|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The noble and learned Lord said: This is a substantial group of amendments concerning the operation of freedom of information in the devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland. The amendments which the Government now table--I shall deal with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts--involve no new policy but are necessary to ensure that freedom of information is applied on a consistent basis across the United Kingdom and the devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland.
I take the amendments in groups. I turn first to government Amendments Nos. 57 to 59, 61, 62, and 68, and Amendment No. 63 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy. The First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales has asked that the National Assembly be treated as a distinct body in Clause 3 and elsewhere and not subsumed within the definition of government department. This necessitates a number of amendments to the Bill where we refer currently to the National Assembly. Paragraph 5 of Schedule 1, to which the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, referred earlier, already provides that the National Assembly is a public authority for the purposes of the Bill and nothing in these amendments affects that.
Amendments Nos. 57 to 59 insert specific references to the National Assembly to ensure that bodies and offices established by it may be included by order in Schedule 1 as public authorities for FoI purposes. Amendments Nos. 61 and 68 have the effect that before making an order in relation to a Welsh or Northern Ireland public authority under Clause 3 (to add or delete an entry) or Clause 6 (to amend an existing entry) the Secretary of State must consult the devolved administration. These amendments recognise on the face of the Bill the roles of the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly in relation to the devolved administrations. I commend the amendments to the Committee.
Amendment No. 63--the amendment spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy--asserts that the National Assembly for Wales is a public authority in its own right. I have said that paragraph 5 of Schedule 1 already makes that clear. The government amendments I have just described further clarify the position. In particular the deletion of the provision which provides the reference to a government department includes the reference to the National Assembly. That was one of the points the noble Lord raised. In the circumstances of our amendments I do not think that the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, adds anything. I ask the noble Lord to consider withdrawing that amendment in due course.
I turn to the government amendments which deal with the scope of the exemptions at Clauses 33 and 34. In furtherance of the general policy in relation to the manner of reference to the National Assembly set out above, Amendment No. 168 in part deletes the provision which included the National Assembly within the reference to "government department" for the purposes of Clause 33. Amendment No. 168 compensates for this by inserting a specific reference to the National Assembly into Clause 33 to ensure that the clause continues to apply to information held by it. For the sake of clarity, Amendments Nos. 178 and 180 to 182 provide that the clause covers the policy of the devolved administrations and clarify the application of the clause to the executive committee of the National Assembly.
Amendment No. 179 has an effect in relation to both of the devolved administrations and to the UK Government. The listing of the "ministerial communications" defined in subsection (3) of Clause 33 makes it clear that the provision in relation to such communications applies to internal communications between parts of the same administration, for example Ministers of the Crown, but not communications between different administrations. It introduces an additional category of communications between assembly secretaries. This addition is required to ensure that the Assembly First Secretary and other assembly secretaries are dealt with in a manner comparable to Ministers of the Crown and Northern Ireland. I commend the amendments to the Committee.
I turn to the amendment which relates to Clause 34 and the "qualified person". Amendment No. 183 includes within Clause 34 a specific reference to the National Assembly. Amendment No. 186 is consequential. Amendments Nos. 194 to 196 are concerned with the definition of "qualified person" for the purposes of Clause 34 in relation to Welsh and Northern Ireland public authorities.
Amendments Nos. 194 and 196 provide that the qualified person for Welsh public authorities, except the Auditor General for Wales and Northern Ireland public authorities, is an officer or employee of the authority authorised by the Assembly First Secretary or the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly or, if not, then the authority itself. In relation to the Auditor General for Wales, Amendment No. 195 provides that the holder of that office is to be the qualified person.
A number of definitions are introduced. Amendment No. 355 introduces a definition of "Welsh public authority". Subsection (3) of the new clause would have the effect of requiring that the Secretary of State must consult the National Assembly for Wales before making any order. Given the limited nature of the order-making power, and the requirement of consultation, the Government do not believe that there is any need for a parliamentary procedure in respect of such orders.
Amendment No. 360 provides that Northern Ireland public authority means any public authority other than the Northern Ireland Assembly or a Northern Ireland department whose functions are excercisable only or mainly in or as regards Northern Ireland and relate only or mainly to transferred matters.
Amendment No. 359 defines "executive committee" in relation to the National Assembly. Amendment No. 351 deletes the provision which includes the National Assembly for Wales within the definition of "government department" for the purposes of this clause. Amendment No. 350 also makes another modification. It clarifies that Clause 39 cannot be relied upon by one UK government department in relation to confidence owed to another UK government department or by one Northern Ireland department in relation to confidence owed to another Northern Ireland department. I commend these amendments to the Committee.
Amendments Nos. 235, 331 and 356 are concerned with the duty to consult with the relevant authority in Northern Ireland on issues relating to public records. Amendment No. 235 replaces a reference to the Northern Ireland Minister responsible for public records in Northern Ireland with a reference to the appropriate Northern Ireland Minister as the person the Lord Chancellor shall consult before issuing or revising his code of practice.
Amendment No. 331 replaces a reference to the Northern Ireland Minister responsible for public records in Northern Ireland with a reference to the appropriate Northern Ireland Minister as the person the public authority shall consult before refusing a request for any information contained in a historical record.
Amendment No. 332 makes it clear that Clauses 64 and 65 do not both apply to the same information. Were this to be the case it would be a nonsense. Clause 64 is concerned with cases where a public authority holds information in an historical record. It provides that a decision not to disclose in the public interest should not be taken without consulting the Lord Chancellor.
Clause 65 applies to information that is held by the Public Record Office. It deals with historical records more fully--we shall presently consider relevant amendments. The consultation requirement in Clause 64 is reflected in those amendments. It would therefore be highly inappropriate for Clauses 64 and 65 to apply to information that was held by the Public Record Office.
That was a long and rather technical list of amendments which are necessary to ensure that the system works in Northern Ireland and Wales. They introduce no change in policy. In that context, the Bill has always made provision for consultation between the Lord Chancellor, the Northern Ireland
Before the supper break, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy asked why Assembly subsidiaries should be dropped from Schedule 1. Assembly subsidiaries will still be covered in two ways: first, by Clause 5, which relates to wholly owned companies, and, secondly, by any orders that are made under Clauses 3 or 4 as appropriate. It was felt that it was inappropriate to treat Assembly subsidiaries in a blanket way--they were in effect previously being treated in that way. The noble Lord also asked whether there was confusion about coverage of the Assembly. The answer is no. The definition of government departments now excludes the Assembly--that is covered in Schedule 1--and we believe that that is right. We referred to the Assembly in some clauses--for example, Clause 33--by including it in the definition of government departments. We now agree that it is better simply to refer to the Assembly in its own right throughout the Bill. That is what this long and slightly dry group of amendments has done. I beg to move.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page