Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Lucas: My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, it is my understanding and my memory-- though I confess to not having refreshed it adequately, having only just noticed this amendment--that the RIP Act does not deal just with the security services and this tribunal does not deal just with the security services. It also has dealings with the police and with the Commissioners of the Customs and Excise. Indeed, any police force can be brought before this tribunal, and I hope that between now and Third Reading the noble and learned Lord will undertake to review what he has said to see whether he does not agree that, although he is right in saying that this tribunal will perform some of the functions of other tribunals which will cease to exist after the passage of the RIP rules, it will do additional things which have nothing to do with the security services and which do not deserve the sort of blanket exclusion which is offered by this clause and which indeed ought to be open to proper public scrutiny.

Would the noble and learned Lord not agree that it would be better if the general provisions of this clause were relied on to protect the national security rather than being extended to something which, as my noble friend Lord Mackay has said, is a sensitive and difficult part of the law when it comes to the protection of individual rights? I do not want to press for another Division now just to demonstrate concern over this. I will be content with a promise that the matter will be looked at again before Third Reading.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I have noted what the noble Lord has said, but I repeat that the purpose of the tribunal referred to in the amendment is to replace the Interception of Communications Tribunal, the Security Services Tribunal and the Intelligence Services Tribunal.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I wonder whether I could intervene to suggest that further consideration on Report be now adjourned during pleasure until 8.30 p.m. I beg to move.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.44 to 8.30 p.m.]

14 Nov 2000 : Column 208

Clause 26 [International relations]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 35:


    Page 15, line 20, at beginning insert ("Except in respect of information provided to a public authority by the European Union, its member states, institutions, organisations or related bodies,").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Clause 26(2) is presumably designed to protect diplomatic relations with foreign states. The amendment would prevent it being used to suppress information about the activities of the EU, including information relating to intra-EU political debate.

At the heart of the Bill is the proposition that information should be freely available unless disclosure could in general terms be said to harm the national interest or relationships with other states. When I spoke to the amendment in Committee, I argued that the European Union was in some ways akin to a government department, as many of its policies, particularly on agriculture, fishing, environmental issues and even some trade and industry issues, are deeply influential on all member states, including the UK, and are often broadly adopted by them.

I realise that such a parallel has its limitations, but it is sufficient to warrant the proposal that information from appropriate European sources should be made at least as freely available as the Bill's restrictions allow. All information from that quarter would naturally be subject to the usual harm tests, so no diplomatic or national security material would be included, because that is already safeguarded by the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, reminded me in Committee that the European Union was committed to increased openness by virtue of Article 255 of the Amsterdam treaty. Of course we are aware of that, but the simple fact is that the EU has suffered from a culture of secrecy and we would do well to encourage it in the right direction by our example. It may be a bit embarrassing to hold up this Bill as an example, but it is better than any of the European Union's freedom of information rules.

I think that I even had some friendly support on the issue from the Liberal Benches in Committee, although the general advice that I got from that quarter--I do not remember whether it was from the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, or the noble Lord, Lord Lester--seemed to be that we should leave it to Europe and that if European regulations were more restrictive than ours we should accept the more restrictive regime. I am not sure that I agree.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting, but my recollection is that the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, spoke in favour of the Government and against the amendment in Committee. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, might have got confused.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, that would be consistent with the general policy of the

14 Nov 2000 : Column 209

noble Lord, Lord Lester, today, when he has been very much in favour of the Government. However, I think that he said that we should argue our case in international forums and that if Europe had a more restrictive regime, we would have to play by its rules rather than our own. I am not sure that I accept that, particularly because many of the issues relating to agriculture, fisheries and the environment are very important. We all agree that such information should be opened up in this country, so I can see no reason why similar European Union information should not also be opened up. I understand and appreciate the need to protect diplomatic information.

I am not keen to wait until the EU decides whether to adopt a Community-wide scheme before we open up the information that flows between this country and the European Union. I think that that was the argument put forward by the Government and the Liberal Democrats. Freedom of information provisions should be able to open the doors on many of the policy areas that I have mentioned.

How great an impact would the proposed EU scheme have on the United Kingdom? Might it restrict our access to information further than it will be restricted by the Bill? Could we adhere to our scheme for our government departments, rather than adopting a possibly narrower European scheme, even when some of the information concerned came from the European Union or was collected on behalf of the European Union? Those are important issues.

If we are to have more openness rather than less, it must include our dealings with the European Union. It is not a foreign state. We are part and parcel of it. A lot of the detailed information, advice and policies devised in Europe impinge hugely on us. At this time of year, for example, the entire British fishing industry is dependent on statistics and decisions that will be arrived at in Brussels. I am pleased that there has been increasing openness on statistics. However, if dealings between government departments and outside bodies are to be opened up within the United Kingdom, they should be opened up within the European Union. I may not have explained that terribly well, but I understand what I mean and I am sure that noble Lords do, too. This is not an anti-European Union point. I am simply saying that a great deal of government business now involves the European Union and I want the public to have the same access to that information as they would have if it was held entirely within the United Kingdom. I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I entirely understand that basis of the noble Lord's argument, but I do not think that it is correct. Clause 26(2) states:


    "Information is also exempt information if it is confidential information obtained from a State other than the United Kingdom or from an international organisation or international court".

14 Nov 2000 : Column 210

In effect, the noble Lord wants,


    "the European Union, its member states, institutions, organisations or related bodies",

to be treated differently from all other international organisations, states or international courts.

The confidentiality of diplomatic documents is universally recognised in international relations. There is no logic in treating confidential information from the European Union differently from information from other international organisations of which the United Kingdom may or may not be a member. Many international organisations may be more secretive than we should like. We shall try to increase the internal openness of any such organisation of which the United Kingdom is a member. In the EU, we shall seek to ensure the implementation of Article 255 of the Amsterdam treaty, which commits the European Union to increased openness. That will balance the scales in favour of openness. However, it is neither right nor sensible to treat the European Union differently from the other international organisations and countries with which we deal.

The noble Lord asked whether we would be bound by EU laws or whether we could deal with information under our legislation. We would be bound by any EU regulations in so far as they related to Community documents held by the UK Government. It would be contrary to our obligations to the European Union to enact laws which are contrary to EU rules.

Therefore, the correct forum in which to ensure openness in relation to EU matters is at the EU level. Clause 26(2) sets out our approach to documents which we receive in confidence from the EU. It draws no distinction between the EU on the one hand and other international organisations or member states on the other. I believe that that is the right approach. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page