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20 Apr 2007 : Column 562

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has confused me.

Simon Hughes: I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon.

Amendment No. 4 is consequential to amendment No. 3, and amendment No. 6 is consequential to amendment No. 5. I was advised that, if we were to deal with certain aspects of our public activity—namely, the keeping of expenses and accounts—we would need to change the long title of the Bill. Amendment No. 32 deals with the consequential change to the long title, which would reflect the fact that there were certain exemptions from the provisions of the legislation, rather than a total exemption. Amendment No. 33 would cover any changes to the title, depending on whether we decided to exempt the Commons, the Lords or both. The long title would need to reflect those changes. Amendments Nos. 34 and 35 cover the same subject.

I want to make a few more points on the substance of the provisions, but I shall rein myself in from talking about communications. I shall limit myself to talking about the processes of this place. As I said earlier, one of the great benefits of the present system is that, because our activities are now much more in the public domain, we have had to become much more accountable. The public are telling us that they want us to be as accountable as possible. They want to know what we are doing and, in particular, they want to know how we are spending money on their behalf. It is not good enough for us to say that we should decide whether we are going to follow that principle by law. It is difficult enough when we fix our own salaries. We make that decision, and that is invidious enough. It would be regarded as completely beyond acceptable if we were to say, “You may not have some or all of the information about what we do.”

We already have important data protection legislation. No one has suggested, for example, that, in revealing information about the functioning of the House of Commons, we should have to reveal the amount of money that we give to the staff whom we employ. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes has never suggested that, and I think that the tribunal case made this point clear, although I stand to be corrected on that because he will remember the details better than I can. Such revelations appear to be outwith the freedom of information requirements. The amount of money that we receive as an allowance to pay for staff is about £80,000. I use that money perfectly properly to pay my four members of staff through the Fees Office in the normal way. That is, of course, a matter of public record. Members could, in theory, employ a single staff member on that salary, or use the money to pay two, three or four. In the past, Members—including me—have contributed much more than the allowance for staff purposes. But no one is suggesting that information about individual salaries and the individual contracts of individual members of staff should be included.

10.30 am

Norman Baker: The tribunal, which considered the matter in some detail, conducted an analysis of the interaction between the Freedom of Information and
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Data Protection Acts, which had not been done in that way before. I suggest that Members read the judgment and study its consequences. One sentence reads:

—on travel expenses—

The judgment reinforced the importance of data protection, and the fact that sensitive material is already protected.

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend has dealt with the general point, but let me give another specific example. Obviously, no one wants a Member who represents a constituency outside London and who legitimately claims an allowance to cover the cost of living in London to have to state whether he or she has spent the money on installing a yellow bathroom suite or a white bathroom suite, or on improving a flat that he or she is renting from Mr. X or Mrs. Y. There is clearly a limit, and we all understand that. What is of proper concern to the public is information that allows people to know that we are using our money properly.

It is perfectly proper for individual Members of Parliament, acting on behalf of their constituents, to visit, for example, a Government agency to inquire about work that is being done. I am having a number of problems with the tax credit service, and am writing a great many letters to a man who is in charge of it, whose office is somewhere in the north of England. I have asked to meet him. I hope that he will come to London to discuss the cases of concern with me, but if he says “I cannot go to London but you are welcome to come and see me,” of course it will be justifiable for me to travel to Blackburn, or wherever it is, on behalf of my constituents, and the disclosure of the cost of my train journey will be covered.

What emerged in the Scottish example was that there had been a misuse of funds. A Member of the Scottish Parliament had wrongly claimed expenses for a trip to the party conference. I think he paid the price, and gave up his position as leader of his party in the Parliament. Clearly the public need to know that we are not mixing party spending, which is accountable and is governed by specific rules—we raise money for it locally and receive Short money; discussions are taking place about whether there should be other sources—with our parliamentary expenditure.

All this, obviously, is about our expenditure in our capacity as Members of Parliament. It does not affect anything done by the Under-Secretary of State in her capacity as Minister; that is dealt with separately, quite properly. I am sure that, like the rest of us, the hon. Lady understands the distinction. She knows exactly what are her constituency obligations, which she will continue to fulfil, and she is perfectly entitled to claim recompense for money that she properly expends for that purpose.

A culture has begun to develop in which public authorities are open to scrutiny. There was a great deal of resistance to it originally, but we all recognise that if
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the taxpayer, the council tax payer or the business rate payer is paying for members of police authorities, chief executives, councillors or other public figures, he or she is entitled to know how that money is being spent. There used to be large abuses and considerable suspicion. Polls conducted by organisations such as Ipsos MORI have revealed the level of discontent, but—the point made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North is very germane in this context—the discontent is not normally with the local Member of Parliament.

People have a relationship with their MPs. They see them in their communities. They know what they do, and can judge whether they are active and competent. But they have a general concern: they feel that Parliament does not do its job properly, and that MPs are abusing the system. That is the central point in the debate. We must ensure that the House of Commons collectively is seen to be following the rules that we think everyone else should follow.

There might be an argument for the Bill if there had been any discussion of the issue before—if any Select Committee had conducted an inquiry, or if any evidence had been provided that it was a matter of public concern. The Bill is unusual, in that, however well motivated it may be, it has not justified its further progress because it has not received what was described by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills as the pre-legislative scrutiny that Bills should be given. Private Members’ Bills come from a different place, as it were, but we are entitled to say “Hang on a minute: is the case made?”

One of our complex tasks if we were thinking of adopting these proposals—the tribunal case dealt with this very well—would be to explain to the public the interrelationship of freedom of information legislation and data protection legislation, both of which are not uncomplicated. Freedom of information governing United Kingdom public bodies applies throughout the United Kingdom, but there is separate legislation for exclusively Scottish bodies in Scotland. Northern Ireland has a separate regime, but it is governed by the legislation that applies here. The Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies are governed by the general proposition; there is no proposition in the Bill that either should be exempted, although that would be possible because their public authorities are on the same list as those specified in the United Kingdom legislation. The Bill does not propose an exemption for the London Assembly. The proposed exemption is solely for us—for the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It strikes me as ill-considered to concentrate on one part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements, and to suggest exempting two Houses of the United Kingdom Parliament but no other Parliament or Assembly. There is no argument in favour of such a piecemeal approach.

I hope Members will conclude that, although there may be an issue of concern, there is no evidence to support the proposals in respect of communications between Members of Parliament and public authorities; and that exempting other parliamentary arrangements, such as expenses and administration, from the legislation and leaving them to our discretion would therefore be a move in entirely the wrong direction.

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Norman Baker: My hon. Friend said that no public concern had been raised about the present arrangements. I would say that public concern had been raised, but in the opposite direction of travel from that suggested in the Bill. Evidence suggests that the public are very concerned and, sadly, do not hold Members of Parliament in very high regard. Surely the best way of dealing with that is to be as open and accountable as possible.

Simon Hughes: I was not arguing that there was no concern in the opposite direction. I have spent much of the last hour arguing precisely the reverse. There is plenty of concern that we should be accountable: the public want to know. I have heard no suggestion that we should be more secretive, take more power back to ourselves, and give ourselves discretion. I do not know whether the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border really intends that part of the Bill to remain, or whether he now realises that the idea does not have much merit and, indeed, could prove extremely damaging politically; but such a move has not been supported in any argument that I have heard since the legislation came into operation. I have not heard a single member of the public say that he or she does not want the right to seek information of this kind.

I sincerely hope that the votes on this group of amendments will make it very clear that the House of Commons and the House of Lords should remain fully included in the freedom of information requirements, and that making information public should be obligatory for us, as it is for every other public authority. If we do otherwise, we shall risk undermining confidence in this place significantly at a time when we can ill afford to do so.

Mr. Winnick: I fully support the amendments that have been tabled by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). It is not my intention to make a long speech. I will put my points as concisely as possible.

There is no doubt that the reputation and standing of Parliament are at stake. It may be that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) introduced the Bill with the best intentions. I have no reason to believe otherwise. I do not believe that he had any sinister reasons for doing so. I do not believe that he has anything to conceal himself. He takes the view that the Bill is in the interests of the House of Commons. I believe that he is wrong and misguided.

It would be disastrous—I can put it in no other way—if the Bill became law. The House of Commons would be saying that the Freedom of Information Act was all right for everyone else and information should be given by other public bodies and the devolved institutions, but we the House of Commons, having passed the Act, wanted to be exempt.

As I understand it, at the core of amendment No. 9 and the others is the belief that, on Report, we have to work on the basis that the Bill may become law, which I hope will not happen. That is all the more reason to amend it, so that it becomes more acceptable. As I have said, obviously I hope that that situation will not arise, but we have to work on Report on the basis that there is a theoretical possibility—I hope no more—that the Bill will become law.

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In Committee on 7 February, the right hon. Gentleman read a letter from the Speaker. I understand that there is a reluctance in these matters to quote the Speaker, but perhaps I may be allowed to refer to what he said. I should quickly add that the Speaker was writing on behalf of the Members Estimate Committee. He said that even if the Bill became an Act, the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee would continue to publish every October the information on travel, allowances, accommodation and secretarial costs. I accept that that is the position, but in effect that would be optional, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said. A future Members Estimate Committee may decide that that would not be in the interests of the House of Commons. Therefore, if the Bill became law and the Freedom of Information Act did not apply to the House of Commons, that information might not be published at all. The essence of the amendment is to make it necessary in law to publish the information.

In view of what I have just referred to, I find it a bit surprising that the authorities decided to fight the decision that information regarding travel allowances should be published. I have already said in an intervention that that was not debated by the House of Commons. I do not want to question the motives of those who decided to fight the decision. I am sure—I have no reason to believe otherwise for one moment—that they believe that they were acting in the interests of the House of Commons, but the fact remains that the matter went to the information tribunal. Lawyers argued the case on behalf of the House of Commons and I am glad to say that the House of Commons lost.

I quote paragraph 93 of the tribunal's decision:

It went on to say that, if the information is published, which it decided it should be, it

For the life of me, I cannot understand why that information should be concealed. When we incur travel expenses we have to sign a form, rightly, from the Fees Office, as it used to be called, saying that the travel that we undertook at public expense arose from our parliamentary duties. Since the information has been published, I am not aware that any information has come to light that there has been abuse. I have not seen any evidence suggesting that we as Members of Parliament have been travelling extensively in a way that does not justify public money.

10.45 am

When I travel to my constituency, as I will be doing today, I will be using public money. There is nothing to hide about it. There is nothing that I wish to conceal. There is nothing that I would not wish the local press or the electorate to know. It could be argued that, if I travel to my constituency, the money should come out of my own pocket. I would obviously argue very differently and justify it to the electorate. For the life of me I cannot understand why that information is so sensitive and confidential that perhaps only MI5 should know about it. In all these matters, the test is: can we justify to the electorate what we are doing, what
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we claim for our secretaries and research assistants, if we have any, how much money we spend on travel and the rest of it? If we cannot and if we do not want the information to be known to the local or national press or to the electorate, of course, we may conceal information that is embarrassing to us. But if everything is, as it should be, above board, why on earth should we want to conceal the information?

Simon Hughes: I am prompted by what the hon. Gentleman said to ask him what we would say if the European Parliament, where there has been some concern about the matter, suddenly decided that such expenses would not be disclosed and if Members of the European Parliament were entitled to say that they were not obliged to tell us what they spent on air fares or train fares. There has been abuse, but it has only emerged because it has been in the public domain.

Mr. Winnick: I can imagine the reaction in the House of Commons if the European Parliament did anything of the kind.

I come back to the point that I made in an intervention: the strong and cynical feelings, however wrong they may be, that would arise if the Bill were passed without the amendments and we did not have to disclose the information. Surely the reaction is bound to be, however much we may dislike it, that MPs have something to hide, and that having passed the 2000 Act for everyone else, we were exempt. That feeling would do no service to MPs. Suspicion would continue to exist that we are trying to hide information and have taken the necessary steps.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the devolved institutions: the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. As I understand it, there has been no attempt on their part whatever to conceal their expenses, so we would have a situation—let us be clear about it—where the European Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly disclosed information, which would be in the public domain—

Simon Hughes: And local authorities.

Mr. Winnick: Indeed. All the information concerning those elected bodies would be in the public domain. What about the House of Commons, the sovereign Parliament? It would appear that, while those other public bodies had to disclose, in law, rightly, how money was spent, we were exempt. How can we justify that? If the Bill were to become law, how could we go to our constituents and local newspapers and try to justify concealing this information?

I said that my remarks would be brief, and I have no wish to prolong my speech on this group of amendments, but let me repeat the following point. Although few Members are present in the Chamber, the standing and reputation of the House of Commons are at stake. It would be disastrous if the Bill became law, and if it is to become law that is all the more reason why the amendments should be passed, as that would give some protection—minimum protection, but nevertheless some protection as far as the public are concerned. However, I hope that when we come to vote on the Bill at half-past 2, sufficient Members will be present to ensure that it is rejected.

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