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Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I notice that the hon. Gentlemans 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. Gentlemans 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
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.
Clearly if one writes to a public authority and gives the personal details of a constituent, such as their CSA claim, information relating to their children and so on, that information should be protected. It should quite clearly be protected under the current Act. However, inadvertently, someone may release it. [Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee, 7 February 2007; c. 8.]
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
being released without their permission. The Library was, as usual, very diligent, but could find only one Membermy 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. 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 essentialif 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 Parliamentthis Bill is about concealing our expenses? That is the essence of the Bill.
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.
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.
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 complaintsonly one on the Floor of the Housethat 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 notand he probably knows more about freedom of information and data protection than anybody else in the countryand 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 helike meconcerned 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.
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.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): My hon. Friends 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.
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
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.
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 bodyabsurdlyyet 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. Friends 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 measureif 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 Benchsaid:
I confess that I am slightly queasy about the suggestion that the solution is to take Parliament out of the Freedom of Information Act altogether, and I imagine that some of my colleagues, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes
(Norman Baker), will have strong views on the issue on Report. However, it is up to those who do not believe that the Bill, which has the advantage of clarity and simplicity, is the way to address these very real issues to come up with a better suggestion. [Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee, 7 February 2007; c. 17.]
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?
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