Previous Section Index Home Page

Hon. Members have said, appropriately, that the 2000 Act that the Bill seeks to amend, and which we in turn seek to amend—I hope that I have got the rubric right—is a trust with the people, in which we say that
20 Apr 2007 : Column 588
no institution or public authority is so grand that it is exempted. It is a curiosity that the House of Commons Commission decided to pursue a case without seeking any advice from Members on whether that was truly appropriate. I was unaware of that at the time; I am slow in these matters. In fact, no consultation has taken place, but the Government had previously ensured great consultation on the 2000 Act, and had received many observations. This is a valuable opportunity to look at some of the responses from. Members of this House.

I am mindful that the concept of “public authority” applies to almost everything that is important in our public processes and public life. As always, I am extraordinarily grateful to the Campaign for Freedom of Information for its diligence and pursuance of argument and reason. It lists, in a useful note, some of the public authorities that now give information that seems to trouble some Members. I am thinking of the expenses of chief constables and one of the areas in which I have had particular difficulty, local authorities. All people sometimes have a natural reluctance to explain what they think is sensitive information. That may be an innate human response, but the truth is that it is, as often as not, the people’s money that is being spent, and I maintain that they have an absolute right—I go too far, because nothing in life is absolute, except death. [Hon. Members: “And taxes.”] I have listened to my hon. Friends on the Public Accounts Committee, and they assure me that taxes are not absolute. That a touch of the golden days should arise is startling. The matter is as near to a certainty as possible; I put it that way. We are talking about a trust in the purpose of our construction of democratic government.

How do we know, without access to information, the appropriateness of every detail of the running of our Administrations? It is like shining a torch into a dark place—that is all that it is about—so that the public may judge whether such things are appropriate. We are all traduced—it is the fate of Members of Parliament to be caricatured, to be told that they are ineffective, to be this, that and the other—but that is the nature of our times and was probably always the nature of the times of this nation. We must be resolute in understanding that if we have a claim, whatever its nature, on the public purse that, just like the chief constable of the Thames Valley police, just like the chief executive of a local authority and just like public services in the national health service, our salaries, expenses and so on are a matter of legitimate concern or interest. It is not just being nosy, as we should be able to judge the effectiveness, the character and the honour of those who purport to spend public money in the interest of the public.

I have discussed the expenses of public authorities, including the police. There are exclusions, but how far, for instance, do expenses go? What detail is required of Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, in the period April to July 2005? On 9 May 2005, he had a business meal at a restaurant in London that cost £44.16.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Not much of a meal.

20 Apr 2007 : Column 589

Mr. Shepherd: I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend thinks that it is not much of a meal. I am pleased that in those terms the commissioner is a diligent steward of public funds. He gave a floral tribute that cost £20. That is trivial, but it is reassuring that we can scrutinise those records. It is not my intention to delay or push on, but that is why it is important that in the absence of the Bill failing—and should it somehow squeak its way through—that our amendments succeed, even though it is a Friday and it is true that right hon. and hon. Members have many commitments in life.

There are benefits, too, that the Campaign for Freedom of Information highlighted in the briefing that it sent out, including the argument that the disclosure of aggregate annual figures has already led to a reduction in the overall level of Members’ travel expenses. If we want to look further, we could consider the disclosure of more detailed information about the expenses of Members of the Scottish Parliament. The briefing states:

that is what I have been trying to say. It continues:

to the briefing sent to every Member of Parliament. It continues:

I shall not go through the entire briefing, as that would extend the debate beyond the argument. I want to return, however, to the point first made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and by the hon. Members for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about the special position of the House. It has been pointed out that we are the second and third entries in the annexe to the originating Act that the Bill endeavours to amend—in turn, we are endeavouring to amend the amending measure. Our special case is that we make the law. How can it be right for us to direct that a law should apply to everyone else but, having found it inconvenient or not meeting what the Information Commissioner or one or two individual Members wanted, we should do something that no other public authority in Britain can do—change the law? That is what we are doing, but do we really think that it is quite right? Does it not look like the most extraordinary form of special pleading? Many people feel aggrieved, and I can think of a particular chief executive in the west midlands who is outraged at the fact that her salary should be made public. She thinks that it is like looking into her bank account. I can understand her concern. What if we suddenly started to say, having asked for this information to be published, “Now that I’ve found it inconvenient I think I should be exempted in some form or other”? That would be a profound corruption of public standards. I can see that my good friend from Glasgow, the right hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton, West (Mr. McAvoy), disagrees with the burden of that argument. Nevertheless, we have never liked particularisation of individuals or an individual class as against that of the public class in general.

20 Apr 2007 : Column 590
12.15 pm

Mr. Winnick: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Bill were passed into law without the amendment, it would be the most damaging blow to the reputation of Members of Parliament since the scandals of the 1990s, and that that should also be borne in mind when we come to our decision today?

Mr. Shepherd: My instinct is that it would do the House of Commons no good and add to a general feeling, which I profoundly believe to be incorrect, that we are self-serving—that we are more interested in our own well-being than in that of society at large.

Mr. Bellingham: We have had an interesting and well informed debate on the amendments, and several colleagues have spoken with great passion, including the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd).

When the Bill was debated in Committee, there was no guillotine and it was able to sit for as long as it wanted. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said there had not been a proper debate, but his hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) served on that Committee.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey spoke about the public interest in knowing what goes on in Parliament and how the money is spent. I would simply say that a huge amount of information is already made public. The House of Commons Commission publishes its report, which I looked at the other day. It is a huge, extremely complex document, and a mine of information for Members. If that is not enough, the hon. Member for North Devon, who is on the Commission, answers questions in the House, jointly with the Leader of the House. Any hon. Member can table questions, and we have business questions every week. Then we have the resource accounts for the administration estimates and the Members Estimate Committee, whereby, again, a huge amount of information is published.

To give hon. Members a chance to play a part in finding out what is going on and getting information, we have the Administration Committee, which was set up in July 2005 and is chaired by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran), with the Liberal Democrats well represented by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). Only this week, it published a very good report on improving facilities for educational visitors to Parliament. The argument that there is not enough information, and that there should be ways in which the public can get more and more of it, does not stack up.

David Howarth: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bellingham: No. I want to draw my remarks to a conclusion quite quickly because many Members have spoken and many want to speak on the next group of amendments.

20 Apr 2007 : Column 591

On the highly vexed subject of Members’ allowances, I take the view that now that those allowances have been published there is no going back on that. I take on board the point made by colleagues on both sides of the House that that is a driver for better standards. Every Member now has an eye on trying to give good value for money and is a genuine custodian of the public purse. One example is that of travel. There was a time, before these allowances were published, when Members did not go quite as far as they should have done in trying to find a super-saver ticket, off-peak travel, a travel card concession, or whatever it might be. Now, all Members do those things. Perhaps we should have done them before, but very few Members did. That is just one example.

I want to nail the point that somehow the Bill would stop those allowances—and the breakdown of travel allowances, about which the hon. Member for Lewes spoke—from being published as they are at present. When the Bill was going through Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) read out a letter from Mr. Speaker, who made it clear that the allowances had been published. Mr. Speaker wrote:

As my right hon. Friend pointed out to the Committee,

Nothing will change there.

There has been a lot of talk—

Mr. Winnick: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bellingham: I shall not.

There has been a lot of talk to the effect that the flame of progress that is spurring on the new culture of opening up information will somehow be extinguished if this modest Bill is enacted.

Mr. Winnick: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bellingham: I will not.

We strongly support the freedom of information legislation and we are appalled by Her Majesty’s Government’s attempts to curtail the release of such information. However, the Bill is very narrow. The amendments that we have debated this morning do not improve the Bill; I am not convinced that they have been well thought out. I have listened to the arguments and they are well intentioned, of course; however, Opposition Front Benchers do not feel that the amendments do anything to improve what is a very modest, small Bill.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I, too, shall be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. The amendments have had a comprehensive airing this morning. I want to
20 Apr 2007 : Column 592
reiterate what I said in Committee: the Freedom of Information Act 2000 has been a significant success. It has resulted in the release of information that is of real interest to the public. Most importantly, it has increased the transparency of public authorities. As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) has just said, so much information is now available through Government Departments and the Houses of Parliament on websites and so on that a great deal of information is available to people.

The amendments are inconsistent with the intention of the Bill, and I suspect that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), in whose name they stand, would agree. The question for the House today is whether the House authorities should be covered by the 2000 Act; that is the thrust and question behind the amendments. There are very few examples of public authorities being covered for only some of the information that they hold—those that relate to the protection of the journalistic integrity of the BBC, for example. There may be a whole new debate on that, but I do not intend to go into it today.

Seeking to alter the scope of the 2000 Act to cover only certain types of information, such as Members’ expenditure, for example, would risk confusion within the organisations that have to administer and regulate compliance with the Act. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk read out some of the letter that Mr. Speaker wrote to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean); as it stated, the authorities of the House are already very open and already publish information on Members’ expenses. The right hon. Gentleman read that letter out in Committee and I am sure that he will want today to repeat the commitment given by Mr. Speaker on that issue and say that the House would continue to publish information on expenses if the Bill were enacted.

Mr. Winnick: Will the Minister give way?

Bridget Prentice: I should like to finish my comment. I cannot add to what the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said about the driving-up of standards; I believe that that has absolutely been the case. In Committee, several hon. Members made telling points, including the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), about Members’ ability to represent their constituents properly through correspondence and other means. We will deal with that shortly.

The amendments are inconsistent with the Bill’s intentions and it is therefore up to hon. Members to decide whether they wish the Act to continue to cover the House authorities. I leave it to the House to make that decision because it is a matter for this House.

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): The debate has been long and interesting. Of course, all hon. Members who spoke, including my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), kept within the rules of order and addressed the amendments, occasionally with a little chiding from you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Nevertheless, the substance of colleagues’ comments was that they fundamentally oppose the Bill in principle. Many of the points were Second Reading points—the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick)
20 Apr 2007 : Column 593
nods—I have no objection to that. Colleagues felt that what I am doing in the Bill is wrong—they suggested that it would bring the House into disrepute or set it back a few years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said that amendments Nos. 1 and 9 went to the heart of the Bill. That is true. If they were accepted, the result would be inconsistent with what I am trying to achieve. It would mean an absolute reversal and I cannot, therefore, ask the House to accept them.

I emphasise the point that Mr. Speaker made in his capacity as Chairman of the Members Estimate Committee. It is not just a passing fancy. Yes, it is theoretically possible that a future Speaker could reverse the ruling—and that Mr. Speaker or a future Speaker could reverse a range of things that we have done—but it will not happen. I accept the assurances that we will continue to publish the details of the expenses of Members of Parliament as we have published them in the past, and with the more detailed breakdown on travel that has been provided in the past couple of years after the tribunal decision. That will continue to happen. The House of Commons will not be brought into disrepute because there will be no cover-up on expenses.

Mr. Winnick: I said that I did not question the right hon. Gentleman’s intentions. I believe that they are wrong, misguided and would greatly harm the House of Commons, but I am sure that he has acted in all sincerity. Does he accept that, although the Speaker’s letter, which I quoted among others, is clear that if the Bill became law, we would continue to provide the information, it would be done not under the law but on an optional basis? Yes, the information would continue to be provided for the moment—and perhaps for the next few years—but the House of Commons Commission could reach a different conclusion. We would thus be in a completely different position from other public bodies.

David Maclean: I take the view that the House of Commons should be capable of governing itself on a range of matters. The decisions of the Chair are made under the rules and regulations of the House. There is a range of other matters that the House of Commons and the House of Lords do under their own conventions and rules, not because that is required by law. If we are incapable of maintaining a decision to publish annually reports of our expenditure, God help us. I believe that we will continue to publish the reports.

David Howarth: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

David Maclean: No. I am sorry, but I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He walked in about half an hour ago, when the debate was almost concluded. With all due respect, it is not acceptable to come in at the last moment in such an important debate and seek to catch my eye.

We know the game today. Hon. Members of all parties oppose the Bill in principle. I accept that. However, let me quote from Wednesday’s press:

Next Section Index Home Page