Lords discuss FOI amendments to Protection of Freedoms Bill

Amendments to improve the Freedom of Information Act, which the Campaign for Freedom of Information supported, were debated in the House of Lords during report stage of the Protection of Freedoms Bill yesterday.

Lord Wills moved an amendment to introduce a statutory time limit for decisions involving the public interest test of an additional 20 working days:

Amendment 55ZA aims to cut down on delays in responding to freedom of information requests, which can often defeat the intent of the legislation. Such delays can be of more than a year. It is in line with the Information Commissioner’s guidance that normally an extension should not be needed but where it is, it should not exceed a further 20 working days. Too often, the guidance is ignored. The amendment will make it more difficult to do so.

The Home Office minister, Baroness Stowell of Beeston, gave an encouraging response but stopped short of accepting the amendment, instead referring the issue to the Justice Committee for consideration in the course of its post-legislative scrutiny of the FOI Act:

My Lords, I start by making it clear that this Government very much support freedom of information and increasing openness and transparency-there is absolutely no doubt about that. Indeed, I am sympathetic to Amendment 55ZA, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, in relation to the timeliness of public interest deliberations, and his proposal to make the Information Commissioner’s recommended best practice a statutory requirement.

…The introduction of new statutory deadlines is a potential way of strengthening the Freedom of Information Act, as the noble Lord has put forward, provided that it does not lead to hasty decisions that are not fully informed. An absolute limit of 40 days raises some concerns about the potential for such an effect and therefore we need to give the impact of changes of this type full consideration before their introduction. For that reason, I cannot accept his amendment today.

As the noble Lord has predicted I might say, but not for the reasons he suggests, this is something that I strongly believe should be properly scrutinised and considered in the course of post-legislative scrutiny, which is now under way by the relevant Select Committee of the other place, chaired by the right honourable Alan Beith. I certainly will ensure that he receives the official record of our debate today.

Lord Wills also moved an amendment to provide that information held by contractors about the performance of the contract would automatically be deemed to be held “on behalf” of the public authority for the purposes of the FOI Act or EIRs where the contract is worth over £1 million.

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