Parliamentary questions and debates on FOI

Some recent parliamentary questions and debates where FOI has been raised.

Justice: Topical Questions
5 Jan 2010, Col 20
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Given that the Information Commissioner has today laid before Parliament a report criticising the Secretary of State’s blanket veto on the release of Cabinet Committee minutes from 1997 relating to devolution, will the Secretary of State explain why those particular minutes were, in his opinion, an exceptional case, and why there were particularly pressing reasons to block their disclosure?

Mr. Straw: I set out the detailed reasons in a written ministerial statement, with appendices, which I laid before the House as I undertook to do. I am happy to provide the right hon. Gentleman with a copy. The fact is that section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is a fundamental part of the scheme of the Act; it was on that basis that the Bill was agreed. The legislation provides for an appointed person to exercise a veto either after a commissioner’s decision or after a tribunal. There is, however, no requirement in the law to wait for a tribunal decision.

Written Answers House of Lords
6 Jan 2010, Col WA99
Lord Tyler: To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will extend the application of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to activities of the BBC which impose charges on individual members of the public. [HL884]

Lord Davies of Oldham: Except for information held for the purposes of journalism, art or literature, which is expressly excluded, the BBC is subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. There are no plans to amend the current provisions.

Business of the House
7 Jan 2010, Col 285-6
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): When can we expect a debate on the special report from the Information Commissioner following the veto by the Secretary of State for Justice of the release of Government papers, in contravention of the Information Commissioner’s decision and prior to a tribunal hearing? That is unprecedented, and it is necessary for that report, which is to the House, not the Government, to be debated, and for the Secretary of State to justify his actions. When will that happen?

Ms Harman:…As far as the freedom of information request and the veto is concerned, there was a full statement on that by the Justice Secretary on-I think-10 December.

Mr. Heath: A written statement.

Ms Harman: I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon-he is right that it was a written ministerial statement. I think I remember that that statement contained the information that there were something like 16,000 routine FOI requests, of which only two have been vetoed, so it was a very exceptional occurrence, which is why things were spelt out in a written ministerial statement. The framework that is set down by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was followed as part of that process.

Written Answers – House of Lords
11 Jan 2010, Col WA128
Lord Laird: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of how the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is working; and whether they are considering amending it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): Since 1 January 2005 the Freedom of Information Act has enabled the public greater access to official information held by over 100,000 public authorities. The Ministry of Justice publishes annual reports on the operation of the Act in central government and quarterly statistical reports on the performance of central government monitored bodies and their handling of FOI requests since the Act came in to force.

A total of 171,000 requests have been dealt with under the Act by central government monitored bodies during the period January 2005 to September 2009. Eighty-nine per cent of these requests were answered within time, that is, a response was provided within the standard deadline or a permitted deadline extension was applied. Of those requests where it was possible to give a substantive decision on whether to release the information being sought, 62 per cent were granted in full.

There was also a short debate in the House of Lords on 12 January 2010 on FOI and PQs in response to a question by Lord Lucas:

12 Jan 2010, Column 393
Asked By Lord Lucas: To ask the Leader of the House whether she will make proposals for allowing appeals against refusals to answer written Questions to be made to the Information Commissioner.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, Ministers are, of course, responsible for the Answers to Written Questions. The principal role of the Information Commissioner is to enforce and oversee the statutory Data Protection Act and Freedom of Information Act regimes. As paragraph 5.15 of the Companion makes clear, Written Questions are not,

“a ‘request for information’ under the Freedom of Information Act”.

It is right that these processes remain distinct. Accordingly, I will not be making any such proposals.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, it strikes me that, wonderful though Written Questions usually are, there can be occasions when one comes across a department that is reluctant to provide the information requested, and one finds oneself in a situation where we have given to the citizen powers that we have not given to ourselves. Does not the Leader think that it would be good to find a way in which we can encourage departments to provide information-if not by the mechanism that I have suggested-and perhaps even have adjudication on their refusal to do so, so that we can take to ourselves the powers that we have given to everybody else in this land?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, there are three or four issues here. First, it is very important that the distinction between the two regimes should remain. Secondly, it is of course open to any Member of Parliament to request information under the Freedom of Information Act; and should they so wish, noble Lords should avail themselves of that process. As for departmental Questions, if Members are not satisfied with the Answers to Questions, they can ask further Questions. They can ask Oral Questions if the first Question was a Written Question; they can see the departmental Minister concerned; and they can come and see me. So a range of various options is available to Members of this House.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Will my noble friend also reflect on the paradox that I get much more detailed information through FOI requests than I get through Parliamentary Answers? Civil servants still have a tendency to draft for Ministers Parliamentary Answers that-save for the presence of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop-remind me of the definition of a bikini: what it reveals is less interesting than what it conceals. I ask my noble friend to think carefully about ensuring that civil servants get instructions to take account of FOI legislation and to be far more forthcoming in drafting Answers for Ministers.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says and I have some sympathy with that point of view. The principle is that one should not get less information from a Parliamentary Answer than one receives under FOI. The thing is that under FOI one receives raw information, whereas under a Parliamentary Answer it is-

A noble Lord: Spun.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: No, my Lords, not spun-absolutely not spun. It is made into a Parliamentary Answer. I heed the noble Lord’s words, however, and I will certainly take them back to all departments.

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