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20 Apr 2007 : Column 568

Norman Baker: I am sorry that we have to discuss this Bill. Regardless of the motives of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean)—I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) in that I have no reason to believe that they are anything other than proper—the timing of the Bill, and the matters that we are discussing in respect of the amendments, are unfortunate. As the hon. Member for Walsall, North and my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) have said, the proposal to exempt the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which is at the heart of the Bill, sends entirely the wrong message at a crucial time.

It is a crucial time to seek to exempt the House of Commons and the House of Lords for a number of reasons. The flame of freedom of information has only recently been lit; it is not yet in the bloodstream—I apologise for mixing my metaphors—of the population and the public institutions of this country. There is a danger that the candle flame of freedom of information could yet be extinguished.

We in the House of Commons have fought for many years for freedom of information. That has been supported by the Labour party, and by the Labour Government who introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It has also regularly been supported by my Liberal Democrat colleagues and by individual Conservative Members, such as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), as well as by Members of the nationalist parties.

The freedom of information argument has finally been won, and Parliament is central; the role of Parliament—of the House of Commons and the Lords—is key. Freedom of information has been accepted as a concept, and the arguments have been won that openness and accountability in government and in Members’ dealings in this House lead to better performance by Government in terms of how they discharge their duties and better financial management by MPs in terms of House expenditure and our personal expenditure as Members of Parliament. The argument has been won that secrecy tends to benefit only those who are corrupt, those who are incompetent or those who are careless with public money. We should not protect the people in any of those categories. The freedom of information regime that now applies to public authorities, and to this House in particular, and which we are discussing in respect of this group of amendments, has led to the beginning of a change in culture in this country and in this House as to how we deal with information. The role of the House of Commons in how we approach these matters is central.

If the House of Commons exempts itself through this proposed legislation—we are seeking to reverse that by means of amendment No. 1—that will not simply be a small matter to do with how we deal with MPs’ expenses and with expenditure in this House such as on renovations, including the £422,000 spent by the House of Commons on the ludicrous covered walkway next to the turntable downstairs. Nor will it be a small matter to do with the environmental performance of the House, which is lamentable in many regards. However, it should be said that those issues tend to have been quite well concealed, which it might be thought is one reason why such expenditure and
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performance have been lamentable. Freedom of information drives up the performance of public authorities. That is one of the sensible reasons to have it. Not only does it empower the people—important though that is—but it drives up performance.

As I have said, if we exempt the House of Commons and the House of Lords, that will not simply be a small matter to do with MPs’ expenses. The ramifications of that decision will go far and wide out into society. That is why the Bill is so important, and why it is so important to defeat it.

Let us be clear what the consequences will be if the Bill is passed unamended, and if amendment No. 1 in particular is not accepted—I wish that to be voted on in due course. One important consequence would be to drive down further the reputation of Members of Parliament as a whole, which would be regrettable. We already feature below journalists in the list of trusted professions in society. I think that we are marginally above estate agents, although a friend has told me that we have fallen below them in terms of trustworthiness. If the Bill is passed and amendment No. 1 is rejected, that would drive down further the reputation of Members of Parliament both collectively and individually and the reputation of the House of Commons. I do not wish that to happen, and neither in their hearts do Members in all parts of the House, such as Liberal Democrat Members, Conservatives and nationalists. Nobody wants that consequence to result from the Bill, but that is what will happen if it is passed and amendment No. 1 is not agreed to. Members must decide on that.

If the Bill is not amended—by amendment No. 1 in particular—that will suggest that Members are guilty of hypocrisy. Members are not allowed to use that word about each other in this House, but plenty of members of the public are using that word in respect of the House because of this Bill. People are asking, “Why should Parliament be exempt from the legislation that Parliament itself has introduced and is now applying to other public authorities?”

Mr. Winnick: In all my experience I have never known of a situation in which a Member introducing a private Member’s Bill has been so reluctant to defend it in public. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, and is this not the first time that that has happened?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. That topic cannot be part of the debate.

Norman Baker: I hear what you say, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I sincerely hope that those who wish to curtail the release of information will make the case for that. Thus far, that case has not been made. We have not had any justification for the removal from this legislation of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. We have not had any justification in respect of the issue to do with MPs’ correspondence, which allegedly is at the heart of the Bill. We have not had any justification for MPs’ and public authorities’ correspondence being turned into secret documents marked “confidential”. None of those matters has been justified.

It is germane to reflect on how we have arrived at this point. That is key to amendment No. 1 in
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particular. We have reached this point because there has been a private Member’s Bill, which has been presented on a Friday, when, as Members know, long lists of Bills regularly fail. They fall over the cliff like lemmings at 2.30 pm—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has made reference to this subject, but I now wish him to address his remarks to the amendments in his name.

Norman Baker: I am happy to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I was trying to do so; I apologise if I have failed in that objective. However, it is important to stress the following point. The scrutiny given originally by the Public Administration Committee in its document, the third report of the 1997-98 Session entitled, “Your right to know: the Government’s proposals for a Freedom of Information Act”—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s reference to that will be very brief, so that he can return to the debate on the amendments.

11 am

Norman Baker: I will be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, although with respect it is an important point in my argument, but clearly you will correct me if I stray too far. I was making the point that the Select Committee gave careful consideration expressly to the question whether Parliament should be exempt. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey that the Committee concluded:

MPs from all parties looked at the matter carefully, but by contrast we are now considering a Back-Bench Bill that until this morning has had only one hour’s debate in a Committee chosen by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border.

Mr. Bellingham: The hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), was a member of that Committee and it is my understanding that the Committee was not guillotined and could have continued for hours. Does the hon. Gentleman not talk to his hon. Friend?

Norman Baker: Indeed I do. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman has read the Committee report, as I have. If he has, he will see that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) expressed concerns about the extent of the Bill and its consequences. Some of the points I am making this morning were raised in that Committee—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I advise Members that it is not the previous proceedings of the Bill that are relevant now but the amendments tabled by the hon. Gentleman and other Members.

Norman Baker: I hope you accept that I was responding to an intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker.

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I am in some difficulty because amendment No. 1 goes to the heart of the Bill, so it is necessary to explain, as I was trying to do, the general importance of freedom of information and the consequences for the House of exempting itself, which is what we want to reverse through amendment No. 1. If that exemption is not reversed, it will bring the consequences that I had begun to explain to the House.

I have already mentioned that MPs would be brought into disrepute and the allegation that we would be seen as hypocritical, but there are other consequences. In the House, we are keen to ensure that public authorities take freedom of information legislation seriously. I am sure that many Members have used the legislation to make inquiries, whether of the Environment Agency, local councils or whatever. We expect those bodies to respond fully and properly. Unfortunately, it will be more difficult for us to do our job and persuade those authorities to respond fully and properly under the Act if we have exempted ourselves from it. That would send out the message, “You must do one thing, we will do something else”, which would bring the whole Freedom of Information Act into disrepute. It would fatally undermine it and could extinguish the candle flame that was lit not long ago. The Bill has enormous ramifications that go way beyond the narrow terms of MPs’ expenses—important though they may be in their own small way.

By reversing the assumption that the House of Commons and the House of Lords would be exempt from freedom of information legislation, amendment No. 1 would address a further consequence of the measure, to which I referred in an intervention, and which relates to the Information Commissioner. The commissioner was appointed under the Freedom of Information Act and he is doing a rather good job, although he has insufficient resources to deal with all the matters brought before him. He has given careful consideration to MPs’ expenses, covered in amendment No. 9, and to the general position of the House of Commons, covered in amendment No. 1. My application, to which I shall refer shortly, was a test case so it was given close scrutiny by the Information Commissioner. It then received close scrutiny from the information tribunal, which looked at all the arguments, including those we have heard from the hon. Member for Walsall, North and my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey today. The tribunal considered carefully the relationship between data protection and freedom of information. However, if we rejected amendments Nos. 1 and 9, we would be saying that the person appointed under the Freedom of Information Act and the information tribunal—the properly established body set up to assess appeals—can be overridden by a Back-Bench Bill that had no time on Second Reading, spent only one hour in Committee and is now being dealt with on a Friday morning, not in Government time.

To override the commissioner and the tribunal discredits them in the eyes of the public; they would be unable to do their job properly. Their writ would be overridden if they could be knocked aside by Members of Parliament in this faulty process. I do not think that we really want
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to undermine the Information Commissioner or the information tribunal, but that will be the consequence if the Bill is not amended by amendments Nos. 1 and 9, tabled by my hon. Friend and me and Members on both sides of the House. It is worth pointing out that the amendments are supported not merely by two Liberal Democrat Members, but by a Conservative Member, a Labour Member and a Plaid Cymru Member.

Mr. Winnick: If the amendments were not passed and the measure became law, what would be the position if the devolved Administrations decided that they, too, wanted to be exempt? What justification would we, the sovereign Parliament, have to say no, if they wanted the same exemptions as the House of Commons?

Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely pertinent and valid point. The Bill has the potential to unravel freedom of information provisions throughout the public sector and throughout the country. There is no question but that Members of the Scottish Parliament have accepted, perhaps reluctantly in some cases, the need to be open about their travel expenses—the sort of thing we are discussing in relation to amendment No. 9—and have taken some flak for their openness. They have a more open system than we do, as have Members of the Welsh Assembly and Members of the European Parliament, members of local councils and the London assembly and so on.

We are the cornerstone of democracy in this country—the keystone of the bridge—so if we suddenly say that we are getting rid of provisions on openness, what will be the consequences in other Administrations? The Scottish Parliament, which makes its own laws on such matters, could decide to forget the provisions, too. It could say, “The House of Commons has got rid of the requirement to include itself in the legislation and to publish Members’ expenses, so that gives us cover to revise our scheme, too.” The Welsh Assembly could do likewise, and before we know where we are the Freedom of Information Act will be wrecked, which would be a tragedy for this country. We are finally emerging from years of secrecy, but the Bill is a major threat to that process. It may be a small measure in itself but it opens up a huge hole in that important legislation, which is, above all, why it must be rejected. That is why amendment No. 1 is the most important one on the Order Paper and why we should vote for it.

Simon Hughes: Has my hon. Friend seen the article in The Scotsman of 8 March, headed “Welcome to secret Scotland”, which stated:

The culture of a completely open system in all public authorities has not yet been won; there are still areas of significant—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I do not think that what is happening in the Scottish Parliament is relevant to this debate.

Norman Baker: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, although to be fair to my colleague it will
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become relevant if the Bill is passed, because the measure will set an example that we do not want replicated. That is the point of making connections between this place and elsewhere.

Amendment No. 1 is the important one, so if it were to be lost amendment No. 9 would, for me, be only second-best. However, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North pointed out, it would ensure that, whatever else happened, information relating to MPs’ expenses and other financial matters would not be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act as the Bill would provide. We want to ensure that that does not occur.

Reference has been made to a letter from Mr. Speaker, which was read out by the hon. Member for Walsall, North. I will not repeat it now. Of course, I have no doubt whatever that Mr. Speaker’s intentions are entirely as set out. How could I dare to suggest anything else? I have no reason whatever to think that. I make that as abundantly clear as I can. However, with respect, Speakers come and go. Cultures change. If something is not written down in law, there is no guarantee that a convention—that is what it would be—would survive.

Let us say that the culture against freedom of information increases, as it will if the Bill is passed, and freedom of information becomes seen—wrongly in my view—as not important, as expensive and as something that the country cannot afford in all sorts of ways. Let us say that that argument starts to triumph. Can we really say, hand on heart, that whatever the circumstances, the House of Commons will stick by a convention to publish MPs’ expenses? Or will that be subject to some pressure at some future date for reasons that are indeterminate now, but that may well exist later?

A convention is not a sensible way of proceeding. A sensible way of proceeding is to ensure, for the protection of all Members of the House, that the requirement to publish information is there in legislation and cannot easily be undone. That gives us protection. I am afraid that, if that requirement is removed from legislation, it will lead to more questions about the behaviour and conduct of Members of Parliament. Individual Members of Parliament who have nothing to hide and are happy to have their information published will find themselves subject to scurrilous mutterings because information has been kept secret. I do not want that to happen. I want the House to be held in high regard, and the way to ensure that that happens as far as this matter is concerned is to ensure that MPs’ expenses are not exempted from the Freedom of Information Act as a consequence of the Bill. Amendment No. 9 seeks to address that.

Let us think what would be exempt. The allowance scheme, as we know, publishes information relating to the cost of staying away from the main home. It is perfectly proper that we should have the opportunity to have an alternative base, whether it is in London or the constituency, to carry out our jobs. No one is suggesting that that should not be the case, but we are talking about public money. Why should that information not be out in the open, as a matter of right, under freedom of information legislation, rather than as a matter of convention because MPs temporarily agree that it should be there?

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We are responsible for public money. We are guardians of the public purse. The fact that we have the right to write blank cheques to some degree, either as individual Members within the overall limit or in the House when we are making expenditure decisions about the House itself, is no reason to say that that information should be exempt—in fact, quite the reverse. We need the biggest safeguards when people are given the power to spend someone else’s money. However, we are told that that area would be removed from the legislation and that there would be only convention to protect it. In amendment No. 9, we seek to ensure that that cannot happen.

We also have the office staffing costs. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, I make it plain that some of the scare stories about the amendments and the approach that I and others are taking are simply without basis. There should be no suggestion that we are talking about something that is entirely open-ended and that will roll out like a ball of string. Nobody is suggesting that individual members of staff should have their salaries put in the public domain. No one is suggesting that if someone buys a kettle for their London residence, which is quite properly claimable under the London allowance—the additional cost allowance—that should be put in the public domain. The scare stories that suggest that we are going down that road are simply unfounded.

11.15 am

People can have confidence in that because of the information tribunal judgment. That judgment carefully balanced the rights of MPs to privacy in personal matters, which I fully accept, with the obligation to be seen to be accountable for the expenditure of public money. That balance would be destroyed by the Bill. We seek to undo that damage in the amendments, and particularly in amendments Nos. 1 and 9.

The issue of Members’ travel is germane to amendment No. 9. It is worth reflecting on how it long took to get the tribunal decision. I will make this point directly relevant to amendment No. 9, Madam Deputy Speaker, before you have any qualms on the matter or any doubts in your mind. The hon. Member for Walsall, North was quite right to say that the House of Commons as a body corporate was not asked about the matter. He was not asked to comment on the matter. Those who represent us on the House of Commons Commission took it upon themselves, apparently unanimously, to resist what I think the hon. Gentleman referred to as a modest request—he might have used the adjective “unremarkable” or another word of that nature. They took it upon themselves to fight that request every inch of the way.

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