Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Freedom of Information (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill

Tom Brake MP presented this ten-minute rule bill in the Commons yesterday:
"My Bill will demonstrate to our constituents that Members are committed not only to protecting freedom of information legislation, but to reinforcing it. It will strengthen freedom of information powers in three key areas: it will remove the ministerial veto; it will limit the time allowed for public authorities to respond to requests involving consideration of the public interest; and it will extend the range of bodies covered by freedom of information legislation."

Public authorities
Clause 1 of the bill extends the FOI Act to "public sector contractors". These are defined as bodies with contracts with a public authority which are valued at more than £1 million and last for more than 12 months. A "public sector contrator" is a contractor who (a) is contracted to provide a service which the authority itself is required to provide (eg social services, operation of prisons) (b) is contracted to provide any other service directly to the public (c) is not involved in providing services to the public but whose contract may have implications for public health and safety or the enviroment. If the bill were passed the FOI right of access would only apply to information about contracts with the public authority - not to the contractor's other contracts.

Clause 1 of the bill also brings Academy schools within the scope of the FOI Act.

Time for compliance
Clause 2 of the bill would limit the extra time that authorities are allowed to take to respond to requests which involve the Act's public interest test to an additional 20 working days, but no more. For most authorities this would require such requests to be dealt within within a maximum of 40 working days.

An exception is made for the National Archives and other records authorities, whose standard response is 30, not 20, working days, to allow them to consult the authority which supplied the record to them. These authorities would also be limited to a further 20 days, ie. they would have to deal with requests involving the public interest test within a maximum of 50 working days.

Ministerial veto
Clause 3 of the bill would abolish the ministerial veto, contained in section 53 of the FOI Act, which allows ministers to overrule any decision which the Information Commissioner or Information Tribunal takes requiring a government department to release information on public interest grounds.

Fees regulations
Clause 4 of the bill would require any changes to the fees regulations under the Act to be made by the 'positive resolution' procedure. At present they are dealt with under the 'negative resolution' procedure.

Under the present arrangements changes to the fees regulations, which can severely restrict the right of access, would go through the Commons automatically unless objected to. Even if objected to, they would be discussed only in a committee of MPs, not by the whole House of Commons. The change proposed by the bill would make it possible for such changes to be debated and voted on by the full House of Commons.

The bill has now been printed and will join the queue of private members bills awaiting a second reading on Friday 15 June.

Read Tom Brake's speech in Hansard.

Full text of the bill here.

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