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It may have escaped the attention of the Members who have voted for the Bill so far that the reputation of Parliament is not very great. Membership of political parties is going down, and the number of people who vote in general elections is going down. We should do all that we can to convince the electorate that we have integrity and objectivity, that we are fearless in pursuing matters on their behalf, and that we wish our
actions to be open and transparent. The Bill yet again shoves under the carpet everything to do with freedom of information in this House.
I do not think that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border understands, from his viewpoint in Penrith, that people will be aghast. When the public understand what is being done under the Bill, they will be amazed, horrified and totally contemptuous of the way in which we Members of Parliament are seeking to place ourselves above the law. It is no different from us saying, We passed taxation legislation, but we will exempt Members of Parliament. They have such an onerous and important job; why should they be troubled with paying taxes?
Mark Fisher: I am trying to do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am just trying to emphasise the point that the Bill will subject the House to derision, and bring it into contempt and discredit. We should take that very seriously. In my 24 years in this place I do not think that I have ever criticised the Chair before, but
Mark Fisher: Right. Well, I did not realise that what I was about to say was out of order in any way, but if I am not allowed to make the point that I was about to make about the way in which we have conducted the affairs of Parliament this morning, I will find other avenues in which to pursue those concerns and anxieties. Those concerns are a different but added way in which the Bill, and the manner in which it has been handled, will bring Parliament into complete disrepute and discredit. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves today, and anybody who votes for the Bill ought to be ashamed of themselves. Once again, we will have to throw ourselves on the mercy of the other place and hope that it has the good sense to throw out this discreditable and squalid little Bill.
Simon Hughes: I shall speak against the Bill and argue that the House should reject it on Third Reading. I have no complaint against the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), or the fact that he introduced the Bill. I have been in the House marginally longer than he has, although we may both feel that we have been here almost exactly the same time. I understand why he introduced the Bill, but both major parts of it are fundamentally misguided and unjustified. I shall seek to deal with the points that he made in his two brief contributions, and the points that were made in the one hour in Committee.
I believe that the Bill was prompted by two things. First, there was a concern among the authorities of the House and some colleagues that questions about matters such as expenses and allowances were too frequent and intrusive. Some colleagues were nervous
about that. There were cases that challenged the decisions of the House authorities to be restrictive. The Speaker, the House of Commons Commission and others eventually decided that there would be internal rules requiring us to disclose our travel expenses and so on. That was all to the good, but it was a response to public pressure. Even todaymy hon. Friends from Scotland will correct me if I am wrongwe are not subject to nearly as rigorous a discipline as are colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, for example, who legislated two years after we did. We legislated in 2000 and they in 2002.
Jo Swinson: The freedom of information legislation in Scotland is seen as an exemplar both in the time allowedinformation must be disclosed far more promptlyand in the level of scrutiny. Some Members of the House might be uncomfortable with the level of scrutiny that Members of the Scottish Parliament undertake. Every expense receipt is published online within a month of being submitted. That has led to an increased feeling among people in Scotland that they can see what their parliamentarians are doing, and that can only help to build trust in politics. Unfortunately, this Bill will help to diminish trust in politics.
Simon Hughes: I share that view. It was realised that there were proper limits to what people should be entitled to know. An example, now much quoted, given by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) in Committee, was that people should not be entitled to know, just because we are MPs, how many bedrooms we have in our houses, who sleeps in which bedroom, or how much we spent on the kitchen extension in our private residence. There are proper limits, but it is not proper to bar people from knowing how much public money we claim to travel between the House and our constituencies, and similar information.
The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border agrees with that. The difficulty with his case, which he understands, is that by proposing that the Commons and the Lords be taken out of the scope of the legislation¸ the Bill would make the disclosure of such information entirely voluntary in both Houses. We alone would decide what we disclosed, and be subject to no external monitoring.
There are places in the world where that position is taken. There is a debate going on in New Zealand about that very issue. It is strongly argued that the New Zealand Parliament should do as we are doing by keeping the present position and not changing it to exempt Parliament from that arrangement. There is no doubt about the fact that there would be a regime in place, but the difficulty with the argument put by the right hon. Gentleman and those who support the Bill is that it is impossible to say that we should be trusted to look after ourselves, but that councils, the Welsh Assembly, the armed services and all other public agencies cannot be trusted.
Like other hon. Members, I look regularly at the Ipsos MORI surveys. I am proud that the company is based in my constituency. This House and Parliament do not come at the top of the league table of trusted institutions, and by and large are far less well trusted than many other bodies. That is the right hon.
Gentlemans difficulty. He says that because we are Parliament, we should be subject to a different regime. The good words of Parliament will not persuade the public, and reversing, on the basis of no serious consideration, a step that we took only two and a half years ago will in no way enhance our credibility.
I want to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher). It is right to say, as the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border argued, that when the Bill first came to Parliament it was not intended that the Commons and the Lords should be included, but one of our Select Committees came strongly to the view that we should be included. It recommended that to the Labour Government of the day, and the then Home Secretary, who is now Leader of the House, accepted it. The reason why the proposal was not significantly debated was that it commanded support across the Committee, after due scrutiny, and from the Government, after due consideration.
The Government now say that they are neutral. There are reports in the press that there are strong divergences of view in the Government. It is suggested that the Lord Chancellor, the head of the Ministry of Justice, has one view, and that other people have another; I know not. There has been no scrutiny and no chance for either House to consider these issues in a Committee. There is a case for doing so. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon and others, who have said that there is a debate to be had.
Had those of us who were here spotted the Bill on the day that it was first listed on the Order Paper, and had we thought that it would not be opposed by the Government Whips, who usually oppose Back-Bench Bills almost without exception, particularly those that are not introduced by members of their party, we would of course have objected to it at that stage. However, the fact that we did not have that opportunity for debate does not make up for the fact that no Committee has been looking at it
Jim Cousins: May I draw the hon. Gentlemans attention to an amendment moved in Committee by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, which would put the exemption in the context of section 34 of the 2000 Act, which refers to parliamentary privilege? Does he think that the exercise of the public interest override, which will continue to exist, would be severely inhibited by the co-location of the exemption with the concept of parliamentary privilege?
Simon Hughes: I am concerned about that. The substance of the Bill, although simple in its two propositions, touches on some complex legislation. Everybody accepts that the interrelationship of the Data Protection Act 1998 and the 2000 Act is not entirely straightforward. We therefore need careful responses rather than draconian and simplistic ones.
The Bill says that from now on we should have a voluntary regime, while everybody else should have a compulsory regime. That is not justified, given that there has been no serious consideration. There has been no opportunity for colleagues to give evidence. There has been no attempt by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border or others to collect peoples views. Different views were expressed in the Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon made it clear that he recognised the concerns about the Bill, but he did not endorse or oppose it, and expressly stated that he was not speaking for the Front Bench. We should deliberate about those concerns in an intelligent and considered way.
People can still find it difficult to get information about non-controversial matters, even under the current legislation. I had an e-mail from somebody at a university in the United Kingdom saying that they were finding it difficult to get information about the public and ceremonial role and activities of Speakers for their academic research. If that difficulty exists, we need to examine the problem and ascertain the reason for such difficulty in obtaining information that should not be controversial. That includes not only information about expenses and travel, but anything to do with this place. If we exempt the Commons and the Lords, that means everything to do with our work here. It means the business of all the House Committees, all the functions of the staff and all the things that might be more controversial, such as how we spend public money on the buildings, various improvements and IT systems. All that would suddenly become subject only to voluntary disclosure. That is a serious problem.
My next point is important for the outside listeners, viewers and followers of our debates. Members of Parliament are not subject to freedom of information legislation. Our correspondence is secret. If people come to see us as Members of Parliament, we are not public bodies but individual representatives. There is no risk of our releasing that information. We all have on our correspondence something that states that we are acting for people confidentially, and that we hope they will agree that the information occasionally has to be shared with staff and perhaps others in order to help them. People are asked to let us know if there is any difficulty with that. I always offer people the chance to understand. We are not at risk of having information forced out of our offices. The problem is whether information is at risk of falling out of a public authoritys offices, because the current law does not cover that.
I therefore want to deal with the proper concerns that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border expressedI also heard the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on the radio this morningbut according to everything that I have heard and seen, they are not based on evidence of a genuine problem. There is theoretically a problem, but no evidence that problems have arisen.
David Howarth: Most of the examples of data being wrongly released that have been given involve breaking the law. The fundamental question that the promoter has failed to answer is why he believes that passing more legislation will prevent people from breaking the law.
Simon Hughes: That is the other inconsistency in the argument of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border. If the present law is being broken, changing it does not mean that the law will suddenly be obeyed.
David Maclean: I do not suggest that the law has been broken in all cases, but that an officer of one of 2,000 public authorities makes a judgment. He may believe that a judgment is legitimate and defensible, but it still may release MPs correspondence. We do not make that judgment; he does. In some cases, one could argue that he is breaking the law; in others, his judgment may or may not be right.
Simon Hughes: I understand and accept the distinction, and the right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am happy to meet him and see any examples that he or other colleagues want to show me. I have not seen any examples of a problem in the two and a half years since the Act has been in force. Moreover, there are many examples of decisions whereby section 40(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, which covers exemption of personal information, applies. That is relevant to the material examples with which the right hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friends and I deal every day of every week in constituency cases.
Let me give some examples. The names of people who signed a petition to a local authority about an allegedly undesirable tenant were not allowed to be released under the current regime. The name of an informant who notified a local authority of a potential breach of planning requirements in somebody elses property was not allowed to be released. Those are rulings; I am not inventing them. The cases have been tested and the information has been found to be exempt.
Information relating to a Home Office decision to grant indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom to a named individual was not allowed to be releasedand it is right that personal circumstances are not disclosed. This morning, the hon. Member for Keighley said that she would not want information that she shared about forced marriages to be revealed. That is rightand it would not be revealed under current legislation. I understand her fear, but she is safe. Unless somebody incorrectly judges the law or acts illegally, all her constituents about whom she corresponds on that issue are safe.
Information about the age, length of service and pay scale position of council employees who take voluntary retirement, which, even though the individuals are not named, could allow their identities to be deduced, was not allowed to be released. Then there is information about a pupil referred to in minutes concerning a disciplinary hearing against a teacheragain, not allowed, even though the teacher had been willing for their name to be revealed. The names of members of the public responding to a public consultation exercise about a right of wayagain, not allowed. All the evidence of where the law has been tested comes down on the other side of the argument about whether we need change.
When I was in my office last night, I picked up my casework letters that had been opened, and I also had some letters ready to sign. Some of them would not
cause anybody a problem. I received a reply from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on behalf of constituents about someone who had been detained in Africa. That is a potentially public document in the sense that it involves a public campaign to help to release someone who is not being looked after properly by a foreign Government. I received a letter from the Secretary of State for Health in reply to a letter I wrote about the future of the 24-hour emergency clinic at the Maudsley hospital. That is, quite rightly, regarded as in the public domain. I wrote to ask the Secretary of State to defer the closure and she replied with her reasons why she would not. That should not be a secret. I had some correspondence with the Minister who is currently in her place on the Front Bench, about boundary changes in my constituency. Again, that is properly a public matter. I want it to be public, and she would not have any difficulty with that.
Other categories of correspondence involve agencies that, as it happens, are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act because they are private institutions. We would want to keep that category secret. I wrote to many schools asking them to let in for the coming year someone who has not got in under round one. I asked what the procedure was. I wrote to UKvisas about securing visas for people coming into the country. I had a letter from the Metropolitan police replying to my inquiry about allegations of improper behaviour. All those are protected.
I hope that the House can be very clear that the fears of some colleagues are not borne out by the evidence and the facts. All the fears expressed in Committee, on Report and now on Third Reading are, as I understand them, fears that there might be a problem rather than evidence that there is a problem.
David Howarth: Is not the ultimate conclusion from what my hon. Friend has said that what the Bill protects, in terms of correspondence exempted from freedom of information provisions, is precisely and only those communications between MPs and public authorities that are on matters of public policy? And are not those precisely what freedom of information should apply to, on the grounds that our constituents are entitled to know what we think about public policy?
Simon Hughes: Absolutely. There is all the difference in the world between public policy correspondence and private representations on personal matters to do with somebodys health, for examplewhich my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) mentioned earlieror their immigration status, their educational background or housing, about which I get hundreds of letters. Those are entirely different. Everyone here would defend to the utmost the right of the public to know what we say about public policy. The arguments that we put on public policy and the replies that we get from the Government about them are perfectly proper matters for the public to know about. However, we would also defend the current legislative arrangements, under which inquiries connected with peoples personal circumstances are not public property.
Dr. Evan Harris: Is not one of the strange things about the Bill the fact that the exemption is to apply only to MPs? If this problem exists and the Bill provides the way of tackling it, why then should not councillors representations about domestic violence or doctors letters to public authorities on housing waiting list matters be covered, too? If this is a problemI do not believe that it is, as it is already covered by the Data Protection Act 1998I cannot understand why MPs are being singled out. Might that not cause even more problems for other people, because the civil servants taking these decisions might well say that because the exemption applied only to MPs, there was effectively carte blanche? It could make the matter worse.
Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made the same point earlier. Furthermore, the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) also argued earlier that it would be entirely anomalous to have one regime for Members of the Welsh Assembly, county councillors, borough, district and unitary councillors, parish councillors and community councillors, but a different regime for MPs. Some people are both councillors and MPs. Some have been Welsh Assembly Members for a while as well as MPs, and some are currently Members of the Scottish Parliament and MPs. I have had letters written to meI suspect others may have had the same experiencestarting, Dear Councillor Hughes, on the basis that all elected people must be councillors.
Hywel Williams: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a demand in Wales and Scotland for greater powers for the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, that was one of the points made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) in his acceptance speech. He said that there was an appetite for such change across the parties in the Scottish Parliament. Hon. Members who do not share my view of the value of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament should take care when playing fast and loose with the good name of this place.
Simon Hughes: That is a concern. There are some other good examples of why we should not change the system. The Irish legislated in 1997; they now have very good freedom of information and data protection legislation that works extremely well. This Bill would mean a move back from such standards. The South Africans have a very open regime under their new constitution. The Indians too have a very open regime. The New Zealanders are debating at the moment whether to move in the direction of our present legislation, rather than away from it. I have not detected a debate anywhere else that proposes to reduce access.
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