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Lord Hunt of Wirral: I bear a number of scars in relation to charging because when I had responsibility for the code I recall being mercilessly bludgeoned for the photocopying charges of the National Rivers Authority. I can still re-live those moments when I suddenly discovered that an official somewhere had assessed that photocopying charges should be between £50 and £100 per page. I shall never forget it, nor will my officials when I was questioning them afterwards. I had not been fully briefed on the subject.
I believe my noble friend Lord Cope has raised some very important points here. I follow the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in reflecting on what happens elsewhere. I bear in mind that the cost calculated by officials normally means the marginal cost of locating and retrieving the information, calculated often in quite an antiquated way at rates that do not bear much relationship to today's costings. A number of Freedom of Information Acts require the authorities not to show that the cost has risen above a certain limit, but
As I understand it, Ministers have already calculated that the appropriate limit will be set at £500. It would be of great assistance to us in responding to these amendments if the Minister were to give examples of how the £500 will be calculated and instances in which he believes a wider range of information might not be justified but a smaller amount might well be authorised at a cost that would be below the limit. Officials who are unwilling to disclose the information might use the £500 limit as an excuse because the request was phrased too widely. I recall from Parliamentary Questions that, on the receiving end, I could often see the way that the Question should have been phrased but fortunately was not. I would not want a member of the public to fall foulof a system in that way. Although I was quite willing for Members on the Liberal Benches in the other place to fall foul of the system in that way, I would not want members of the public to be denied their right to information either under the code as it existed or under this new legislation. I hope that the Minister may be able to respond to that point.
Lord Brennan: I invite the Minister to clarify the approach that is likely to be taken in these regulations. It seems that they ought to be constructed with great sensitivity for the following reasons. The first is a practical one. In every field of litigation and contact between citizen and state there is a small number of people who find such contact therapeutic. They are called vexatious litigants in the supreme court. I cannot imagine that this Act will not produce a well drilled cohort of such correspondents with government departments. I do not suggest that the regulations should deter them by fee alone, but I think that they should encompass some method of identifying vexatious requests; otherwise, such requests would undermine the proper purpose of the Bill.
The third area that causes me more concern is the following. If the limit is to be set at £500--which I applaud--that may well be a gross under estimate of the actual cost of making the appropriate inquiries to meet the request. Perhaps the regulations ought to allow special provision to be made in certain cases. For example, I refer to people who wanted to find out what was actually going on during the BSE saga. The documentation on that issue is enormous and the cost of providing it may well be huge. I am concerned that we should approach such practical considerations now and not be faced with problems later. However,
The fourth and last consideration is one on which I may have to invite my noble friend the Minister to write to me; namely, the consequences of the Aarhus Convention which the Government signed two years ago. It deals with access to information on environmental matters and is extremely wide-ranging. It requires government to guarantee such access at reasonable cost and with expedition. One or other of my learned friends may have that convention at their fingertips. I have it at my fingertips only because of the debate that took place the other day. It is an important matter. Which two areas will cause the most concern? I suggest that they are health and safety, which usually involve many documents, and the environment. The regulations must meet that challenge.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I suppose that my opening line ought to be that costs should not be a determinant with regard to access to information. Then I should add a series of caveats. I have a feeling that my speaking notes will take us in that general direction. It is perhaps worth making the point--parliamentarians will be familiar with this--that cost is a determinant, even in this Chamber and in the other place. However, having said that, I am always impressed by the wide range of information that Members of this Chamber and of the other place can elicit through parliamentary Questions. I note that only yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, obtained much information on CJD in a Written Answer provided by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. No doubt cost considerations came into the provision of that information, but the public interest of providing that information was more important than cost considerations in that case.
I turn to government Amendment No. 90. I state my intention to oppose the Question that Clause 14 should stand part of the Bill. The proposed new clause after Clause 11 is consequential on the restructuring of the Bill. It brings together those clauses concerned with access to information which would otherwise be exempt by virtue of the cost of compliance exceeding the appropriate limit.
This new clause effectively replaces Clause 14 of the Bill as drafted. This makes provision for the charging of fees for public interest disclosures. The Bill provides for a clear duty on public authorities to disclose information in the public interest. There is no need to make specific provision for the charging of a fee for the disclosure of such information. The fee provisions are the same as for the disclosure of non-exempt
Amendment No. 84, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, would require the public authority to inform the applicant whether it held information of the description specified in the request in accordance with Clause 1(1)(a) even if to do so would exceed the cost limit set out in regulations if the applicant were prepared to pay the excess cost. That would give the applicant the right to determine the work priorities of the authority. We take the view that this could be disruptive and detrimental to the work of that authority. That would be the case in particular with respect to a smaller public authority. I gave an example earlier of GPs whose resources would be unlikely to be sufficiently large or flexible enough to adapt to such demands even where the full costs of the additional work were to be recovered.
I understand the well-intentioned thoughts underlying the amendment. It is designed to prevent the Government and public authorities from limiting the scope of information that should be disclosed by manipulating the fee regulations However, it would create a regime in which authorities could be exposed to unreasonable demands on their resources and the Government would be left with insufficient flexibility to respond quickly and effectively to changing demands or circumstances.
Amendment No. 87 which stands in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, concerns the Secretary of State's power to make regulations about the appropriate limit on the cost of providing information when two or more requests are made either by one person or by different persons who appear to be acting together. If accepted, the amendment would limit this power to make regulations to situations where requests are closely related and made within a month. We consider that it is more appropriate to deal with this kind of matter in secondary legislation which gives greater flexibility. We believe that the amendment is unnecessary. Again, I invite the noble Lord not to press the amendment.
Lord Lucas: I agree with the noble Lord that it is better to deal with it in secondary legislation. But can the Minister confirm that the matter will be dealt with in secondary legislation and that the periodic request--I hope that I convinced him that it was entirely reasonable--will not be caught by the regulations?
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