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Mr. Winnick: If the Bill becomes law, will not the interpretation inevitably be that the House of Commons, having fought strenuously to ensure that travel arrangements and expenses were not disclosed and having lost the case, quickly came back here and changed the law? It
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will look as though we could not justify our decision before the information tribunal, so we are changing the law for our own benefit.

Norman Baker: That point is succinctly put and an entirely accurate representation of what will be said. Indeed, it is already being said by the public at large. Some MPs do not seem to listen to the public, but that is what they are saying. They are saying that MPs do not accept the independent judgment of a tribunal and are seeking to rewrite the law in a way that favours us. That is a terrible thing to be said about this House.

Mr. Shepherd: It happens because of the authority or power of these Houses to respond almost instantaneously should they want to change the circumstances, as is happening in this instance. It therefore behoves us to be extraordinarily cautious about bringing forward amendments to an Act, just like that. No other group or part of the United Kingdom can do that.

Norman Baker: That is exactly right. I am afraid that should amendments Nos. 9 and 1 not be accepted, the proposal would appear to the public to be self-serving in its consequences, as indeed it is.

Simon Hughes: We are not just talking about the public now. I do not know whether the hon. Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) saw the comment item in yesterday’s edition of The Times entitled “What do MPs think they’ve got to hide” or the article in The Sunday Times on 11 March entitled “Official secrecy is back on the rise”, but people are beginning to notice that freedom of information is not all that it was said to be or hoped to be.

Norman Baker: That is exactly right. Will the Government consider supporting amendments Nos. 9 and 1? They have said that they are neutral on the Bill, so presumably they will say that they are neutral on those amendments. But they cannot be neutral on these matters should they wish to retain the integrity of their own legislation—the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Amendment No. 9 seeks only to ensure that what they included in their own Act is kept. How can they be neutral on a matter that they have introduced and that our amendment seeks to retain in legislation? Are they neutral about their own legislation these days? Does it not matter if particular proposals that they have enacted are wiped away by private Members’ Bills?

If that is to be the test, let us have a few more private Members’ Bills on which the Government can be neutral. I look forward to introducing a raft of them and seeing whether the Government are neutral on them—I suspect that I might get a different response. We need to hear the Government’s view on amendments Nos. 9 and 1. We need to know who in Government took the decision not to oppose this Bill on Second Reading and to allow their own legislation to be watered down in this way.

Mr. Winnick: Just as the decision to go to the information tribunal was taken without consulting the House of Commons as a whole, may I tell the hon. Gentleman that I am unaware of the parliamentary
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Labour party being consulted by the Government in about whether they should take a neutral line? Perhaps he will bear that point in mind too.

Norman Baker: I am grateful for that intervention. For the avoidance of any doubt, I should say that I, for one, am happy to accept that there are MPs in all parts of this House who are committed to freedom of information. I hope that they will be supporting us today when amendments Nos. 9 and 1 come to a vote. There are too many doughty supporters of freedom of information on the Labour Benches to mention, although I should say that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher), who has added his name to our amendments, is clearly one. There are supporters on the Conservative Benches and on the nationalist Benches who understand the constitutional importance of freedom of information, and they will be supporting those amendments. That is not the issue; the issue is why the Government have not sought to stop this Bill at an earlier point and why they have undermined their own legislation.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Member for Walsall, North rightly talked about his own party. I raised this matter with my parliamentary colleagues, although Liberal Democrat Members are not being whipped because that would be wrong on a Friday. At our meeting, none of my colleagues expressed support for the Bill as it stands. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) also has clear reservations about it, even though he is a member of the House of Commons Commission.

Norman Baker: May I refer to the tribunal judgment again and move on to a different point, Madam Deputy Speaker? This has been quoted in the helpful research paper on the Bill produced by the Library.

11.45 am

I know that we shall have a discussion on the second group of amendments on correspondence, and I shall not go into that now. I hope that my citing that quote has demonstrated that the relationship between the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act is relevant to Members’ allowances, which are connected to the first group of amendments.

Like anybody else, Members of Parliament have protections as well as obligations under the Data
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Protection Act. There is no suggestion that asking for further information about MPs’ expenses will take us down some sort of endless route into the minutiae of our lives. Such a scenario simply will not happen. Should any Member be concerned that that is the likely consequence of the Freedom of Information Act, I am happy to say that they are wrong, because the information tribunal has applied a careful test to assess on the one hand the rights of MPs to privacy, which we all want respected, and, on the other, MPs’ obligation to be open and accountable. That balancing act must be examined.

There is no dispute that those two Acts act in concert in a way that affects the issue of MPs’ expenses. Quite a subtle relationship is involved. The tribunal has gone into this in some detail in a way that has not been done before. Unless amendment No 9 is accepted, there is the danger of the Bill seeking to overturn that. This is not an open-ended commitment to reveal every single piece of information about a Member of Parliament, because we also have the right to privacy in our own personal matters—they should not be revealed, and nor will they be. Like everybody else in the country, we are covered by the Data Protection Act. Everybody else is protected, so the argument necessarily flows that the same rules should apply to us in terms of protection and in terms of disclosure when it comes to being responsible for public funds and being in a public authority.

I have talked about amendment No. 9, so I shall now refer briefly to amendment No. 1 and the consequences for the House of Commons. It has been plain to me, although other hon. Members may not share this view, that money has not always been well spent in the House of Commons. We found—usually by leaks, well directed parliamentary questions, suggestions or conversations—for example, that the building of Portcullis House went over budget, that there were problems with the contract, that some features did not work, that there was Weil’s disease in the water features in the centre and so on.

Such information is important, because it demonstrates how we are spending public money on a prestigious building. It also shows whether MPs are capable of spending money well in the organisation of these big projects, and whether they are capable of taking good decisions, of awarding contracts and of dealing with all the other paraphernalia that goes with such a large building. What emerged from that exercise demonstrated that there are question marks about how we organise ourselves in those regards.

The Bill will exempt the House of Commons and House of Lords from the Freedom of Information Act unless amendment No. 1 is accepted, so how would we be guaranteed that such information would appear in future? Would we be able to guarantee that when money is wasted—for example the £422,000 spent on the ludicrous covered walkway downstairs—the information will become public? Would there be any guarantee that when we are writing blank cheques on behalf of the electorate to benefit ourselves, it will be money well spent? The only guarantee of money being well spent is that people are able find out about things and question the expenditure of that money.

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Members may say that some of that information can emerge through parliamentary questions, which is true. What happens, however, if the House of Commons and the House of Lords are exempted from the Freedom of Information Act and someone has the bright idea of arguing, “The exemption means that we are not obliged to answer parliamentary questions with the same degree of honesty and openness as we have hitherto shown? The House has concluded that this matter should not be in the public domain because it will put MPs in a position where they have to defend themselves and answer questions about expenditure, so it is not appropriate to give the same full answers to parliamentary questions as have previously been given.”? That could be a legitimate argument advanced by someone at a not-too-distant point in the future. Exempting the House of Commons and House of Lords could undermine the system of parliamentary questions.

Exemptions from legislation for the House of Commons and the House of Lords do not have a good track record. You may remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, when we were exempt from regulations relating to food safety and health and safety because of the status of this place as a royal palace. The consequence of that, which I remember from my time as a researcher here, was that the quality of the food was appalling—there was actually a poisoning in the House of Lords. It took that sort of incident to persuade either the Government of the day or the House of Commons Commission—I am not sure which—to conclude that the exemption of Parliament from that legislation made no sense and was unhelpful to Members in the discharge of their duties. Similarly, I argue that the exemption of the House of Commons from freedom of information legislation will be unhelpful to us in the discharge of our parliamentary duties.

Some MPs no doubt think that they will gain if the Bill is passed, because they will not have to answer one or two difficult questions, but that is only a short-term gain. They will in the long-term be building up huge problems for the accountability of the House, the reputation of MPs, and the proper discharge of public functions and expenditure of public money. We know from the experience of the operation of freedom of information legislation in this country and others that keeping public authorities and public bodies working well requires the ability to find out information about those bodies through FOI requests and other means. The public, MPs and the media have to be able to pose questions to public authorities. When information comes out that is questionable or embarrassing, a self-corrective mechanism comes into play, which eliminates bad practice, incompetence or worse in a public authority.

In his evidence to the tribunal, Mr. Walker said that the publication of MPs’ travel expenses had acted to exert downward pressure on those expenses. He said that

In the same way—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman and one or two other hon. Members have made that point very well. Perhaps there are other points that the hon. Gentleman would like to make.

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Norman Baker: I am happy to do that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I merely make the point that openness leads to good government, and if we accept the Bill unamended, government will be worse as a consequence.

Simon Hughes: I do not know whether my hon. Friend was going on to the point that it appears that the proposal is not widely supported in government and that, judging by leaked correspondence, our amendments appear to have support from the Lord Chancellor and other Ministers. If members of the Government want the Bill to be amended as we suggest, surely that is another very strong argument against its making progress in its present form?

Norman Baker: It is indeed. I hope that, as a consequence of our debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), will make a statement in which she makes plain the Government’s position. I challenge her to give us her view on amendment No. 9 and, in particular, amendment No. 1. Does she, on behalf of the Government, want to defend the legislation that they introduced, or does she want to aid the pulling of the rug from under the Freedom of Information Act? Does she stand with the Lord Chancellor in resisting the watering down of the Act, or with less progressive elements in the Home Office, who are happy to see the Act weakened?

How does the Bill fit with the proposed fee changes? I know that you will not let me go into that in detail, Madam Deputy Speaker, but those changes are relevant in one respect, which is that we need to know whether there is a Government position on the Bill and on the amendments and that would be clearer if we knew why the Government did not to object to the Bill’s Second Reading and why they have introduced the new charging scheme under their own legislation. We need a statement from the Government—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that at the appropriate time the Minister will make the points that she wishes to make.

Norman Baker: I am sure that the hon. Lady will make the points that she wishes to make. I was encouraging her to make the points that she might not wish to make, but that she ought to make.

The Bill, if it is enacted in its present form, will do immense damage to the reputation of Parliament, will make MPs in the public eye appear hypocritical, will undermine the gains made in freedom of information, and will cause the spread once again of a culture of secrecy through the devolved Administrations, local councils and the public sector generally. We stand in danger of extinguishing the flame of freedom of information, which is flickering dangerously and is fragile in this country. That is why it is important that we have a statement from the Government. It is why the House should accept amendment No. 9, which would ensure that we do not appear hypocritical in relation to disclosure of MPs’ expenses. Most important of all, it is why we should accept amendment No. 1 and not exempt the House of Commons and House of Lords from the provisions of the legislation.

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I hope that the promoter of the Bill will consider carefully the amendments, which stand in the names of hon. Members on both sides of the House. If there is a genuine problem in respect of MPs’ correspondence I hope that he will raise it when we debate the next group of amendments, but if he and others cannot justify exempting the House of Commons and the House of Lords from the Freedom of Information Act, or exempting MPs expenses and other expenditure of the House from the Act’s provisions, the only logical course of action for hon. Members will be to vote for amendments Nos. 9 and 1.

Mr. Shepherd: I rise somewhat reluctantly at this juncture as a supporter of amendments Nos. 9 and 1, which stand in the names of hon. Friends on both sides of the House and for which the case has been made extraordinarily powerfully. I hung back in the hope that I would hear what were the promoter of the Bill’s objections to the substance of the amendments, and would therefore be up to responding adequately on behalf of we who support the amendments.

There is a difficulty because the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is an important Act, which the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) would amend, and which we, in turn, hope to improve by the amendments that we have proposed. The 2000 Act was a flagship Act of the new Labour Administration—one in which they proclaimed their pride. I supported the dream that we would one day have such legislation, although the Act did not go far enough for my taste. However, the House made a judgment. All the matters included in the Bill now before us, to which our amendments are directed, were given reflection and consideration—indeed, I was a member of the Public Administration Committee that gave pre-legislative scrutiny to the original Bill.

One of the ringing absences from the debate on the Bill, both wider and in relation to the amendments that we propose, is the absence of a comment from the Government. The Government acceded to the inclusion of public authorities in the 2000 Act. The 18- line Bill—in substance, it is 18 lines long—before the House today contains one huge contention: the exemption of the House of Commons and House of Lords as a public authority. That is a huge concept, when one thinks of what a public authority is. Amendment No. 1 hopes to strike out the removal of the Commons and the Lords as public authorities. Anyone considering the structures of Government and the constitution of the country who was asked to name a public authority would name the House of Commons or Parliament. It is the pre-emptive public authority, and it rests on the consent of the people.

12 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): The hon. Gentleman’s remarks prompt the question: if the House of Commons and the House of Lords are not public authorities, what are they?

Mr. Shepherd: I always treat with diffidence the advice of my friend from Cambridge, who has a legal background. I have no doubt that there are a score of lawyers, even as we speak, working on either an
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exemption or a definition of public authority in respect of the House of Commons, depending on which is needed. Of course, the Bill is trying to limit that definition in one particular respect, but I do not want us to lose sight of what our amendments are trying to do to the Bill.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman may not remember, but in the schedule of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that lists public authorities, the House of Commons and the House of Lords are second and third in the list. There are pages and pages of authorities, but “any government department” is the first mentioned, the House of Commons is the second and the House of Lords is the third, so in terms of importance and centrality, we could not be higher up the list.

Mr. Shepherd: I am always obliged to have a point that I am making reinforced, even at length. What the hon. Gentleman says is the truth of the matter. Everyone in this country would say that the House of Commons or the House of Lords was the pre-eminent public authority. My point about the Government’s silence on that matter is that surely they, who included the Lords and the Commons in the 2000 Act, would be the greatest advocates for maintaining the integrity of the inclusion of those bodies.

We are given to understand that the Leader of the House thinks that the Bill is valuable, or should be debated, and that is commendable. It is right that it should be debated if the subject is causing anxiety to my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border and those who support his Bill, but it was also possible for the Leader of the House to say, when the Bill was being debated, “We stand by the integrity of the 2000 Act as it was drafted.” It is not that Ministers are not well advised; they know perfectly well how the Bill is constructed and the relationship of its ingredients. We are saying that we should retain the House of Commons as a public authority, and that strikes at the very heart of the private Member’s Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend.

I have listened with great interest, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the exchanges on what is and what is not in order in a discussion on the Bill, but there is a serious difficulty to consider. The removal or continuation of public authority status has consequential effects that touch on the only other subject that the Bill mentions: communications with members of the House of Commons. The two issues are intimately related. Of course, communications is only one of the many instances of areas in which there would be consequential effects, but it is the one that is specified in the Bill. When considering the removal of the Commons as a public authority, we are therefore considering what that means for a wider range of interests, and for our work, doings and proceedings—not proceedings; I rapidly withdraw that, on the ground that I understand a little bit about privilege.

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