|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Bach: My Lords, requiring public authorities to publish their publication schemes in both paper and electronic forms and to make them available to the public free of charge might seem at first sight--even at second sight--laudable attempts to promote maximum openness and the maximum public access to information. There are, however, some sound reasons to doubt whether these proposals would achieve what the noble Lord hopes that they will achieve.
First, we have to bear in mind that this legislation will apply to a vast range of authorities. What would involve a minimal cost to a large government department or even a medium-sized local authority might represent a sizeable additional expense for a school or a parish council. Requiring bodies such as these to publish in both paper and electronic form could involve considerable outlay on new IT equipment and possibly extra staff to operate it, making it even more difficult to justify telling them to provide the publication scheme to the public free of charge. I question whether the House wants to see this kind of cost imposed on a small business, without its being allowed to increase its revenue in some way.
No one wants public authorities to use charging as a way of defeating the new culture and the drive towards greater openness that the Bill genuinely seeks to achieve. The Government are confident that public authorities will not wish to embarrass themselves by making people pay unreasonably for copies of their publication schemes. We have made it clear all along
Perhaps I may remind the House that all publication schemes will have to have the approval of the information commissioner. She is bound to question any unreasonable proposals with regard to charging. She will also be best placed to judge what is the most appropriate form for the publication of these schemes in individual cases. Therefore, we believe that the Bill as drafted achieves the right balance. It offers the best way of ensuring that public authorities will publish their schemes in the manner most appropriate in the circumstances and that they will make them available either free or at minimal cost.
The commissioner will not have the power to approve the manner of the publication of the scheme, but she can issue guidance as to how it is done. In any event, we believe that it is the interests of the authority--the public body--to make its scheme known widely, as the aim of such schemes is to minimise the burden on an authority from individual requests for information that it makes available generally. I invite the noble Lord to consider my response and to withdraw his amendments.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, what kind of mechanism does the Minister believe public authorities are using which enables them to produce a printed version of the publication scheme, without first going through an electronic version? Does he believe that a substantial number of them are still using John Bull printing sets? Anyone who is using anything that has been made in the past 15 years produces, first, an electronic version and then a printed version. How can the burden of producing both be an additional one when it has already been done?
Lord Bach: My Lords, in the circles in which the noble Lord moves it is possible that electronic means have been used for many years. However, there are likely to be about 50,000 different types of authorities that will be covered by the Bill. Indeed, I believe that that figure has already been given. It is possible that a substantial minority of them may not yet be geared up to the same degree as other authorities in this respect. There is no certainty about that. Let us take general practitioners as an example of one of the 50,000 public authorities which may not yet be using computers; they could be using more basic word processing. It is even possible that some GPs may not even be on the web.
Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister to a large extent for that reply. I believe that he dealt with my second amendment in terms of cost. I hear what the noble Lord says in relation to Amendment No. 31A, and I understand his points about the wording that I wish to insert into the Bill. However, I find his response in terms of the existing wording to be somewhat worrying. The Minister's response today was slightly different from what he said
While I accept that the wording I was seeking to put in its place may not be acceptable, I still believe that there is a case for looking at the subsection to see whether there should be some way in which authorities could be circumscribed in terms of the form in which the publication scheme is made available. I hope that the Minister will consider what I have said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 33. Again, this amendment relates to the Internet age, which the Government are supposed to be ushering in for all of us--remarkably slowly and reluctantly in some respects. The rights that will be granted by Clause 11 seem to me to be enormously important. Where an applicant expresses a preference as to the form in which he wishes to receive information, subsection (1)(c) says that,
Many of the people who make requests under this Bill will be running their lives electronically. That is the way in which information is disseminated these days. People who seek information will generally be using the web and other electronic methods of communicating information. That provision enables someone to ask for the information in electronic form. Where it is practically possible--which covers the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, in response to the previous amendment--that person may receive such information in electronic form.
However, that right does not exist in relation to items covered by Clause 20; namely, those that are already available to the applicant "by other means". Let us suppose, therefore, that we have a list of schools that have been awarded Ofted's gold stars for good performance over the past three years. As it happens, that information is not available to the public in electronic form. It is not on the Ofsted website, but a list of those schools can be found in its published report. As a result of Clause 20, if I wished to access that piece of information I would not be allowed to request it in electronic form. I would not be allowed to insist on my right under Clause 11 to receive it in electronic form. I would be forced to make do with a paper copy.
That is a relatively trivial example, but a great deal of public information that is available at present in printed form is not available publicly in electronic form. But Ofsted has electronic copies of all this information and could easily supply me with an electronic copy; it just refuses to do so. I do not see why the advent of the electronic age should be obstructed by the provisions of Clause 20 which say, "No, you have it in paper form. Because it is available to you in paper, you cannot have it in electronic form", even though it could easily be provided in electronic form. If we are to usher in the information age, we must, in the format set out in Clause 11, give people the right to receive such information in electronic form whenever it is reasonably possible for local authorities to do so. The purpose of my amendments is to make that possible. That duty has not been included in Clause 20. I believe that it should be. I beg to move.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I did not intervene in the interesting debate on the amendments of my noble friend Lord Norton, and I had not intended to do so now. However, having listened to both my noble friends, one thought has occurred to me. I was led to this thinking by my noble friend's intervention during the discussion on the previous amendment. Many authorities will have the information in an electronic form, which they then transfer into paper form. If they can say to an applicant, "No, you can't have it in electronic form. But you can have it in paper form", even though it could be available in electronic form, I wonder whether it is really sensible to allow that to happen.
Noble Lords know that it is becoming increasingly easy to gain information in an electronic form. In fact, if authorities have the information in electronic form, it would surely be more economic for them to supply it to the applicant in that form. When he responds to my noble friend's amendment, perhaps the Minister could say what incentive, or power, there might be in the Bill to ensure that if such information is already in electronic form the local authority cannot refuse to provide it in that way.
Lord Bach: My Lords, we have some sympathy with the clear desire of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to ensure, by way of these amendments, that applicants are able to receive information in a format that they choose rather than that which is convenient for the public authority. We recognise that there is some strength to that argument; indeed, Clause 11 provides that, where an applicant under this Bill states a preference, it must be complied with where "reasonably practicable" to do so.
There is nothing in the Bill that would prevent an authority from complying with the applicant's wishes in such circumstances. However, as the noble Lord acknowledged, Clause 11 recognises that the applicant's wishes, while important, are not the only consideration. The question of a public authority's resources and administrative capability is also relevant.
As the noble Lord said, his amendments are aimed at circumstances in which a public authority has made information available pursuant to an existing statutory duty. Their effect would be that the authority would no longer be able to rely on the exemption at Clause 20 in the circumstances described by Amendment No. 33 but would be required to provide the information in another format, if that was the applicant's preference and it would be reasonably practicable for the authority to do so.
I say with much flattery that the amendments have a commendable simplicity in the way they propose to amend all other statutory obligations on persons (public authorities and others) which require disclosure of information. However, sympathetic though we are, we do not believe that such an approach is possible or even sensible. Each regime has to be considered on its merits and the amendment proposed considered in its proper context. Furthermore, we are concerned that a statutory duty of this kind in relation to information which must be made available by other enactments would present significant problems for many authorities. The kernel of our arguments is that authorities will already have well established procedures to meet their existing statutory obligations in this respect. Changes of the kind now being suggested will carry additional and possibly significant resource implications, both financial and in terms of the authority's administrative flexibility.
We believe that the way round the problem that the noble Lord mentioned is perhaps better handled through the development of what can be described as "good practice". Public authorities should do what is practicable and what could reasonably be expected of them under the circumstances. It is the particular circumstances that are relevant to what could be reasonably expected. The commissioner has an important role in advising public authorities what she considers is good practice and in ensuring that public authorities are following good practice. We consider that that is the way forward rather than to place this additional statutory duty on public authorities. Having praised the noble Lord's amendments both for their simplicity and for the point that he makes in them, we think that our proposal is better. We invite him to withdraw the amendment.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page