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Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): This has been a very interesting debate and let me say at the outset that the Conservative party remains neutral on this Bill. As many Members have pointed out, a balance clearly needs to be struck between ensuring that freedom of information requests can be made to maintain accountability, and between the right of elected Members to carry out their business and represent their constituents interests without excessive intrusion.
I hear the opposition to this Bill as expressed sincerely by the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) and for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes)they made their points welland the belief that, the law apart, this will appear to be a retreat from the advance of freedom of information, and that it looks bad because MPs are treating themselves as being different. If the Bill is passed, the intention of the Bill will need to be carefully explained to the public. It could also be pointed out, however, that should the Bill fail, MPs will not have the right to stop FOI requests made against public bodies when MPs have written to local authorities on their constituents behalf. Ultimately it will still be the public authority and not the MP who would in law have the right to decide whether the information was released. There is no guarantee built into the law, only guidelines, to ensure that the public authority would inform the MP.
David Maclean: On the subject of guidelines, has my hon. Friend seen the four pages of detailed guidelines relating to the handling of MPs correspondence? They are so woolly that it is as if they were written by 10 QCs on different sides of the argument. On the one hand, one may do this or that, this may be released, that may be secret, one may consult or one may not consult. It is almost impossible to follow the guidelines and that is why we need a simple Act of Parliament stating that in all circumstances our correspondence is protected.
The lack of a guarantee may have the unintended consequence of preventing MPs from pressing their constituents issues as openly as they have been able to do until now, for fear that what they say may be more likely to embarrass the constituent at a later stage. I do
not think that the information tribunals decision on 16 January 2007, confined as it was to Members travel allowances, need prevent us from action here. It would, however, have been helpful if the Information Commissioner had gone further and expressed the interrelationship between freedom of information and data protection in wider terms than he did in his judgment, not least because it would have prevented much of the existing confusion about MPs staffing arrangements and data protection issues. In the meantime, the Information Commissioner seems to be waiting for the result of this Bill before issuing clearer guidelines.
Julia Goldsworthy: There has been an exchange about the need for regulation and how the area is woolly. Surely the key problem is that if there is a lack of awareness, it is important that enforcement action is taken when breaches of FOI legislation take place, rather than simply more regulation to confuse the matter even more.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is strong potential for a deterrent effect on constituents, who may be reluctantto my personal regret and, I am sure, that of other hon. Membersto approach their MP because they fear that their case may later be rehearsed in public?
My partys position on this issue was set out by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) on 20 April, and it is that we are neutral on this Bill and believe that it is for Parliament to take a view on a free vote on how best to proceed.
Mr. Winnick: I find it difficult to believe that the occupants of the Front Benches are neutral. I can only come to the obvious conclusion that they support the measure. Nor should there be any doubt about those hon. Members who have come in to support the Bill. There has been a campaignin line with parliamentary tradition, I supposeto get Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Ministers into the Chamber. Some have come in, and others have refused or have other duties; otherwise there would not have been 100 voting for the closure motion.
The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) has said that the amendments are wrecking amendments. All that I would say about the amendments is that, if the Bill is to become law, it would be better were the amendments carried. They would make the Bill less obnoxious. I am totally
opposed to what the right hon. Gentleman seeks to do. It is wrong and it is against the interests of Parliament. We are in danger of bringing ourselves into disrepute.
Nor do I for one moment accept the justification made repeatedly that the measure is about confidentiality. Let me make it clear: when constituents write to me, as they have done over all the years that I have been a Member, they do so on the basis that their letters are confidential, and when I write on their behalf to officialdomwhich, like other Members, I do day in, day outI work on the assumption that the information, some of which is extremely personal, is confidential. If there is a problem, the Data Protection Act could be used.
Members who spoke did not cite cases where correspondence had actually been released. There was more concern about the threat of release.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) pointed out that he was neutral, although in cases of breaches of confidentiality there could be an argument for the measure, but I do not believe that there is any such necessity or justification.
It has been said that information about expenses could be requested that was completely unjustified, because it related not to us but to our staff. In fact, an application was made in respect of Members staff, but no one would justify thatnot that I would call it expenses; I pay my secretary a salary, not expenses. A certificate was issued by the Speaker under section 36(6) of the Freedom of Information Act to stop the information being given. The Speaker has the necessary authority and has used it to issue five certificates. In my view, his authority is justified and in the case of essential protections there is sufficient leeway in the existing law.
It has been said that if the Bill becomes law, information about our expenses will be published. I have no doubt that the Speakers letter reflects what will happen, but there are some interesting points. Publication would be optional; it will not be part of the law. What a future House of Commons will do is a different matterthe process is entirely optional. Any local authority could make the same argument. Local councils could say that they did not need the law because they had given assurances that the necessary information about councillors expenses would be published. Would we really be satisfied with that? If not, why should people be satisfied with what is being proposed in the Billthat publication would be optional? Why should we be different?
Julia Goldsworthy: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a question not just of the expenses of individual MPs, but of the administration of the House of Commons? We would not, for example, be able to find outas we did last yearthat renovation in the House was being undertaken using unsustainable sources. That shows how freedom of information legislation allows such information to enter the public domain and ensures that the best standards are upheld.
Mr. Winnick: I completely agree. I take the view that as Labour Members we should be proud to support a Labour Government who introduced the Freedom of Information Act, which all our predecessors, and certainly the last Conservative Government, refused to do. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)if I may have his attention for a momentintroduced a private Members Bill that was rejected by the previous Government, so if there is to be any party political propaganda, all I shall say at the moment is that I am pleased we brought the Act into being. Finding squalid reasons to exempt ourselves from it would be wrong.
It was not my intention to make a long speech. I know that other hon. Members rightly want to speak, so I conclude by saying that even if we work on the assumption that we have nothing to hide, the public will inevitably come to the opposite conclusion. They will not conclude that this is about confidentiality, because no evidence exists for that. In answer to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, I should say that no constituent of mine has ever complained that information that they have given me as the Member of Parliament has gone into the public domain. The public will reach only one conclusion: that we have something to hide. That is why we are doing ourselves a disservice. Even if we do not have anything to hide, that will be the view that so many of the public will take.
What is intended today may well be carried, because, as I said, enough people have been enlisted. If the Bill is enacted, the danger is that we will do ourselves a grave disservice. We will be bringing into law an Act that puts a question mark over our integrity and our honesty, and that is all the more reason why I hope that, either today or in another place, the Bill is defeated.
Mr. Shepherd: I apologise to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick); at that very moment, I was berating my Front-Bench spokesman. I echo what has been almost the universal theme of this House: this is a dreadful Bill. It arose out of the Commission losing a casethat is what this is about. It lost a case not on the correspondence of Members of Parliament, but on their expenses.
Let us consider this Bill and its construction. What does it seek to do? It seeks to remove the House of Commons as a public authority. That is the first point that should be made. If it were just about the correspondence of Members of Parliament, one could have approached the matter in a number of ways. But it is not, and the catch-allthe whole purpose of thisis to remove this place as an accountable body within the terms of the statute. The illusory even-handedness of the Minister and others in this House is just that: illusory.
Should we stand back from a measure that received pre-legislative scrutiny from the Public Administration Committee and, similarly, from the House of Lords? Following representations from a great number of people, distinguished jurists and so on, and the consideration of international experience, a conclusion was reached: why should Parliament be excluded?
The Government, on reflection, decided that Parliament should not be excluded, but they recognised, in the creation of the Freedom of Information Act, that it would need a long lead-in timefive yearsso that public authorities could prepare themselves for publication. The legislation has been in force for only 30 months, and, as yet, the Government have done no review of its workings and they have not identified any weaknesses in it.
We come on to the purported reason that is given for this Bill: that we are vulnerable in the correspondence that we, as Members of Parliament, have with public authorities. It has been laid before this House more than adequatelythat is certainly not what happened in the processes that took us to this Third Readingwhereby the arguments could be examined and tested, and proper evidence adduced. However, none has been. We have had relayed conversations and we have seen a wafted, redacted page in front of us. Who redacted what? Was it the public authority removing the personal details of an individual? Or did Members of Parliament fear that coming into the Chamber they might drop something and someone else would have knowledge of a constituent? I am trying to argue that the fear is not reasonable.
The Bill will be perceived as the House of Commonsand, stuck in with us, the House of Lordslooking to its personal interests. What are its personal interests? They are, no less, the administration of the House of Commons, and its expenses and costs. The point has been well made that that is public expenditure. The Bill will also cover our proper personal claims. Those are public moneys raised through taxation. I argue that no citizen in this country is not entitled to know those sums being paid by the people. That is a matter of principle, not just an argument of politics. The House is misjudging the situation if it thinks that the political judgment of excluding itself from the Freedom of Information Act is clever. The press will itemise and examine Members of Parliament.
In a curious way, the adventure of my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border returns us to the 18th century. In truth, many Members of Parliament fear the revelation not of the personal details of an individual constituentwe have seen no evidence to suggest that that is a legitimate fearbut of the comments that they themselves make in a document. A Member might say, I know that there is a road coming through my constituency and I think that it is a good idea, but my constituents might not think that. I want my personal opinion on this matter to be weighed, but not available to those whom we represent and whom elect us. In the 18th century, it was ghastly to think that the mere vulgar public beyond the House of Commons should know the arguments of Parliament and the reasons behind its deliberations. The House sat in secret and it was a criminal offence to publish its deliberations.
This extraordinary Bill seeks something that is wholly and absolutely inappropriate. The House should reject it, and do so cheerily, although as I look at the dour faces surrounding me, I have no confidence that that will be the outcome. We have been driven to a
point at which a fewa band of stalwarts unsupported by Front Benchersare trying to oppose a measure that is motivated and driven by something else. As the hon. Members for Walsall, North and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) pointed out, this is so particular that it smells like bad fish. How will it allow us to reassure people and give them confidence?
The Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), is in the Chamber. He, twice, has moved that the House sit in private. He might have had a legitimate reasonwe know the reasons why he did sobut on the face of it, it looks as though the Chairman of the Joint Committee wants the House to sit in private.
Mr. Shepherd: I have not quite finished. It is the hon. Gentlemanthis friend of Whips; this currier of favour [ Interruption. ] I must rephrase that; this friend of Labour Whips. The hon. Gentleman has promoted a Bill, which is listed on the Order Paper, that would extend the definition of a public authority so that it would encompass private bodies. The fact that a man charged with such responsibility now wants us to limit the very nature of public authorities strikes at the heart of the purposes of this place. This has been a very clever affair.
Mr. Dismore: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on the Bill. On the procedural motions that I moved, I simply say that he knows full well that that is the only way to test the quorum of the House. It is a deviceno more, no less.
What my argument stands on, too, is the fact that the process has been wrong. I emphasised that at the beginning and I re-emphasise it now. We knowour history tells us, other Members tell us, authorities say itthat a parliamentary majority is not just X divided by two plus one; it is the process by which we arrive at it. I do not believe that anyone outside this place looking at the way in which Members who tabled amendments were unable to speak to them because there was not time would understand. I have to accept thatit is the ruling of the Chairbut do we not want the public whom we represent and whose servants we are to be confident in the way in which we arrive at our decisions?
The first clause of the Billthe removal of Parliament as a public authorityis enough to damn it. The second clause is so particular that it gives the lie to the greater aspirations. That is why I oppose it, too. I simply cannot imagine how the world will look upon
us who say, My expenses are a private matter. My opinions as put in letters that have been redacted are a private matter. I alone shall be the judge of whether these are released or not. I alone. What is so special about I alone? Is there not a member of a public authority who would not very much like their letters also to have such privilege, and publication of their expenses also to be at their discretion? The particularisation is explicit in the Bill.
No Conservative could support this Bill. No Conservative party could support it. We stand for prudence and for something wider: liberty and the representation of the people who send us to represent them here. I know that that is true for many Members of Parliament on both sides of the House. I regret that they may not be here today to demonstrate that this Bill is wrong.
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