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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way so early in his response. Is he saying that the obligations under the code of practice, since it was produced, have been over-the-top, unnecessary, bureaucratic and cumbersome, to use at least two of his favourite words?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am not advancing that as an argument. The noble Lord sought to build his model around current practice. I shall come at the end to the point which I believe is most important. That relates to the role of the commissioner.
The effect of the noble Lord's amendment would be to create a situation which may well act completely against the best interests and purposes of the Bill and would undermine the purpose of his amendment.
It may lead to a situation in which there is information overload; where there is so much published material that it is extremely difficult for members of the public to find the information they are seeking. The amendment would introduce a risk of creating an over-burdensome publication scheme. It would be resource intensive, wasteful of resources and it might have the unfortunate effect of making the schemes more difficult for the public to use, not least due to the sheer volume of information to be included.
The commissioner has stated that she sees publication schemes as being vehicles for openness. That is a fair expression of her commitment to a change in culture. The publication schemes can be expected to require in their detail the inclusion of information of the kind referred to, no doubt, in the noble Lord's amendment, particularly where she sees that as serving a useful and purposeful end.
It is worth reminding ourselves about the obligations under the code. The big distinction is that they were not statutory. There is no effective enforcement for that part of the current code as it relates to the publication schemes. If such a wide-ranging duty were created into an enforceable statutory obligation, it could lead to information overload, as I have said. That is an important consideration. While the amendment of the noble Lord seeks to restrict the matter to what may be described as larger public bodies--certainly that is the range described in the amendment--at the end it concludes with,
Viscount Goschen: I am struck by the Minister's response to my noble friend's closely argued amendment. It sounded like an old-fashioned argument against a freedom of information Bill: the poor public would not be able to understand all the information being produced.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Perhaps I can correct the noble Viscount. That is not the kernel of the argument. The point--I believe that he understands it--is that one can put so much information in front of someone that he or she does not understand how to access it. Unless there is an index and a route through all the information, it is meaningless. We need to ensure that that happens and that is why there is an important role for advice, information and support, such things as we have debated before. I will not have the noble Viscount suggest that I say that the poor public will not understand. That is not the basis of the argument at all.
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, we shall have to disagree. I do not believe that saying the public will not be able to find its way through the level of information already established in a voluntary code holds water. It is said that this is not comparable with the code because the code is not statutory. Of course, the code is not statutory, but we are moving on and fulfilling the commitments that the Labour Party made in bringing forward this Bill to give it statutory effect so that we all know where we stand.
There will be a burden on authorities to produce this information, but I believe that my noble friend has come forward with powerful arguments about why this information should be volunteered and put forward by the authorities concerned. Principally, a person coming to the matter afresh may not know what information to look for, but if it is volunteered it will be there for him or her to see, to interpret, to sort through and find the exact information he or she seeks.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Does the noble Viscount accept the point that I made earlier that, with the code as it is, there is no effective enforcement? Perhaps the noble Viscount could give me some examples of enforcement, because I fail to see them. The big difference in the scheme that we are operating is that there is enforcement behind it, and therefore the public will be empowered.
Viscount Goschen: Presumably the intent of the Bill is to turn large elements of the code into a statutory obligation for authorities. Presumably, in producing a Bill on freedom of information, we are talking about that. If we did not feel that any of that was worthy of having a statutory framework, we would not have a Bill.
Lord McNally: I shall read Hansard tomorrow because I think the Minister has just said that the result will be that the public will be empowered. That is what we intend. One thing that worried me about his speech is that one phrase may recur and that, as Ministers squat in the last ditch, they will defend themselves with "information overload". They will save the poor benighted public from that by resisting this and that amendment because of information overload. That will not do.
As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, pointed out, most countries that have freedom of information legislation have included such provisions without there being information overload. When David Clark drew up his White Paper, he did not foresee information overload. Without being lured into the lobbies again by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, I believe that there are merits in his argument that will certainly be worth revisiting on Report and that I believe the Minister should take on board.
Lord Lucas: I entirely agree with the words of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I would like to see a slightly simpler amendment from our Benches on this subject, but the Government's reply was a piece of "Sir Humphrey-ism" of which they should be totally ashamed. What waffle! Any government department of any size will have all such documents together, organised and indexed for the information of its own civil servants. That is why this paragraph is headed "Manuals".
What kind of government department will keep documents jumbled up in a filing cabinet that will make them so difficult to get at? What kind of government department will not now keep them on its intranet, properly indexed and cross-referenced with
The idea that it will cause work for civil servants is ridiculous. They will have to do the work for their own purposes, so it will not be a burden to them. The well-written manual--I am sure that government departments produce well-written manuals--will be a joy for any member of the public to read, should he or she wish to do so. The Minister's argument does not stand up. I hope that he will not repeat it at the next stage, when my noble friend produces a more polished and less "legalised" amendment.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: It may be difficult for me to produce a more polished amendment, but it will be fairly easy for the Minister to produce a more polished argument! I have written down that we are now in "FFA"--freedom from argument--mode as far as the Minister is concerned. I am amazed that one of his arguments is that there is no effective enforcement in the code. I read out an extract from the report showing how many of these manuals have been published as a result of the code. Noble Lords who have dealings with the Inland Revenue will marvel at the Inland Revenue producing 45 main guidance manuals, making them available, and publishing them before the beginning of February 1996. Dare I say it: if the Inland Revenue can do it, it cannot be the most impossible task on earth.
If too much is made available for the public, will the Minister, in looking after the interests of the public, be asking the Inland Revenue to withdraw its manuals? I go to the next step: if a manual that has been published under the code is updated or changed, will it drop out of public sight because there is no obligation in the Freedom of Information Bill?
The Minister did not join horns with this at all, but I am puzzled that his ex-colleague's White Paper made it quite clear, as I quoted, that the Act will impose duties upon public authorities to make certain information publicly available as a matter of course. Those requirements will be broadly along the lines of those in the code of practice. What we have heard from the Minister today is that that has been binned, but we have had no explanation of why it has been binned.
As my noble friend Lord Lucas said, the information already exists as guidance to officials and it is a nonsense to suggest that somehow it will be impossible to produce it, and that it will be cumbersome, bureaucratic and the public will not be able to find its way around it. Thanks to this Bill,
I had thought to read out Section 16 of the Irish Freedom of Information Act because a little while ago the Minister prayed in aid that Act against an amendment of mine, but I shall not. I suggest that the Minister reads Section 16 of Ireland's Freedom of Information Act 1997. I shall only read the first two lines to give the flavour of it. It says,
I listened to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and noted the arithmetic of the previous Division. I shall therefore take the advice of my noble friend Lord Lucas and take the amendment away, reconsider it and resubmit it when perhaps the joint forces of light on this side of the Chamber are in a better position to defeat the Government. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.