Lord Wills asked what plans the Government have to amend the Freedom of Information Act during oral questions in the House of Lords on 27 February.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, the Government intend to amend the Act to give the Information Commissioner more time to prosecute alleged offences under Section 77 of the Act and introduce a dedicated exemption for prepublication research. Other parts of our response to post-legislative scrutiny will be implemented through secondary legislation codes of practice and guidance.
Lord Wills: My Lords, I very much welcome what the Minister has just said about giving the Information Commissioner new powers but I hope he will recognise that suggestions have been made by other Ministers-not this Minister whose commitment to freedom of information is exemplary-that they will tighten the Act. I hope this Minister will recognise that tightening the Act in the way that has been suggested will damage transparency. He will recall that the previous Government at one point proposed to increase fees for accessing freedom of information requests and then dropped the proposal when they realised the damage that that would do to transparency. Are the Government now downplaying that risk to transparency, and doing so at a time when the Francis report into Mid Staffordshire shows just how dangerous damaging transparency can be?
Lord McNally: My Lords, it is true that we are looking at other aspects of the post-legislative scrutiny through secondary legislation. However, I can assure the noble Lord that my commitment, and the Government’s commitment, to transparency and freedom of information, which I see as twin tracks of government policy, remains as steadfast as it has always been. Ideas and information about other aspects of the post-legislative scrutiny fully justified the exercise and I compliment my right honourable friend Sir Alan Beith and his committee for doing an excellent job. It has done much to embed freedom of information in our political culture.
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames subsequently asked the Minister to give an assurance that there would be no extension of the Government’s power to decisions of the Information Commissioner and Tribunal and no further fees, particularly for appeals to the Tribunals.
Lord McNally: I do not think I can give an absolute assurance on that. We decided to retain the veto following discussions that had gone on since the start of the freedom of information debate about whether, at the very heart of government, a safe space was needed for genuine discussions. At the moment, I am having discussions with colleagues about these ideas and principles and in due course I will inform the House and give it an opportunity to comment on this. It is always an interesting balance. We have faced this problem for a decade or more since we debated these principles in this House. Indeed, we had a very interesting debate a few months ago where a whole clutch of former mandarins gave their opinions about what is called the “chilling effect” of freedom of information. I do not accept that there is such a chilling effect, but I do accept that it is right-as is the proper intention of the post-legislative review of the Act-that we look at how the Act is working and we will come back with recommendations in the areas raised by my noble friend.