20 Apr 2007 : Column 549

House of Commons

Friday 20 April 2007

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

9.33 am

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I beg to move, That the House do sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (Motions to sit in private ) :—

The House divided: Ayes 0, Noes 54.
Division No. 093]
[9.34 am


Tellers for the Ayes:

Martin Linton and
Mr. Greg Knight

Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Baker, Norman
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Blackman, Liz
Brown, Lyn
Brown, rh Mr. Nicholas
Burnham, Andy
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Creagh, Mary
Davies, Philip
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H.
Dowd, Jim
Evennett, Mr. David
Fabricant, Michael
Field, Mr. Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Gibson, Dr. Ian

Goggins, Paul
Gray, Mr. James
Healey, John
Heppell, Mr. John
Howarth, Mr. Gerald
Hughes, Simon
Irranca-Davies, Huw
Jowell, rh Tessa
Keen, Alan
Keen, Ann
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Mackay, rh Mr. Andrew
Maclean, rh David
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCabe, Steve
McGuire, Mrs. Anne
McIsaac, Shona
McLoughlin, rh Mr. Patrick
McNulty, Mr. Tony
Mudie, Mr. George
Munn, Meg
Neill, Robert
Newmark, Mr. Brooks
Osborne, Mr. George
Ottaway, Richard
Pearson, Ian
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Prentice, Bridget
Randall, Mr. John
Shepherd, Mr. Richard
Snelgrove, Anne
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Touhig, rh Mr. Don
Watson, Mr. Tom
Tellers for the Noes:

Helen Jones and
Mr. Andrew Dismore
Question accordingly negatived.
20 Apr 2007 : Column 550

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have just had a Division in which no Members voted for the proposition that the House should sit in private, following the call for that to be subject to a vote. Surely, with due respect, we ought to test the feeling of the House. Generally, when votes are taken on matters, an attempt is made to establish whether there is some support for a measure—and obviously there is no support for this one. Is it possible for only one Member to require a Division in this situation?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): It is possible, but the House has made a decision and therefore we will not be sitting in private.

20 Apr 2007 : Column 551

Orders of the Day

Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill

As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Clause 1

Exemption of House of Commons and House of Lords

9.46 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 1, line 3, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 1, in page 1, line 3, leave out subsection (2).

No. 3, in page 1, line 3, leave out ‘paragraphs 2 and 3’ and insert ‘paragraph 2’.

No. 5, in page 1, line 3, leave out ‘paragraphs 2 and 3’ and insert ‘paragraph 3’.

No. 4, in page 1, line 4, leave out ‘relate to the House of Commons and the House of Lords’ and insert ‘relates to the House of Commons’.

No. 6, in page 1, line 4, leave out ‘relate to the House of Commons and’ and insert ‘relates to’.

No. 32, in title, line 1, leave out ‘exempt from its provisions’ and insert

No. 33, in title, line 2, leave out ‘the House of Commons and House of Lords and’.

No. 34, in title, line 2, leave out ‘the House of Commons’.

No. 35, in title, line 2, leave out ‘the House of Lords’.

Simon Hughes: I wish to speak to amendment No. 9, which stands in my name and in those of the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) and for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The other amendments in the group stand in the same names.

We have a very serious matter before us today. This is a debate about whether there should be amendments to an Act that would restrict the freedom of information of the public on matters concerning this House and individual Members of Parliament. The Bill is seriously misguided, with the greatest respect to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), who is trying to address a particular problem. The previous proceedings on the Bill, which in essence consisted of one hour’s debate in Committee, revealed no evidence justifying a need for it.

20 Apr 2007 : Column 552

I shall try not only to show how the present legislation appears to work, and to work well, in our interests, but to explain that it would be extremely bad politics, as well as extremely bad law, for us to seek at this stage, when Parliament is hardly the most well-regarded institution in the land, to exempt the House of Commons or the House of Lords, or both, from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): What would the hon. Gentleman say to those who say that the House of Commons decides on freedom of information for almost everybody, but is attempting to exempt itself? Does not that make a mockery of the House of Commons? If this measure was passed into law, which I hope that it will not be, it would do a great disservice to Members of Parliament, because the inevitable reaction would be, “Well, of course, MPs have something to hide.” I hope that none of us has anything to hide, but the suspicion will be that we are trying to hide our expenses, travelling allowances and the rest of it. That would do a grave disservice to Parliament.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point very early on, and I am grateful for that expression of a clear view. He has been a Member of this House for an extremely long time, and for the whole of the period of the debates he has argued for freedom of information. He will remember, as I do, that one of the things that the Labour Government did, to their credit, when they were first elected was to take up the argument, which had been going on for a very long time, that we should have freedom of information legislation, and undertook, as we both argued at the time, that that should be coupled with the protection of data by other legislation. Both those regimes are in place, covering thousands of organisations and public authorities. Every Government Department, local council in the land and agency of the public service in the land is obliged to be open about what it does.

All the evidence from the United States and other countries with freedom of information legislation is that that has been a good thing. For example, it has made for better environmental standards, better water quality and better quality of administration and of public service. Like the hon. Gentleman, I would be extremely perturbed. In the past few days, as the reality of this Bill has become more widely known, it has become apparent that the public would be very concerned. At the very moment when we were trying to establish that we were doing a decent job for our constituents, the Bill would have the direct consequence of exempting information on how we spend our money, what contracts we place and our expenses, unless we voluntarily agreed to provide it. Voluntary agreement has never been an acceptable answer for Government Departments, Government agencies or local authorities, so it should not be acceptable for us. Although Mr. Speaker has indicated that the intention of the Speaker’s Office and of the Commission would be to carry on as we are, there would be no guarantee of that; we could rescind that at any time, by one vote. That position is completely unacceptable.

The further point, which the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) made well, is that the
20 Apr 2007 : Column 553
Bill would mean that although, back in the late 1990s, we came to a considered conclusion that Parliament should be included in freedom of information legislation, suddenly, with no proper consideration, consultation or taking of evidence, we would exclude not lots of people and organisations, but only ourselves—and for those really lucky, good people, we may let them see some things because we are very kind and generous. That would be the implication and that is why the proposition is fundamentally mistaken. It is also one that comes to us having had no serious consideration.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab) rose—

Simon Hughes: I shall make one more point before giving way to the hon. Gentleman.

One thing is seriously troubling, and I accept that we are all at fault in one sense. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border was quite entitled to draft his private Member’s Bill, bring it to Parliament and have it put on the Order Paper. When he moved the Second Reading on 19 January, the rest of us were taken by surprise and objections were not made. Had they been, we would not have been in our position today, because the Bill would have been put back and had a Second Reading later, if at all. The Bill has not had a Second Reading involving any debate, only one that put it through on the nod. What was disturbing was that at that moment, the Government, who usually make it clear that they are willing to object at that stage so that there can be a debate, were silent; the Whip on the Treasury Bench who would usually object to make sure that a private Member’s Bill was properly debated, was silent.

The rest of us should have spotted what had appeared at the bottom of the list. Although somewhat belated, opposition will be heard in its full form today, and, if the right hon. Gentleman persists, later as well. However, it was very sad that the Government did not object on 19 January. The clear implication was—I read the speech made by the Minister in Committee—that the Government would be neutral about the issue. I understand that position, but usually the Government will facilitate an opportunity for debate even if they are neutral about a Bill. So far, they have not done so in this case.

Mr. Winnick: The usual channels wish to make the Bill pass into law. My Government brought in the Freedom of Information Act 2000—all credit to them for that; the previous Government had refused to do so. However, there is a suspicion that the Government are collaborating with the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), who has introduced this private Member’s Bill.

Simon Hughes rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. We are debating the group of amendments that I have already mentioned; that is the scope of the debate at present.

Simon Hughes: Obviously, I accept that, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I wanted to report what the Minister said accurately— she rightly said that she was not taking a view. I want to make my position and that of colleagues clear on the amendments. This is a Friday, and it is the tradition of this House, strongly supported
20 Apr 2007 : Column 554
by Mr. Speaker and you and your colleagues Madam Deputy Speaker, that there should not be whipped votes on Fridays. I should like to make it clear that there is no whipped vote on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I shadow the Government on constitutional issues; I oppose this Bill and shall say so. Colleagues will form their own views. However, I am clear that the amendments are personal to the colleagues who have supported them.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, at this moment, we are discussing the group of amendments to which he is a signatory. That is what the debate is about.

Simon Hughes: Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker. The first of the group is amendment No. 9, to which I shall turn in a second. However, I said that I would give way to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore).

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman has moved on a little from the point that I want to make. Mr. Speaker has made it clear that expenses and allowances would continue to be published. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I tabled a new clause—unfortunately, it has not been accepted—that would have put that stipulation in the Bill. That would have been preferable, but the fact remains that it is inconceivable that our allowances would not continue to be published as they are at present. The public would expect that, and nothing in the Bill would stop that.

Simon Hughes: The difference is that if the legislation stated that allowances should be published, they would have to be, because people would ask for that. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes was one of those who did ask that allowances in relation to travel expenses should be published, and they were—but only after he had to take on the matter, not only with the House authorities and the Commission, but in a tribunal. The alternative, in the Bill, is that such disclosure would be discretionary, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North said.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): It is worth putting it on the record that the House of Commons Commission resisted tooth and nail the call for MPs’ travel expenses to be published at every stage for two years. It used expensive lawyers to try to fight its case, with no regard to the cost involved, even when it was clear that the Information Commissioner recommended that the expenses should be published.

I make no comment about individuals holding particular positions, but it is clear that in their own behaviour as a body, MPs have not shown consistency or a guarantee that they will allow such matters to be published in due course, as has now been allowed. The only guarantee that could be given would be if those expenses had to be published under freedom of information legislation. If we give discretion, there will inevitably be pressure from MPs to rescind that position.

Simon Hughes: Amendment No. 9, the first of the group, addresses the first clause of the Bill, which would amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in particular ways. Clause 1(2) of the Bill would omit
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from part 1 of schedule 1 to the 2000 Act the two paragraphs that list the public authorities governed by the Act. At the moment, that list includes the House of Commons and House of Lords. The schedule contains a long list, which people can look at, of all the public authorities, and the House of Commons and House of Lords would be removed from it.

I shall go through each of the amendments so that people are clear about what we shall vote on later. Amendment No. 9 would insert after “House of Commons”:

The first proposition of which I want us to be aware and which we are considering is exactly that referred to by the hon. Members for Hendon and for Walsall, North, from different sides of the argument. It is that there could be an argument about the obligation to disclose expenses; we could say that, as an alternative, we want to keep in the obligation to do so, but nothing else. Both propositions are unreasonable, but we have tabled amendment No. 9 because we want to focus the attention of colleagues on the fact that expenses are one of the issues. We could amend the Bill, as the amendment proposes, so that the schedule listing of the House of Commons applied only to information about the expenditure of hon. Members

Would that be enough? My colleagues with whom I have discussed the matter, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, say that it would not.

10 am

Although the expenses issue has been successfully contested—the information tribunal said that we must reveal travel expenses—there are other matters to do with the work of the House of Commons that we should be willing to divulge, for example, the cost of running the place, the cost of improvements that we make to the place, information about the number of visitors and the amount of revenue that visitors bring in, the amount that we pay generically—information about individual pay is protected under data protection legislation—to our catering staff. Other examples are regulations that guarantee minimum wages, any plans for reform of the institutions, information about how many more staff we might consider employing, whether we considered buying new computer equipment and whether we had any problems with our computers. There is a long list of things that might be of significant interest to the public and are not simply to do with the expenditure of individual Members of Parliament.

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