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18 May 2007 : Column 892

Question accordingly proposed, That the amendment be made.

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David Maclean: I will comment briefly on the group of amendments to which the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) spoke. I will be brief for a simple reason: the hon. Gentleman and several of his hon. Friends are quoted in the Press Gazette and other press reports as going all out to wreck the Bill. It is said that they intend to stop it and do not wish it to reach the other place.

The hon. Gentleman takes the high-minded view, as is entirely his privilege, that if the Bill was passed, it would somehow strike a general blow to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but I do not accept that argument. The amendments are deliberately intended not to improve the Bill, to make a few tweaks to it or to make it operate better, but to wreck and stop it. The delay in the No Lobby was further evidence of that. I think that the House will thus understand why I will not go into detail on any of the amendments, which I consider to be bogus.

If we get to Third Reading, as I hope that we will, I will set out in slightly greater detail the reasons behind the Bill. However, at this stage it is suffice to say that I did not wake up one morning and suddenly decide that I must change the Freedom of Information Act. I have the honour and privilege of serving on the House of Commons Commission, along with senior colleagues from both sides of the House. I am aware of the growing problem of correspondence being released.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

David Maclean: I apologise to the hon. Lady, but I am going to be very brief.

Of course the Library will not know some of the details of the problem. I have in my hand a letter sent to an hon. Member by a third party that boasts that that third party has acquired correspondence from that Member that was sent to a public authority on behalf of a constituent. I have other examples.

Hon. Members who have supported me in the Aye Lobby have told me that some of their correspondence relating to a constituent has been released against their will. Theoretically, it could be protected under data protection—[Hon. Members: “Legally!”] But it has not been. An officer of a local authority—inadvertently, by mistake or by design—released correspondence that the hon. Member to whom I referred thought was confidential. That is damaging. My Bill is necessary to give an absolute guarantee that the correspondence that Members of Parliament write to public authorities on behalf of our constituents or others remains confidential.

Mr. Shepherd: The piece of paper that my right hon. Friend held in his hand and cited as evidence to the House was heavily redacted—people’s names had been extracted from it. It thus did not identify the constituent at all.

10.45 am

David Maclean: My hon. Friend might have been making a good point—but on this occasion he is utterly wrong. The letter is redacted because the Member of Parliament who handed it to me made the deletions to disguise his constituent in case I left it lying around the House today.

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Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): May I read into the record the fact that the document that I handed to the right hon. Gentleman was a letter to me from someone who was able to access correspondence that I took up in confidence on behalf of a constituent, which identified the name of the original complainant? It is absolutely monstrous that the sanctity of confidentiality is being breached.

David Maclean: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving the House vital information.

If the hon. Members who oppose the Bill had bothered to read the Committee proceedings, they would have seen that Members of all parties—Liberal, Labour, Conservative and the Democratic Unionist party—support the Bill. Committee members said that organisations—some thought the British National party; some thought criminal organisations—were attempting, as third parties, to access files of correspondence and get information that should not be in the public domain because it was confidential and related to constituents.

I conclude my remarks, and will speak further on Third Reading, if we reach it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): Let me make it clear right from the start not only that this is not a Government Bill, but that the Government are neutral on the Bill. The earlier remarks of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) were thus quite wrong. The Government have been neutral on the Bill throughout. We believe, as I and others have said, that this is a matter for Parliament to discuss, not for the Government to decide.

David Howarth: If the Government are not supporting the Bill, how does the Minister explain the fact that when we voted on this matter a couple of weeks ago, the vast majority of the people who voted in the Bill’s favour were Government Ministers, Government Whips and Opposition Whips?

Norman Baker: And Parliamentary Private Secretaries.

David Howarth: And PPSs.

Bridget Prentice: Dear, oh dear, oh dear. It comes to something when Members are expected not to vote on private Members’ Bills. I thought that that was the whole point of them.

Let me point out two things to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). First, it is has become clear this morning that most Liberal Democrat Members do not understand parliamentary procedure. Secondly, as he will know, on every occasion on which the Bill has been before the House, whether on consideration of amendments or otherwise, I, representing the Government and the Department that deals with freedom of information, have not voted in favour of it.

Simon Hughes: Since the Minister has been in her job, have any of her colleagues in her Department or its predecessor Department, the Department for Constitutional Affairs, seen evidence that the Freedom
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of Information Act 2000 or data protection legislation has been breached in a way that would cause us to need to pass such a Bill? Have there ever been any discussions about such a plan in her Department?

Bridget Prentice: We have had no discussions in the Department about a plan to do such a thing. The hon. Gentleman will know from answers from me and from the Leader of the House to written questions that we have said that because this private Member’s Bill is up for debate, we are leaving it to Parliament to come to a decision. There is clearly an appetite for debate on the Bill, so it would be inappropriate for the Government to intervene.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Lady will know that through parliamentary correspondence over four years—and more recently, actually—I have been trying to get the release of a Devon and Cornwall police report on Surrey police’s handling of the death of the daughter of one of my constituents. The Government have not been forthcoming in helping me to use existing freedom of information legislation to get that information. Does she not understand that our personal experiences—such as mine in relation to Deepcut—of the mood music coming from the Government make us sceptical? It appears to us that the Government are keen to see the Bill pass. Can she give us an assurance that the Government really do believe in the tenets of the Freedom of Information Act, which they originally supported?

Bridget Prentice: Not only did we support the Act, but we are the Government who brought in the Freedom of Information Act. I cannot think how our support for freedom of information and for the release of information by the 110,000 public authorities that are subject to the Act could be more obvious.

Fiona Mactaggart: The Minister says that the Government have taken a neutral stance on the Bill. Later, there will be opportunities to vote for amendments to the Bill. The amendment moved by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) would remove the reference to the entirety of Members’ correspondence, not only the type of correspondence that has been the subject of debate—correspondence about individual constituents. Alternative amendments offer an opportunity to exclude that type of private correspondence. Will the Minister enable the House to understand whether the Government might take the opportunity to support one of those alternative amendments, so that Members can be confident that confidential matters relating to their constituents will be protected, but that material on matters of public policy on which they correspond with public authorities will be available to be revealed in public—something that all of us as Members of Parliament should be prepared to allow?

Bridget Prentice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because she allows me to explain why I feel that the amendments would make the Freedom of Information Act more difficult to operate and complicate the work of the 110,000 public bodies that have embraced freedom of information.

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Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I am one of the Labour Members who do not particularly like the Bill, but what sticks in my craw is the behaviour of the Liberal Democrats. I listen to them on the radio, and in any forum in which they can be heard, hijacking the issue for party political purposes. I have not had pressure put on me to vote either way on the Bill, and do not know of any colleague who has. In fact, I have received e-mails expressing every sort of view within my party, but nothing from Whips or any member of the Government. I do not like the Bill, but I do object to the Liberal Democrats—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Interventions are to be brief.

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes his point well. The matter should be for Parliament to decide, not the subject of party political grandstanding.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): The Minister says that 110,000 public bodies are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Does she not think it peculiar that here we are in the House of Commons considering the exclusion of just one of them—this one? Does she not believe that that is an utterly self-regarding proposal, which brings MPs and Parliament into disrepute?

Bridget Prentice: If I may say so gently to the hon. Gentleman, for a Liberal Democrat to talk about people being self-regarding must be rather like looking in the mirror. It is for the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), whose Bill this is, to justify its being before the House; it is for me, as a member of the Government in whose Department freedom of information sits, to explain why the amendments are not appropriate.

Amendment No. 2 would remove or limit the power of the new exemption for Members’ correspondence in the Bill. Whether such an exemption should exist is a question for Parliament to consider, but the amendment would clearly scupper an important part of the Bill.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Is the Minister speaking as an individual or is she giving the Government’s view? Are Ministers and PPSs allowed to vote against the view that she expresses today?

Bridget Prentice: I am giving the Government’s view on the Bill. In debates on private Members’ Bills, it is entirely for Members of Parliament to decide whether to support or oppose them. In the past, the Government have supported private Members’ Bills, opposed them, or remained neutral. On this Bill, the Government are neutral.

Mark Fisher: Will the Minister give way?

Bridget Prentice: Moving on to discuss amendments Nos. 12, 24, 39 and 44, which would qualify the new exemption—

Mark Fisher: Will the Minister give way?

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Bridget Prentice: I am not giving way to my hon. Friend.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The Minister makes the point for me. It is up to the Member on their feet to choose whether to give way. The Minister has given way several times, but clearly she is now making progress with her speech.

Bridget Prentice: Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to move on, so that we can move the debate on.

Amendments Nos. 12, 24, 39 and 44 would qualify the new exemption so that public authorities would need to consider the public interest in withholding or releasing Members’ correspondence. The public interest test can encompass all the factors mentioned in the amendments, including any relationship that the Member may have with the public authority in question and the nature of the information—whether it is about general policy or an individual case.

I am not sure that the House would wish, through amendments Nos. 25 and 45, to create an exemption limited to letters and electronic correspondence. I suggest that we should guard against inhibiting such communications, which might cause Members to decide to discuss some of the important matters that their constituents raise only in meetings or on the telephone, rather than commit themselves to paper.

Amendments Nos. 10, 11, 16, 41 and 42 relate to personal data. The personal information contained in MPs’ correspondence is already covered by the exemption as drafted. It is for the House to determine the scope and the extent of that exemption, but I remind hon. Members that there is already an exemption for personal data.

Mr. Heath: I am most grateful to the Minister, first for giving way and secondly for making that clear point. That very clear exemption is the reason why many of us oppose the Bill. Is she aware that some of her earlier arguments are the exact reverse of the arguments adduced in the Standing Committee on the Freedom of Information Bill, on which I had the honour to serve, with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher)? In that Committee, the Minister told us that class exemptions, rather than general exemptions, were absolutely essential, and that is why the Freedom of Information Act is framed as it is.

Bridget Prentice: The original intention was to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act. It was a later decision that brought Parliament within its scope.

Let me put one point clearly on the record. There has been much discussion of the role of the Data Protection Act. That Act applies only to personal data. Where a Member’s correspondence contains personal data it should be withheld only if disclosure would breach one of the data protection principles—

Mr. Winnick: Will the Minister give way?

Bridget Prentice: I would like to finish my point first.

That does not mean that in all cases personal data will be protected. In common with many exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act, the Data
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Protection Act requires public authorities to conduct a balancing act when deciding whether to disclose. The cases that some hon. Members have raised of information being brought into the public domain shows that that balancing act is not always simple.

Mr. Winnick: Is it not of some interest that the Information Commissioner’s office stated that in nearly two and a half years since the Freedom of Information Act came into force, it had not received a single complaint from a Member of Parliament or from a constituent concerning the improper disclosure of such correspondence—not a single complaint? Surely that demonstrates that what the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) said a few minutes ago in favour of his Bill simply does not add up. I hope that the Minister will bear that point in mind.

Bridget Prentice: I hear what my hon. Friend, and indeed other hon. Members, have said about the Information Commissioner not having received any complaints. I cannot speak on behalf of other Members and say why they have not raised issues with the Information Commissioner. I know that some hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches have raised that point, both with the Leader of the House and with me. There is a tragic case in my constituency that I heard about only yesterday, in which information was disclosed to a husband who, it is alleged, commits domestic violence. I corresponded with a public authority on behalf of my constituent, and information in that correspondence was released to that husband. I now fear very much for my constituent’s safety, and indeed for the safety of my constituency staff, as the husband has been to my constituency office. Hon. Members may say to me, “That information shouldn’t have been released,” and that may well be the case, but there is not much point in saying that after the fact.

11 am

Fiona Mactaggart: The Minister makes the reasonable point that it is not good enough to say that information should not have been released once it has been released—but I ask her, as the Minister responsible for the Freedom of Information Act 2000, what action she is taking with regard to authorities that wrongly release information. What training scheme does she have in place? As she pointed out, public authorities have released information when legally they should not have done so; how will she prevent them from doing that, and why does she believe that another law will be better obeyed than the present law?

Bridget Prentice: The Department for Constitutional Affairs issued guidance on the subject on more than one occasion, and as I understand it, the Information Commissioner issues guidance to public authorities. However—this is the nub of the debate—it is for the House to decide whether the 2000 Act, as it stands, is sufficiently robust on the issue. It is up to the House to make that decision.

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