Previous Section Index Home Page

There are things that we can do to reassure the public regarding matters of extreme delicacy or sensitivity. For example, if I thought that my local police commander was corrupt—that has never applied in my borough; I have never had that problem—I might ask to see their senior officer about the matter personally. MPs can always have oral communication, which does not carry the same risks as written communication. If I think that there is a risk of someone’s identity being disclosed, I regularly decide not to attribute a name to the person in my correspondence. I also ensure that the reference
18 May 2007 : Column 931
does not give away their identity. I will use the issue as the subject title, rather than the person’s name. There are ways of anonymising the correspondence that we deal with.

David Maclean: That is the point that I am making. Why should Members of Parliament have to pull their punches, anonymise and cover up in that way when we write to the chief constable, because we think that there is risk that the information will be released? Surely we have a right, and a duty, to set out the facts as we see them when we write to the chief constable, without fear that someone might release that correspondence by mistake.

Simon Hughes: There is no disagreement between us. I have just written to my local authority’s chief executive with a complaint about a local authority employee who I think has been behaving improperly. Obviously, I had to name the employee in the correspondence. I did not pull my punches. A constituent came to see me and made the complaint, I passed it on, and it has been taken seriously. I understand that the person has been suspended and that investigations are being pursued. I did not pull any punches, but I chose to do it that way.

I am making the point that there are alternatives if we choose to use them. They are not compulsory; we do not have to use them. I am sure that I have been direct with authorities about incompetent junior officials or inadequate responses as often as the right hon. Gentleman has. I am just saying that there is a range of outcomes and a range of ways in which we can do these things.

Norman Baker: The case that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) seems to be putting is that if a letter is written by a Member of Parliament to a public authority official, that official might release the letter by mistake, but that if the Bill were passed, the official would know not to do that. That is an absurd proposition.

Simon Hughes: It is.

Colleagues here who represent Wales and Scotland understand that we are in danger of further confusing the interconnection of our representative responsibilities. My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) made the extremely good point earlier that she might have to decide whether to write to a UK Government agency based in Scotland or one based in England, because the legislation in Scotland would be different from that in England. That would clearly be nonsense. There would also be different rules covering institutions abroad to which we might write. If we were dealing with agricultural payments, for example, and writing not only to the UK Government but to the Commission in Brussels, different rules might apply in each case.

I now want to deal with what I hope the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border and colleagues will accept is the most substantive reason why we do not have to go down this road, and why it would not only discredit this place but be unnecessary, wrong and foolish to do so. I have checked carefully with all the authorities, and since 1998 a huge amount of guidance,
18 May 2007 : Column 932
and a huge number of documents and regulations, have been produced to assist everybody to behave better in this matter.

Although we passed the Freedom of Information Act in 2000, it took five years to come into force, and in 1998 we passed the Data Protection Act. To put it simplistically, the Data Protection Act deals with how we access our own information, and the Freedom of Information Act deals with how we access information about others. Clause 2 of the Data Protection Act defines sensitive personal data as,

Therefore, some things were made sacrosanct from the beginning.

As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker)— this also relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Jim Cousins) about parliamentary privilege—sections 21 to 44 of the Freedom of Information Act provide exemptions anyway, some qualified and some not. Those are provided for all sorts of reasons: law enforcement; investigations and proceedings conducted by public authorities; prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs; health and safety; personal information; commercial interests; and, expressly, information provided in confidence. Some Members pushed for wider freedom of information, but, ultimately, there were lots of exemptions.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) reminded the House, we also passed the Data Protection (Processing Of Sensitive Personal Data) (Elected Representatives) Order 2002, under which Members of Parliament who write to authorities do not have to have express consent, because the implication is that people who come to see us and ask for help give their consent in doing so. That has made life easier.

Therefore, only five years ago we moved in the direction of providing more security to the protected route. Since then, we have had the Information Commissioner’s guidelines in 2004, the Department for Constitutional Affairs code of practice in November 2004, advice for Members’ offices in this place in April 2005, a House of Commons standard note on freedom of information requests in June 2005, a House of Commons freedom of information note in November 2005, the Information Commissioner’s Office’s “Freedom of Information Awareness Guidance”—Nos. 1, 2 and 13—in 2006 and 2007, and a further note from the House of Commons. So much guidance has been given to authorities.

To deal with the concerns of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, any authority or organisation can find guidance as to what they need to do on the Information Commissioner’s Office website. There are also two sanctions. First, if judgment is incorrectly exercised, it can be challenged—although of course, that is not as good as its not having been incorrectly exercised. Secondly, if people break the law they can be prosecuted, and the Information Commissioner will do that.

18 May 2007 : Column 933

I want to make a suggestion that I hope that the House will regard as constructive and sensible. We should say no to the Bill, because it is an overreaction to a set of issues that have either not been addressed or not been evidenced. If the House of Commons Commission has continuing concerns, it should ask an appropriate cross-party Committee to consider the matter, and a deliberative exercise should take place in which the Information Commissioner is asked to give evidence, colleagues can give evidence and the public can give evidence too.

It would be really stupid and foolish, however, for us to legislate to take the Parliament of the United Kingdom out of freedom of information legislation on the basis that it will protect our relationship with our constituents, which in almost every case has worked exceptionally well, with no evidence of any significant failure to date. I hope that the House will be clear about that.

I understand why the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border introduced the Bill. However, I hope that, having heard so little argument that justifies its support, the House will say no to it—and that if this House does not do that, the House of Lords will do what it often has to do, and stand up for the citizen against Parliament rather than standing up for Parliament against the citizen.

1.20 pm

Bridget Prentice: This has been a fascinating debate, although I doubt that many minds have been changed today—or, indeed, in our last debate on the Floor of the House some weeks ago, or in Committee.

The Government introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to create a more open relationship between the citizen and the state. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs hailed the Act as a significant success. We can see for ourselves that freedom of information requests have resulted in the release of information of real value to the public on such topics as operation success rates, the results of restaurant hygiene inspections, the living conditions of animals in zoos, and even the recipients of common agricultural policy payments. That increase in the flow of information from public authorities should, I believe, be seen as one of the most important reforms introduced by the Government, and a fundamental change in the culture of the country.

Information that is currently released by the Houses of Parliament under their publication schemes will continue to be released even if the Bill is enacted. In Committee, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) passed on an assurance to that effect from Mr. Speaker. The Government welcome the commitment to the changes brought about by the freedom of information legislation, and I personally thank Mr. Speaker for offering that assurance to the right hon. Gentleman.

Norman Baker: I apologise for the terrible cliché, but if it ain’t broke, why fix it? If the system is supposed to guarantee what is already released—if that is already in legislation—why do we need a paper guarantee?

18 May 2007 : Column 934

Bridget Prentice: I am not sure that that question should be directed at me. I am simply saying that a Labour Government introduced the Freedom of Information Act, after many years of work by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and others.

When my party was in opposition I was a member of what was then the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, chaired by Jim Pawsey, a Conservative Member at the time. I believe that you too were a member of the Committee, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We visited Australia and New Zealand, and looked at arrangements relating to freedom of information there. I think that ours was the first Committee of the House to suggest that the Government consider a Freedom of Information Act, so I feel I have some history when it comes to this subject.

When the House debated the Bill that became the Freedom of Information Act, Members on both sides argued for a strong Act that would give real force to freedom of information requests. That was entirely in keeping with the purpose of the Act. However, the Act was designed to enable open government to be balanced against the need for effective government. It was designed to help the public, not to disrupt the valuable work that Members of Parliament undertake on the public’s behalf.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), now Leader of the House, who was Home Secretary at the time. In a parliamentary answer last year, he said

My right hon. Friend now feels that perhaps this is an appropriate time to reflect on the Act. If the Act is interfering with hon. Members’ ability to serve their constituents, they should invite the House to look again at the protections that it offers.

It is clear there is increasing concern among Members about disclosure of their correspondence. Several Members have raised their concerns, both in the House and in correspondence with the Government.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): The Minister opened by saying that she doubts whether any Members’ views have been changed by the debate. I attended it perfectly prepared to hear evidence of the need for the Bill—to hear examples of the danger, which the Minister has just referred to, in respect of the relationship between Members and their constituents. However, as we have heard no such evidence, does the Minister not accept that in the absence of that—despite the considerable number of Members who have attended the debate and the considerable volume of correspondence that they must have had with, and about, their constituents—we must now be convinced that the Bill is not about the matter that it is claimed to
18 May 2007 : Column 935
be about but that there are ulterior motives in that there are other matters that Members wish to protect from proper public scrutiny?

Bridget Prentice: I cannot accept that on the following basis: it is not for me to instruct, encourage or advise Members on the contents of their speeches on this Bill. I have tried to make it clear in this debate and on previous occasions that the Government are neutral on this Bill. It is entirely up to individual Members to decide which side of the fence they are on. If my hon. Friend feels that a convincing argument has not been made by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border and others, he should vote accordingly. I am not prepared to say or do anything to influence him on that.

Jim Cousins: Have the Government had representations from any quarter—from the data protection authorities, the Information Commissioner, or anyone else—that there has been any abuse of the public interest override on personal data? Has the Minister received evidence of that from any source?

Bridget Prentice: I can say to my hon. Friend that Members have raised concerns about that on a number of occasions, both in parliamentary questions to me and in points raised on the Floor of the House with the Leader of the House. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has commented that as this Bill is before the House, our debates on it would be an appropriate occasion for Members to debate such issues.

Dr. Evan Harris: The Minister has explained that the Government are neutral, and I do not doubt her own sincerity—she has not voted on the Bill. Are the Government neutral because they are neutral as to whether the Freedom of Information Act 2000 needs to be amended or are they neutral only as to whether it requires amendment in respect of correspondence being released—or are they neutral only because MPs are affected and therefore it is for the House to decide? In other words, if a Bill were introduced that said that councillors’ correspondence should be exempt or all health service correspondence should be exempt, would the Government also be neutral?

Bridget Prentice: The Government are neutral on this particular Bill and its contents. We keep all such matters under scrutiny, and if it were proposed to us that there should be further scrutiny of the 2000 Act we would certainly consider that.

An MP should be able to offer their constituents an assurance that if that Member writes to a public body on their behalf their private affairs will remain confidential. The personal details of constituents and the issues they raise should remain private and there should be no danger of that information being released to the media or in any other form.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): I have dealt with a sensitive immigration case involving freedom of information and, in the end, the papers were not released, so some would claim that the legislation worked well. However, I will support the Bill because I want there to be the avoidance of doubt, so that people no longer go through the anguished waiting that the family involved in that case had to endure.

18 May 2007 : Column 936

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and similar examples have been referred to earlier. It is for Members to decide whether the Bill would give the certainty that my hon. Friend is looking for, or if there are sufficient obstacles in the current legislation to prevent information from being released. That is a decision that Parliament must make. It is entirely up to individual Members of this House to decide, on balance, which of those two things would improve the Act and their ability to represent their constituents. The Government obviously recognise the right to privacy that constituents deserve. I suppose that those advocating this Bill would say that it is about protecting not Members of Parliament but their constituents. If information is exempt from release under the Act, it should not be released; there are already exemptions to protect such information.

Mark Fisher: I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will she concede that the Bill is not confined solely to correspondence? It goes much wider than that and is not solely about protecting correspondence or the identity of our constituents—assuming that that is the right way to go about doing so, instead of using the Data Protection Act 1998. The Bill covers all sorts of correspondence and does not address the particular point that was raised. I am sure that she will confirm that, given her knowledge of the Bill.

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend is right, but of course, the exemption in the Bill is a qualified one. The Bill does cover other areas, including expenses, although I have no huge problem with that. I am not party to those expenses, so it does not affect me; however, that is a personal issue.

Where it would be unfair to release personal data, they are exempt; where information is provided in confidence, it is exempt. However, those are legal tests. The exemption in proposed new section 34A would cover MPs’ correspondence as a class of information—the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) made a moment ago. It is therefore entirely right for Parliament to discuss whether the current protections are enough and whether the proposed exemption is necessary.

It is a real concern in itself that Members fear that information that should properly be withheld might be released. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 should not inhibit the flow of the information that is so valuable in our modern society, and I would not want our constituents to feel that they cannot ask their elected representatives for help. The Government recognise, however, that this issue is clearly of concern to many Members—hence so many being here on a Friday—so it is right that the House debate it and those concerns be addressed. It is up to Members of this House to decide whether the Bill progresses to another place.

Jo Swinson: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance. A lot of Members who rose to speak on Report were not called, and many are rising to speak now. Mr. Speaker said on Wednesday that

18 May 2007 : Column 937

Will you give an assurance that, in line with that guidance, you will use your discretion not to allow a closure motion while Members are still rising to speak on behalf of their constituents?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The closure motion must be entirely a matter for the Chair, having taken into consideration the way that the debate has been conducted. The hon. Lady has raised a point of order and if she looks back through Hansard and sees how much time has been taken up by points of order today, she may perhaps revise her views.

Next Section Index Home Page