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Lord Goodhart moved Amendment No. 23:

("(a) section 1(1)(a) would not apply if the condition in section 2(1)(b) were satisfied, or
(b) section 1(1)(b) would not apply if the condition in section 2(2)(b) were satisfied,").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 12 [Exemption where cost of compliance exceeds appropriate limit]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 24:

    Page 7, line 42, at beginning insert ("Unless it is in the public interest to do so,").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment addresses the provision in Clause 12 where it states that a public authority is not obliged to comply with a request for information if it,

    "estimates that the cost of complying ... would exceed the appropriate limit".

That appropriate limit will be £500, although I understand that that figure has been worked out in consideration of the cost of searching for the information rather than the cost of giving it out, so to speak. However, the point is that the local authority

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has complete discretion to refuse. My amendment would put at the beginning of the subsection the words,

    "Unless it is in the public interest to do so".

In other words, an authority would be obliged to comply with a request, regardless of the cost, where it is in the public interest.

What is interesting about this amendment is that I think that I am right to say that these words were included in the Bill when it started its progress through the House of Commons. Somehow, they were removed in the other place. I wonder whether this is another example of something which has been removed in error, as was the case with one of the earlier amendments. The Government removed a phrase in error and the Liberal Democrats considered it a great triumph to put it back. Could the same thing have happened here? Would the Government like to consider whether they have made a mistake and that they would now like to put this back into the Bill? In all seriousness, they were right initially to put in a test of public interest for a local authority to consider when deciding whether a request would lead to far too great an expenditure. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure that this amendment and the amendments with similar objectives which were debated in Committee are well intentioned. I shall endeavour to answer the question put to me by the noble Lord; namely, whether we have changed tack in error. I doubt whether that is the case, but I can understand why the noble Lord might wish to ensure that information which is in the public interest should be made public irrespective of cost. However, we do not believe that this is the right way to achieve that.

I shall try to explain why we feel that the amendment is not acceptable. Nothing in the Bill prevents a public authority from disclosing such information. That is a point that I made clear when we considered the matter in Committee. Where a public authority has the power to disclose information, it would be required to do so under administrative law; and when asked to disclose such information, in so doing to balance the costs of disclosure with the public interest. We feel that that is the sensible way in which to approach this issue, rather than the blanket disapplication of exemption provided for in Clause 12--regardless of the implications for the public authority. Indeed, those implications would be real and could from time to time be very substantial.

This Bill gives real rights of access to all information held, but--we have argued this point many times--this must be balanced against the administrative burden that it would place on public authorities. Clause 13 seeks to achieve that end. I can assure noble Lords that the Government intend to set the appropriate limit for the purposes of Clause 12 at £500. That should ensure that the clause does not unduly restrict the right of access.

The amendment could expose public authorities to disproportionate demands on their resources and jeopardise other important work. I believe this to be

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particularly the case with smaller public authorities. We advanced this argument at an earlier stage and we still believe it to be an important consideration, particularly when one considers how small are some public authorities. The point has been made on many occasions, but it is an important one. Although the noble Lord moved the amendment with his customary elegance, I do not think that he has particularly focused on that important matter. Many public authorities are unlikely to be large enough to be sufficiently flexible to adapt to such demands, even if they were able to recover the full financial costs.

In addition, the amendment would allow applicants with sufficient financial resources--for example, companies or wealthier individuals--to require the public authority to undertake time-consuming research on their behalf--again regardless of the size, scope and capacity of the organisation to undertake that research. That seems entirely unfair. For those reasons, I would ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

The noble Lord asked me a specific question. I said that I did not think this was an error. Apparently, it is not an error. The forerunner to Clause 2 was a direction to authorities to consider the public interest in disclosure when the Bill did not require it because the information was exempt. Clause 2 is now much stronger. For those reasons we feel that this is a sensible way of dealing with this issue.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am not wholly convinced but I am prepared to suspend judgment until we see what happens when the Bill comes into operation. If public authorities use the issue of costs excessively in order to decline information, I hope that whoever is in government at the time will be prepared to revisit the issue.

We believe that including the words,

    "Unless it is in the public interest to do so",

would have been a reasonable qualification. However, I have just tested the opinion of the House on one matter; I shall not do so again for the moment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Goodhart moved Amendment No. 25:

    After Clause 15, insert the following new clause--


(" .--(1) It shall be the duty of a public authority to provide advice and assistance, so far as it would be reasonable to expect the authority to do so, to persons who propose to make, or have made, requests for information to it.
(2) Any public authority which in relation to the provision of advice or assistance in any case conforms with the code of practice under section 44 is to be taken to comply with the duty imposed by subsection (1) in relation to that case.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 25 is a relatively minor but useful improvement of the Bill as it now stands. Under the present Clause 44, the code of practice to be published by the Secretary of State must include, among other things, reference to the provision of advice by public authorities to persons

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who propose to make or have made requests for information. Public authorities should, of course, comply with that code, but it is not formally a statutory duty.

Amendment No. 25--which seeks to add a new clause after Clause 15--would achieve two things. First, it would add a duty to provide assistance to the duty to provide advice. Secondly, it would make the provision of such advice and assistance a statutory duty on a public authority, although it is provided in subsection (2) that the duty can be complied with by conforming with the code of practice.

The advantages are fairly self-evident. It seems a reasonable thing to require a public authority, subject to a test of reasonableness, to provide not only advice but also assistance to applicants for information, many of whom may be inexperienced in dealing with public authorities and need assistance in putting forward their application. It plainly strengthens the obligation to help with both advice and assistance to make it a statutory duty, as opposed to it being merely something which should be complied with because it is contained within a code of practice. I do not need to expand any further. I beg to move.

Viscount Colville of Culross: My Lords, while I was away and not attending at Committee stage, there came into my hands a document which I do not think has been referred to previously. We have had a number of references to comparative jurisprudence, but I do not think that anyone has referred to the Trinidad and Tobago Freedom of Information Act 1999. The transparency of that regime would, I think, shock and horrify the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. However, I shall not impose anything else on him except to endorse the amendment.

I understand that the amendment will be accepted by the Government as part of the deal that they have made; it is highly desirable that it should be included in the Bill. I do, however, have one request. Having included the amendment in the Bill, and having made reference to the code of practice, I hope that the Government will not in any way truncate the passage in the present draft, to which the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, referred. It deals with the detail of the steps that a public authority will need to take in order to carry out the duty imposed by the new clause and, if anything, it should be increased.

I hope that the Minister can assure the House that, even with the amendment incorporated in the Bill, there will be no diminution in the contents of the draft code of practice. I believe that the code of practice fills in many of the gaps in what is a necessarily very generalised statement of the duty to be imposed on public authorities in the amendment.

There appears above the heading of the draft code of practice, "Home Office--Building a Safe, Just and Tolerant Society". I wonder whether the Home Office will add the word "transparent" to the text. It would be a very good thing if it were to do so.

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