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We also found out at the tribunal hearing that every other request for information about Members of Parliament has been, and is being, fought every inch of the way. Those involved will go no further. They will not assess applications for the release of information on their merits, as they are required to do under the Freedom of Information Act. Instead, they have a blanket policy of refusing any request whatsoever for information about MPscontrary to the law as it stands. Not only are they willing to resist the law as it
stands, they want to rewrite the law to make their position legal and to discount the one that is included in legislation at present.
The sequence of events in relation to travel expensesinformation on those expenses must continue to be open on a statutory basis, which is what amendment No. 9 is aboutis that the written request was made by me on 20 January 2005. I made the modest request for a
breakdown of the already published aggregate figures for travel claims for MPs in the most recent year for which they are available.
You know, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you are a Member of Parliament, as I am, that we already had those figures given to us. We already had a breakdown, by mode of transportby car, taxi, air, rail and even bicyclegiven to us privately. However, the House of Commons Commission, on our behalf, arguedI suspect that the same thought process is behind the Billthat that information could not be given out publicly. Why not? What was so remarkable about it that it had to be protected? It was merely that request that generated this long, expensive battle by the House of Commons Commission, in our name.
The request was rejected in the initial response that I received. I sought a review on 25 February 2005. The original decision was confirmed on 24 March 2005. I complained to the commissioner on 6 April 2005. Following correspondence between the commissioner and the House, the commissioner issued a preliminary decision notice on 24 January 2006, followed by a final decision notice on 22 February
Norman Baker: I regard myself as deeply chastened, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I had hoped that I was doing that. If I failed to do so, I can only apologise for that oversight and re-examine my skills. I was seeking to relate my points directly to amendment No. 9. I will try even harder, having heard your strictures.
The point that I am makingI will try to make it succinctlyis that, every inch of the way, at every opportunity, the House of Commons has shown itself unwilling to release information, no matter how modest and unremarkable, and has used every single trick in the book to resist doing so, including not being very open about things. That is entirely germane to this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey asked me earlier how much has been spent resisting the claims. It is approaching £20,000 of public money. That might not seem like very much, but it was inappropriate to use public money to resist answering a question that was framed in such a modest way.
Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it appears that the three main parties, including his, were involved in the matter going to a tribunal? If, for example, his partyclearly not himwas really against the proposal on travel expenses any more than
the Labour or Conservative parties, it would have been extremely unlikely that the matter would have got as far as a tribunal.
Norman Baker: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, although I do not want to go into the make-up of the House of Commons Commission. I listened to his sensible speech with interest and I endorsed it. I am not here to make party political points because the issue is much too serious for that. This is about the reputation of the whole House of Commons, not individual Members.
Simon Hughes: Let me deal with the intervention made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I have held conversations with colleagues who were involved in the process. The House of Commons Commission is made up of Mr. Speaker, as Chairman, the Leader of the House, a Member nominated by the Leader of the Opposition and three Members appointed by the House. I have talked to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) about the matter and I understand that the Commission was advised that it would be wise to test the existing law so that the current position could be determined. Todays debate is timely because in the light of the decision, we now clearly know the current position.
The tribunals decision is key to this matter. It was reached following an analysis of three things: the Freedom of Information Act 2000; the Data Protection Act 1998; and the possible impact of the request for information. By carrying out that analysis and giving the matter due consideration, it provided an answer on what the appropriate scheme for the House of Commons would be. However, the tribunals decision would be overturned by this private Members Bill. We have had two detailed considerations of the way in which the House of Commons and House of Lords should be treated under freedom of information legislation, and they are in line with what the situation would be if amendment No. 1 were accepted.
The two Houses should be consistently regarded as public authorities under the legislation and subject to the same requirements as other public authorities. That was the view that was carefully reached by the 1998 Select Committee to which I briefly referred, and it is also the view of the Information Commissioner. If hon. Members want a third opinion, it is also the position of the information tribunal. All three have examined the matter carefully and concluded that the House of Commons and House of Lords should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The only argument against that conclusion is this Bill, which was not defended on Second Reading and received minimal scrutiny in Committee. If we were to pass the Bill without the benefits of amendments Nos. 9 or 1, we would be overturning the considered judgment of people in senior positions whom we have asked to consider the matter. With due respect to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, we would be replacing that judgment with the opinion of someone who has not been asked to consider the
matter yet has brought forward a Bill that is half-baked at best and something that I regard as dangerous.
Over 100 of these types of inquiry had been made by the end of 2006
to the House authorities. All those inquiries had been refused on the grounds of the data protection exemption in section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Until my hon. Friends case had been dealt with, 100 people had been told that they could not get information, but they are now told that they are entitled to much of it, given the tribunals decision.
Norman Baker: That is exactly right. The situation shows the endemic nature of secrecy in the House of Commons Commission and demonstrates why people will have no confidence in a voluntary scheme or a convention that says that the processing and publication of information will continue. By the way, it is not clear whether the Members Estimate Committee has promised to publish the information that was produced before the judgment on travel expenses, or information detailing MPs expenses that includes travel expenses. It would be useful if someone explained today whether the conventionI am not sure that it is worth the paper that it is written onis meant to take account of the judgment of the Information Commissioner, or whether it represents an attempt to undo that judgment and revert to the position that was previously applicable.
Let me refer to the evidence given on behalf of the House of Commons by Andrew John Walker, the House of Commons Director of Finance and Administration, at the tribunal hearing on MPs expenses. It is worth noting that no one from the House of Commons Commission dared to show their face at the tribunal and left it to an Officer of the House to defend the indefensible. Paragraph 25 of the document produced by the information tribunal states:
Mr Walker accepted that it was the duty of every MP to use public money carefully. Part of the objective of the annual verification exercise was to draw MPs attention to the details of travel expenditure so they could understand how they were using allowances and if appropriate review their modes of travel in the light of this duty.
There was thus an acceptance by Mr. Walker, on behalf of the House of Commons, that the publication of information to MPs, whether publicly or privately, in the form of a breakdown of their modes of travel, would be useful for the reasons that he outlined. In other words, he made my case for me.
The publication of information is a good thing because it improves awareness, holds MPs accountablenot least of all to themselvesand helps to drive down costs. The publication of information on travel in Scotland has driven down the cost of travel claims. I predict that when next years details of Members travel expenditure are publishedunless that process is stoppedthey will show a downward drive in travel expenses. The production of information is good for the use of public money, as well as being the right moral and philosophical thing to do.
To be fair to Mr. Walker, I think that he put forward the best case that he could for the House of Commons.
However, although he argues that it is appropriate for MPs to review their modes of travel, greater pressure comes when people outside the House ask MPs about their travel. One of the interesting consequences of the publication of MPs travel expenses a couple of months ago was that neighbouring MPs were shown to have made wildly different claims. Their constituents properly asked them why their claim was three times as much as their neighbours, or why they were travelling by air when their neighbour was travelling by rail.
We should be held accountable for our decisions because our travel uses public money and has an environmental impact, which was one of the reasons why I made the application in the first place. At a time at which we are all worried about climate change, our constituents have a right to know whether our decisions show that we are walking the walk rather than just talking the talk. The publication of Members expenses, which would be guaranteed if amendment No. 9 were accepted, is key to that. If amendment No. 9 is not accepted, the progress that we have made on driving down costs, encouraging people to make environmentally friendly choices and being accountable to publicthat counts for somethingwill be wiped away as if it had never existed and we will return to the dark days. I do not think that that would be appropriate, which is why amendment No. 9 is important.
no evidence that MPs would or might be caused justified distress or damage if the disputed information were to be disclosed. No specific potential harmful consequences have been identified...nor
is there any evidence of a specific refusal by MPs generally or by any individual MPs to permit the disclosure of this information.
there had been a reduction in overall expenditure on MPs travel since the publication of the annual aggregate travel figure.
So there we have it in black and white from the House of Commons own officer: the publication of figures drives down the cost. Yet we have here an attempt to exempt the House of Commons and the House of Lords from publishing MPs expenses, except on the basis of a convention that could be overturned at the flick of a switch. That is why it is important to ensure that the measure is written into law, rather than written out of it by the Bill. Amendment No. 9 seeks to ensure that it is not written out.
The Scottish scheme has been mentioned, and it is worth pointing out in passing that the Scottish scheme allows far more disclosure of information in respect of
MPs travel than does the present scheme, even after the information tribunal judgment. Those MPs who suggest that the present travel expenses declaration goes too far fail to appreciate that it does not go nearly as far as the Scottish system. That is a very Westminster-centric view, which fails to take account of what is happening in other Assemblies following devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It also fails to take account of how the public at large view matters, which is entirely different from the view of those who drafted the Bill.
Simon Hughes: Just so that we are clear: my hon. Friend is completely right to say that the Scots go further. For example, MSPs have to declare the destination of a taxi journey. However, the Welsh and the Northern Irish appear entirely content with the position that we have at the moment, which we on these Benches and elsewhere are trying to defend.
There are other benefits from the publication of details of the Members travel scheme. I have been able to go to my constituents and point out that I am one of the few MPs in my part of the world who has claimed more for rail travel than for a car, and nothing for air travel. That is important to my personal philosophy. A number of MPs have come up to congratulate me on the publication of the figures, saying that they have managed to release information that is very helpful to them, demonstrating their accountability to the public and the fact that they are spending wisely. Far from MPs as a whole resenting the publication of the figures, which may be concluded from reading some of the press, many, in all parts of the House, have welcomed it. The fact that the press have concluded that MPs did not want the measure brings us into disrepute again and lowers the opinion that people out there have of us. That lowered opinion can be reinforced only if the Bill is passed without amendments Nos. 9 and 1, which seek to repair some of the damage that has been done.
It is important at this point that MPs who believe in accountability and freedom of information stand up and say so now, if they are here, and more widely in their discussions with constituents and the local media. They should take the opportunity, when discussing the Governments proposed changes, to say, No, we will not weaken the Act. We need it to remain as strong as it is; indeed, we need to strengthen it. This is a key moment. What happens with the Bill and the amendments, particularly Nos. 9 and 1, will be key to determining whether the House of Commons is serious about freedom of information; whether it has moved into the 20th century, let alone the 21st century, in how it addresses these matters; whether it accepts that democracy and the House of Commons are better served by openness and accountability; or whether we are going to return to the dark days, when discussions took place in smoke-filled, or perhaps smokeless, rooms, when cheques were written without anybody knowing and when MPs were largely unaccountable to their constituents. Surely we do not want to go back to those days. That would be the consequence of not agreeing to amendments Nos. 9 and 1.
Simon Hughes: I am very keen that we do not neglect any of the arguments that were put in my hon. Friends tribunal case. He was there and I was not, but I see from the report that two of the other arguments for amendments Nos. 9 and 1 are that they would allow the public to be more aware of the environmental or green choices made by MPs, as demonstrated by their mode of travel, and that the public would be aware of MPs choices of mode of travel, in light of their involvement in debating and legislating on transport and environmental matters. People could see whether what we said we wanted for other people was what we were doing ourselves.
Norman Baker: Exactly so. We in the House have an obligation to be seen to be leading the debate. I hope that we do so on a whole range of issues, but we should certainly do so on questions of financial probity, democratic accountability and environmental responsibility. Those three elements are key, and we hit those targets with the publication of MPs expenses in an open scheme. That scheme may cause difficulties for individuals in the House; for example, I might be asked why, if I am so concerned about the environment, I have claimed nothing for bicycle travel. We all get asked questions about our individual returns, but so we should. We are accountable. We are not running this place without reference to what happens outside it.
We are here because we are the servants of the people who put us here on a temporary basis to represent their interests, not ours. It is not in their interests for secrecy to prevail; it is not in their interests for cheques to be written without knowledge of who and how much they are for; it is not in their interests for us to carry on behind closed doors, in our own safe world, with our own rules, without reference to the outside world. However, if this Bill is passed without amendments Nos. 9 and 1 in particular, that is the message that will be sent out from the House today. That message must be resisted.
Having considered all these interests we find that the legitimate interests of members of the public outweigh the prejudice to the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of MPs. We consider our decision will only result in a very limited invasion of an MPs privacy considered in the context of their public role and the spending of public money. In coming to this decision we have noted that the Scottish Parliament has for some years disclosed the detailed travel claims of MSPs supporting mileage, air travel, car hire and taxis. Also we note that in the Scottish Information Commissioners Decision 033/2005 in Paul Hutcheon, The Sunday Herald and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) the Scottish Commissioner went further and ordered the release of the destination points of taxi journeys of an MSP.
A proper consideration has been given, balancing the valid data protection issues of which MPs should be cognisant with the right to have information published which holds MPs accountable for the expenditure of public money. That balance is an important one.
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