Previous Section Index Home Page

12.26 pm

Mark Fisher: This is a bad day for Parliament—a sad day. Members should understand what we would be doing by giving the Bill a Third Reading and sending it to the other place. We are saying to the public that although we only recently passed an important piece of legislation, which should be a terrific jewel in the crown of the Government, to introduce freedom of information in this country at last—a measure that has been in force
18 May 2007 : Column 918
only two and a half years—we are now moving to exempt Parliament and Members of Parliament from the provisions of that Act.

If we give the Bill a Third Reading, and if it ever becomes an Act of Parliament, we shall be saying to the public, “We believe in freedom of information. We have enacted a major statute on freedom of information that applies to all public bodies—police authorities, health trusts and so on—but we alone are exempt. We are above the law.” We shall be saying that it is right and proper that everybody should abide by freedom of information legislation except Members of Parliament—that we do not wish to be subject to the law.

That would be an extraordinary thing for the House to say. It would inevitably bring this place into complete contempt—subject to the ridicule of the public. How would the public judge us? After all our fine words in this place about openness, transparency and wanting everyone to see what is being done in the name of democracy, we are saying that when it comes to freedom of information we are giving ourselves an exemption. Such a proposal is ridiculous and it is extraordinary that the Bill has not been laughed out of court. It is absolute nonsense.

There were years of thinking behind the Freedom of Information Act. We were one of the last democracies to introduce such legislation and for years, through the late 1980s and the 1990s, we looked at legislation in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States and learned from it. In 1993, I introduced the Right to Know Bill, which was based on best practice in other countries at the time. If a Labour Government had been elected in 1992, the then shadow Home Secretary—now Lord Hattersley—would have introduced legislation but, like the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), I was lucky enough to be able to promote a private Member’s Bill and picked up the measure that the then shadow Home Secretary had drafted. We had the help of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and Mr. Maurice Frankel, and other experts on the subject, who had studied freedom of information measures all over the world, in producing a state of the art Bill. It had commitment and support from the then leader of the Labour party, Neil, now Lord, Kinnock and, subsequently, the passionate support of the next leader of the Labour party, John Smith.

Labour was committed to introducing freedom of information legislation in the event of its forming a Government. I was thrilled when we became a Government and the Prime Minister said that we would go ahead. He set up a Cabinet Sub-Committee, of which I was honoured to be member, to examine how we would change the good thinking in the Right to Know Bill and all the work that had been done around the world into a White Paper, in preparation for an Act of Parliament.

Julia Goldsworthy: The hon. Gentleman will probably recall that the draft Bill did not originally include the Houses of Parliament and that it was only following the recommendation of the Public Administration Committee that the Commons and the Lords were included. Is he aware of whether or not that Committee has changed its views since its initial recommendations?

18 May 2007 : Column 919

Mark Fisher: I do not think that it has, but I am sure that the hon. Lady will make these points in more detail later—I look forward to hearing them.

I am trying to establish that this Bill, by my calculation, has had fewer than four hours’ of debate and scrutiny in reaching this point of concluding its Third Reading. It has had four hours’ debate, during which time the promoter spoke in its favour for the first time in the past half hour. Those four hours will overturn and undermine years of thought, expertise and agonising in respect of the quality of the freedom of information legislation that we should have in this country.

Mr. Kevan Jones: May I point out to my hon. Friend that if he cared to read the proceedings of the Public Bill Committee, he would know that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) spoke at length in support of his Bill and answered some of the points that have been raised? Today is not the first time that the right hon. Gentleman has done so.

Mark Fisher: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. Of course I have read the Committee’s proceedings. They make my point that this country has had 15 years of expert thinking about freedom of information legislation, whereas I believe that the Committee sat for exactly one hour—one hour’s consideration was given.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border praises the Committee, but he knows perfectly well that the membership of a Committee that considers a Private Member’s Bill is rightly chosen by the promoter of the Bill. Such a Committee is not balanced in the way that ordinary Public Bill Committees are; this was a Committee of his supporters from both sides of the House.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It was cross-party.

Mark Fisher: Nobody is saying that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border does not have support from all corners of the House, because he does. He demonstrated that in his selection of the members of that Committee. I am not criticising him for that, because it was perfectly proper, but the idea that this was serious scrutiny in Committee, as in an ordinary Public Bill Committee, is a complete fiction. He knows perfectly well that it is not true; he chose the members of the Committee.

David Maclean: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that amendments that substantially rewrote the Bill were moved, so the Bill received careful scrutiny in Committee? The Committee was unanimous in supporting the changes in the Bill.

Mark Fisher: I have always liked the right hon. Gentleman, but I have never seen him as a comedian. The idea that one hour’s debate can seriously address the 15 years’ consideration that this country has given on this legislation is laughable. If he thinks that a few minutes in Committee represents serious amendment
18 May 2007 : Column 920
and debate that can undermine everything that people who care about this legislation have been working towards for 15 or 20 years, he is a comedian.

David Maclean: Would the hon. Gentleman care to tell me how much debate took place before the 2000 Act was passed on the addition of the House of Commons to it?

Mark Fisher: I cannot remember. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is not in his place. He had to remind me this morning of the fact that he and I were on that Committee. A great deal of consideration—

David Maclean: I posed the question because the answer is none. Not one minute in Standing Committee, not one minute on Report and not one minute on Second Reading was devoted to including the House of Commons in that Bill. The provision was added without any debate, so it did not receive 15 years’ consideration. The Freedom of Information Act generally did, but including the House of Commons in it received no consideration—it was added by mistake.

Mark Fisher: It was certainly not added by mistake.

Mr. Shepherd rose—

Mark Fisher: May I just respond to the point, because it think that it would be courteous to the right hon. Gentleman to do so? I am sure that the Minister will confirm that the present Leader of House, the then Home Secretary, thought about this very carefully indeed. As he says himself, he was in two minds and wondered whether or not to include Parliament. He reached the conclusion that Parliament should be included—it was his Bill. He was the Cabinet Minister who saw that Bill through, so he had given plenty of careful consideration to exactly the point raised by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border. Of his own volition, the present Leader of the House admits that the decision was not easy and that he was in two minds at certain times.

I am not sure how familiar with such legislation throughout the world the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border is. However, he makes the wider point that Parliaments handle freedom of information in different ways. Some freedom of information legislation covers parliamentarians, while some does not. It is a matter for each Parliament to decide. However, we have found another way. All the exemptions that worry the right hon. Gentleman are covered by the Data Protection Act 1998. The way in which the two Acts of Parliament lock together like a jigsaw ensures that the sorts of problems that the right hon. Gentleman is worried about are not real.

Jim Cousins: Freedom of information applies to public bodies. However, many hon. Members want disclosure in other contexts. For example, many of our hon. Friends want greater disclosure on private equity companies. How can we properly and honourably raise such points, which are being made by many of our great trade unions, if we shut the door on information about ourselves?

18 May 2007 : Column 921

Mark Fisher: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border is addressing the sensitivities and shyness of parliamentarians about their correspondence, expenses and information. I do not know how much he has studied such legislation throughout the world, but I do not think he understands what an enormously dramatic thing he is doing and how completely he is undermining existing legislation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Jim Cousins) suggests, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 goes wider than the issue that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border is addressing, yet much of it must go through the conduit of parliamentarians. If we are exempt, the whole Act, to the extent to which it comes through parliamentarians, is affected. Ultimately, whom else should it come through? We are the ultimate democratic body, and it is through us that people should test, argue about and explore matters of public policy and concern.

I hope that I am not misrepresenting the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, but I do not think that he understands what a devastating Bill this is. As he said in his few remarks, these are difficult areas. The way in which the legislation is applied to public bodies is inconsistent. The Act has been in force for only two and a half years and people are uncertain about its application. The problems that he has brought to the attention of the House arise through the ignorance of individual officials and a lack of understanding. He is right to say that those problems have to be addressed, but not by changing the law. If we change the law and exempt ourselves, we are saying to all the other bodies that we have no confidence in the law. Those bodies will ask why on earth they should trouble themselves with freedom of information legislation if Parliament, which passed the Act in the first place, does not take it seriously. Trade unions, health trusts and chief constables will ask why they should bother when Parliament does not think that it is worth reporting these things.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Trade unions are exempt.

Mark Fisher: But chief constables, health authorities and other public bodies are not. Why should they struggle to try to work out what is left of the Freedom of Information Act if we are exempting ourselves?

Mr. Shepherd: We have been told that the House gave no consideration to whether it should be covered as a public body by the 2000 Act. Pre-legislative scrutiny was carried out by this House’s Public Administration Committee and the House of Lords. That point was considered, and it was on the basis of those considerations that the then Home Secretary included such a measure in the Bill. We had a full opportunity, albeit with some guillotines, to pursue the issue on the Floor of the House. There were many days’ debate, yet no one tabled an amendment on the matter. I would call that Act a well processed piece of legislation.

Mark Fisher: I agree. This House in its wisdom decided to go around the sort of problems that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border has identified in a different way—to lock together the data protection legislation and the freedom of information legislation and so deal with sensitive and difficult areas
18 May 2007 : Column 922
of confidentiality and related issues. We could have chosen to make a blanket exemption for Parliament, as some other countries have done for their parliamentary bodies, or to adopt the route that we took—both are perfectly comprehensible and in many ways effective. We chose one way, but now, with this Bill—29 lines of legislation—the right hon. Gentleman is throwing away all our consideration over some 20 years.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way and I appreciate it. Does he agree that the Bill throws into question the entire relationship between the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act? I have correspondence from many constituents who have sought information under the Freedom of Information Act and been denied it because of the provisions of the Data Protection Act. The primacy of data protection has always been the essential element in public bodies’ responses to their requests. Today, are we not throwing into question the protection that the Data Protection Act provides and putting in the minds of other public authorities the notion that perhaps they should be handing out information—that the Data Protection Act does not provide such restrictions? Will not many people in many circumstances now be exposed to genuine risk?

Mark Fisher: That is a fine intervention and I hope that the hon. Lady catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that she can elaborate on those points.

I say to the promoter of the Bill that I do not doubt the sincerity of his belief that there is a problem. However, he is acting on anecdotal evidence. He says that much evidence has been brought to the House of Commons Commission—I am not sure whether it is to be published—but it seems to me that almost all the evidence on which his enthusiasm for the Bill is based is anecdotal. When he is asked whether there is a public problem—whether the Information Commissioner—

Tim Farron: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mark Fisher: Let me finish the point. All of us on both sides of the House agree that one of the best appointments to a public body that the Government have made has been that of Mr. Richard Thomas as Information Commissioner. He has gained plaudits from everybody. He has integrity, he is tough and he is extremely knowledgeable, yet his office has received none of the complaints or queries that the right hon. Gentleman claims his Bill will address. That seems strange.

If there is an outrage such that the right hon. Gentleman wants to tackle it through the Bill, one would have thought that one problem might have been brought to the attention of the Information Commissioner. The right hon. Gentleman says that the House of Commons Library cannot be all-knowing, but most Members’ experience of the Library is that most of its staff are brilliant—very much cleverer and more qualified than we are—and give this House superb service. They have stated categorically that they are aware of no problems of the sort that he has identified—no such problem has been brought to their attention.

18 May 2007 : Column 923

The Bill seems to be addressing a problem that does not exist, except in the eyes and mind of the right hon. Gentleman and the few Members who have spoken to him privately and anecdotally, saying, “We’re very worried. I have a particularly nasty constituency case here.” I am sure that they have and that such cases exist, but that is because the Freedom of Information Act is new legislation—only two and a half years old—and the people in local authorities and other public bodies who are applying it have not yet learned how it works. Of course mistakes are made, but when that happens the answer is not to change the law completely and so radically.

Tim Farron: My esteemed neighbour, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), commented in the—hand-picked—Committee scrutinising his Bill:

In other words, it is not new legislation that is needed but proper interpretation of the current Act.

Mark Fisher: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am only too aware that many people want to speak; your colleague Madam Deputy Speaker brought that fact to our attention. I think that it was very wrong that today on Report there were only two speeches. No one on the Labour Back Benches was invited to speak, although earlier in the week the Speaker had ruled, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), that voices from all parts of the House would be heard. Nor, indeed, was a single Opposition Back Bencher called to speak.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman is starting to stray away from the Third Reading of the Bill. How the House divides up its time is largely a matter for the Members in the Chamber at the time.

Mark Fisher: I will not argue the toss with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I would not dream of it—but the Members who wished to speak were in the Chamber all the time. They were trying to catch Madam Deputy Speaker’s eye, but were not fortunate enough to do so. It is simply not the case that the Bill has had major scrutiny and consideration. Debate has been hugely curtailed today. I am trying to emphasise the point that we are giving a Third Reading to a devastating piece of legislation that will bring huge discredit to the House. The supporters of the Bill do not seem to understand that simple point.

Next Section Index Home Page