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18 May 2007 : Column 886

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I notice that the hon. Gentleman’s amendment seeks to remove clause 1(3). When drafting that amendment, did he consult the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who had a local regional daily paper apply under the freedom of information legislation for sight of his correspondence with his local authority? The hon. Gentleman was not happy that the law had been used to secure sight of what he considered private correspondence with his local authority.

Norman Baker: I have had no representations from my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), but the point is that correspondence between Members and constituents is already covered under the data protection legislation. That is a point that the supporters of the Bill fail to understand.

Mr. Burns: If the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation is correct, why was a daily regional newspaper in the eastern region able to secure, under existing legislation, the correspondence of the hon. Member for Colchester with the chief executive of Colchester borough council?

Norman Baker: I am not familiar with the details of that case, but the data protection legislation already prevents correspondence between MPs and constituents from being released. That is the law at present. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the law has been broken—

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

Norman Baker: Well, I am trying to answer the point that the hon. Gentleman has already made. If correspondence has been released contrary to the law, the answer is that the law needs to be enforced, rather than simply passing a further law to say the same thing. I am not familiar with the case, but I hesitate to agree, even if I accept that version of events.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Perhaps the following quotation from the Committee stage will be helpful to my hon. Friend:

Those words were spoken by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) himself.

Norman Baker: Indeed. The suggestion by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) is like suggesting that if a murder is committed, we should pass a further law making murder a criminal offence because the original law clearly did not work. That argument is a non sequitur.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will know that Members of Parliament are not usually reluctant to complain. I asked the Library how many complaints had been made before the introduction of this Bill by Members about correspondence
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being released without their permission. The Library was, as usual, very diligent, but could find only one Member—my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith)—who intervened in a debate about Liverpool. That was the only recorded protest on the Floor of the House by a Member of Parliament before this Bill. Members of Parliament are not usually reluctant to raise issues when they believe that they are essential to their standing.

Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman is correct—

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

Norman Baker: I am trying to answer the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick)—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) must be allowed to reply to the intervention.

Norman Baker: The hon. Member for Walsall, North is correct. Had there been example after example of MPs’ correspondence being inappropriately used or leaked to newspapers, the House would have been in uproar about it. We would have had hon. Members making points of order, but that has not happened. It is not an issue.

Mr. Winnick: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although, of course, the confidentiality of correspondence is essential—if mine were released without authorisation I would hardly be reluctant to raise it with Mr. Speaker to defend the honour and privilege that I have as a Member of Parliament—this Bill is about concealing our expenses? That is the essence of the Bill.

Norman Baker rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already said this morning that we must focus all our remarks and attention on the amendments under discussion. The point made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North was widening the debate.

Norman Baker: I am keen to make progress—

10.15 am

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) made an interesting point, but if we were concerned about breaches of the data protection legislation, the most serious breach would be the release of confidential medical information by the NHS. However, there have been no calls for hospitals and the NHS to be removed completely from the Freedom of Information Act 2000. They know what their duties are under the data protection legislation and it would be illogical to use a Bill such as this to protect Members’ correspondence when, important though it is, it is not as important as confidential medical information. If there is a problem, the priority is wrong.

Norman Baker: My hon. Friend makes a telling point, which I had failed to make in my earlier contribution. I am pleased that it has now been made and it underlines the case firmly. This is an inappropriate Bill and would send out all the wrong messages.

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Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I was intrigued by the point raised by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) about the number of complaints—only one on the Floor of the House—that had been made before the Bill was introduced. As there has been much publicity since then, has there been a flurry of complaints to Mr. Speaker or on the Floor of the House? I have not been aware of that happening, but I wonder if my hon. Friend has.

Norman Baker: We have been looking for them. Indeed, with the publicity that the Bill has had, we have expected them to come out of the woodwork. We expected MPs from all parties to say, “Yes, this has happened to me.” However, that has not happened at all. We have had no such examples. In Committee, all we heard were theoretical examples.

Mark Fisher: The hon. Gentleman has accepted the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) made about the Library. Is he also aware that we have a very good Information Commissioner, Mr. Richard Thomas, who has not had a single complaint or query from any Member of Parliament? Indeed, he does not recognise the issue as a problem. If he does not—and he probably knows more about freedom of information and data protection than anybody else in the country—and his office has not been bombarded with complaints, what on earth is the Bill about? It is a Bill to solve a problem that does not exist. If the right hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill had had problems, he would presumably have taken them to the Information Commissioner, but he has never done so.

Norman Baker: That is correct. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) is in his place. Apparently he has many supporters, including those on the Conservative and Government Front Benches. Perhaps some of them will come forward with some arguments in favour of the Bill, because it is a curious boxing match that has only one person in the ring.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): As I understand the amendments, they seek to protect the law as it stands. Is my hon. Friend aware that for many years now I have tried to obtain information about the deaths at Deepcut Army barracks, especially in regard to Cheryl James, the daughter of two of my constituents? I have found that the existing Freedom of Information Act 2000 is virtually toothless in those attempts. Is my hon. Friend attempting to preserve what little freedom of information we actually have, and is he—like me—concerned that the mood music of the Bill, without the amendments, would make it even more difficult for me to get the important information that Des and Doreen James have been seeking for four or five years about the death of their—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is aware that interventions should be brief. The hon. Member for Lewes has been generous in taking interventions, but I remind all hon. Members that interventions are not speeches and should be brief.

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Norman Baker: As my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said, the Freedom of Information Act already includes many exemptions for public bodies. The data protection legislation also includes some strict regulations that make the protection of correspondence and information about individuals very strong. It is difficult to obtain information; in fact, Members of Parliament have complained that they are even being asked to sign documentation to the effect that they are acting properly on behalf of their constituents. If anything, public authorities are keen not to release information.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman considered the important point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher), that in a widely leaked brief from the parliamentary Labour party urging support for this dire Bill, there is a request for evidence? That is evidence after the fact, because no evidence for the Bill is available.

Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman’s point makes itself, but it is a telling one nevertheless: this is a Bill in search of a purpose.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): My hon. Friend’s point is confirmed by the Freedom of Information Act 2000, sections 21 to 44 of which all provide different exemptions from that measure. In addition, section 2 of the Data Protection Act 1998 particularly protects sensitive personal data, which could, for example, deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on the radio this morning.

Norman Baker: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which is extremely relevant to the debate, and I hope those in favour of the Bill take note of it.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree not only that the Data Protection Act provides substantial protection for confidential data in correspondence, but that there is a double lock, as he will recall, in the form of the Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) (Elected Representatives) Order 2002? The order addressed the fact that Members could not get access to confidential information in the course of their correspondence, so our constituents are protected not merely by the Data Protection Act but—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Once again I remind Members that interventions are to be brief.

Norman Baker: My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) makes an important point, which reinforces yet again the already strong safeguards in place.

Lembit Öpik rose—

Norman Baker: I feel like Frankie Howerd in the prologue to “Up Pompeii!”—I give way to my hon. Friend.

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Lembit Öpik: To finish the point about Deepcut, does my hon. Friend fully understand the concerns, and does he agree that we should actually be proposing amendments to make it easier for Members to get information that helps us to represent our constituents, rather than making it more difficult for our constituents to get information about us?

Norman Baker: I must not go too far along that line, Madam Deputy Speaker, or you will tell me off. Suffice it to say that the Freedom of Information Act is a flickering candle and I fear that if the Bill goes through it could be extinguished.

I dealt with amendment No. 2 in a previous sitting. I have also dealt with amendments Nos. 14 and 40, so now I want to address amendment No. 10.

Mr. Heath: Before my hon. Friend moves on, may I express some concern about amendment No. 2? By deleting subsection (3), while retaining subsection (2), Parliament is made not to be a public body—absurdly—yet the converse does not apply for bodies that have a conversation, dialogue or correspondence with a Member of Parliament. The situation will be one-sided: a Member who writes to a body may be protected but the reverse would not be the case. If the amendment were accepted, would not that imbalance occur?

Norman Baker: I have some sympathy for my hon. Friend’s viewpoint. Let me make it plain: the best solution entirely would be that the Bill does not go through, because the current arrangements are working quite well and there is no need to change them. However, my hon. Friend and I, with others, are trying to find a way to accommodate the concerns that have been expressed. I have taken those concerns at face value and as genuine, and tried to find an amendment that would deal with them, but I re-emphasise that the best solution is not to have the Bill at all.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Many of the amendments are tabled in the name of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). As he is speaking from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench on behalf of his party, can he explain why the Liberal Democrats made no such amendments in Committee and why their Front-Bench spokesman there supported the Bill?

Norman Baker: I fear that the hon. Gentleman may be guilty of tedious repetition if he carries on in that way. Concerns were expressed by the one Liberal Democrat member of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who said he was squeamish about the measure—if I may paraphrase him. Our position is a logical progression.

Simon Hughes: In the hope that dealing with the question put to my hon. Friend will stop further interventions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey)—not speaking on behalf of the Liberal Front Bench—said:

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con) rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now proposed.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr. Winnick: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It goes without saying that I always respect the Chair, but many of us are very surprised that after only a short debate, when no other Members were allowed to contribute, the closure motion has been accepted. It will inevitably be seen as gagging Parliament and I must protest.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Far from attempting to gag Parliament, the motion is to allow the question to be proposed, to enable discussion and the contributions from Members that are clearly wanted on this group of amendments. It is not a closure motion.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My difficulty is that I thought I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) say that it will be recorded in Hansard that at the start of his speech he did in fact propose the question. He proposed the question in the course of his speech, too, so I cannot see why we should vote on something that has already been done.

Madam Deputy Speaker: May I remind the hon. Gentleman of procedure? The question is not actually proposed until it is proposed from the Chair; it is moved by the Member, but proposed by the occupant of the Chair. That is what we are now proceeding to do, which will, I hope, enable further debate to take place.

David Maclean: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given that it would seem that more hon. Members are going through the Aye Lobby, which has managed to clear successfully, would it be in order to investigate the delay in the No Lobby?

Madam Deputy Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman is clearly a mind reader. I was about to ask the Serjeant to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

The House having divided: Ayes 113, Noes 27.
Division No. 119]
[10.25 am


Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Allen, Mr. Graham
Anderson, Janet
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Balls, Ed
Barker, Gregory
Bell, Sir Stuart
Betts, Mr. Clive
Blackman, Liz
Brown, rh Mr. Nicholas
Burgon, Colin
Burns, Mr. Simon
Butterfill, Sir John
Cairns, David
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Chope, Mr. Christopher
Clark, Paul
Clelland, Mr. David
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
David, Mr. Wayne
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H.

Doran, Mr. Frank
Dowd, Jim
Duddridge, James
Dunne, Mr. Philip
Eagle, Angela
Eagle, Maria
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias
Fabricant, Michael
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flint, Caroline
Follett, Barbara
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Francois, Mr. Mark
Gardiner, Barry
Godsiff, Mr. Roger
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hammond, Stephen
Harris, Mr. Tom
Henderson, Mr. Doug
Heppell, Mr. John
Hill, rh Keith
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Hurd, Mr. Nick
Irranca-Davies, Huw
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Jones, Mr. Martyn
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Knight, rh Mr. Greg
Lammy, Mr. David
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Levitt, Tom
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Lloyd, Tony
Maclean, rh David
MacShane, rh Mr. Denis
Mahmood, Mr. Khalid
Maples, Mr. John
Marshall, Mr. David
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCabe, Steve
McCartney, rh Mr. Ian
McFall, rh John
McGovern, Mr. Jim
McIsaac, Shona
McNulty, Mr. Tony
Merron, Gillian
Michael, rh Alun
Morley, rh Mr. Elliot
Mudie, Mr. George
Munn, Meg
Murphy, Mr. Denis
Neill, Robert
Norris, Dan
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
Pound, Stephen
Prentice, Bridget
Pritchard, Mark
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Randall, Mr. John
Robertson, John
Roy, Mr. Frank
Ruffley, Mr. David
Ryan, Joan
Salter, Martin
Shaw, Jonathan
Sheridan, Jim
Simon, Mr. Siôn
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Smith, rh Jacqui
Snelgrove, Anne
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Stewart, Ian
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Tami, Mark
Taylor, Ms Dari
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Tredinnick, David
Twigg, Derek
Vara, Mr. Shailesh
Ward, Claire
Watson, Mr. Tom
Watts, Mr. Dave
Wicks, Malcolm
Winterton, Ann
Winterton, Sir Nicholas
Wright, David
Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Tim Boswell and
Mr. Andrew Dismore

Baker, Norman
Burstow, Mr. Paul
Cable, Dr. Vincent
Clappison, Mr. James
Corbyn, Jeremy
Cousins, Jim
Farron, Tim
Fisher, Mark
Goldsworthy, Julia
Harris, Dr. Evan
Heath, Mr. David
Howarth, David
Hughes, Simon
Jackson, Glenda
Linton, Martin
Mactaggart, Fiona
Öpik, Lembit
Redwood, rh Mr. John
Reid, Mr. Alan
Sanders, Mr. Adrian
Sheerman, Mr. Barry
Shepherd, Mr. Richard
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Swinson, Jo
Williams, Hywel
Williams, Stephen
Winnick, Mr. David
Tellers for the Noes:

Lorely Burt and
Mr. Roger Williams
Question accordingly agreed to.
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