is not currently in his place, told us that the Home Secretary had invited him to chair a group on openness in the public service. The Government must share part of the vision that we adopted at that time. When my noble and learned friend replies, he may tell us whether that group has now reported or whether it has become entangled in the cloak of secrecy.

If my noble and learned friend does not agree with the three noble Lords who have already spoken, he may at least be able to show that he has caught our mood. I hope that the Government are enjoying the prospect of placing the Bill on the statute book. My amendment may, in its modest way, hold out a hand to him and help him to achieve that.


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