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22 Jan 2009 : Column 921

Ms Harman: I will give way to the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who is a fellow member of the Commission.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I was interested by the answer the Leader of the House gave to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) that if freedom of information requests seek to go further than her 26-category scheme, the House will accede to those requests. The House announced last July after the High Court ruling that we would publish down to receipt level. Today, the right hon. and learned Lady is introducing a 26-category scheme. If we are to be compelled to answer queries going down to receipt level in the way she has described, will we not in fact be leaving randomly in the hands of freedom of information applicants the decision as to which Members’ information comes out to receipt level and which Members’ information simply comes down to a category level? Has not this House previously always taken the view that the rule for one is the rule for all?

Ms Harman: If, as I hope, we pass this motion on the publication scheme, every year the public will be able to see this information on every Member without there being any freedom of information request. As a matter of routine, information on what each Member has actually spent in any year will be brought forward and published, and broken down into 26 detailed categories.

There is also a question to do with Freedom of Information Act requests—both those that have already been made and have not yet been complied with and those that might be made in the future. The House authorities, the data holders, will decide, according to the law as it stands, what their obligations are in responding to those requests for information.

Mr. Winnick: According to the law.

Ms Harman: Precisely so. The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) is a long-standing member of the Members Estimate Committee, to which I pay tribute. He rightly points out that the MEC has said that if it is fair for information to be given out in respect of one Member because somebody has requested it, the same information should be given out in respect of every Member. It is my understanding that nobody need worry that any Member will be left out, because the 180 Freedom of Information Act requests in the pipeline cover every Member of the House. We will decide the publication scheme and the House authorities will implement it. It is important that the public are able to see the information according to these categories.

The other aspect is the request for receipts down to individual receipt level. I understand that 1.2 million such receipts have been the subject of Freedom of Information Act requests. The House authorities have been scanning the receipts since last summer, so that they can be disclosed. The scanning—a massive task—has not yet been completed, but it will be soon. Of course, the receipts have to be redacted before they are published. Before anybody thinks that there is any sort of cover up in relation to the redaction—redaction means crossing
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out things with a black felt tip pen or with the electronic equivalent—may I point out that the receipts contain information that it would not be right to put into the public domain? For example, an hon. Member might buy a ream of paper from a stationer’s and at the same time purchase a Valentine’s card. Of course they would pay for that themselves, but the receipt showing “purchased: one lurid Valentine’s card” should not be put into the public domain. The claim for a ream of paper on the allowances, however, should be put into the public domain. Information about things that Members have paid for themselves must be crossed out on these receipts.

Indeed, we identified that need when we saw the claims made by the hon. Member for North Devon. The House authorities gave us an example, from which we could see where he shopped—he is a man of regular habits—and how he paid, and at what time and on what day. That information need not be put into the public domain—unless one wants to meet him at one of his regular shopping venues. Intriguingly, we were also able to learn what shampoo and hair conditioner he buys; clearly he was not claiming those purchases on the parliamentary allowance, but they caught my eye when I saw the unredacted receipts. The serious point is that the House authorities have been hard at work making sure that the public are given the information to which they are entitled under the freedom of information provisions, but we must not tip into the public domain a load of personal and private information in respect of which no claim has been made.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): There is an even more serious point to make. Earlier, we heard a statement from Mr. Speaker about an investigation involving an hon. Member and some threats against hon. Members. If receipts contained Members’ London addresses, releasing that information would pose a great threat to them. Although the light-hearted points are good ones, the serious point is that some information could compromise hon. Members’ safety and security.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which has also been an issue in respect of the redaction of information on receipts. This House, at the initiative of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), passed a freedom of information statutory instrument to remove from the disclosure anything that could reveal the addresses of Members. For example, in respect of invoices or mortgage statements containing the address of the premises, we carved a bit out of the Freedom of Information Act because we did not want to put Members’ addresses into the public domain. That statutory instrument also dealt with Members’ regular travel plans; the question of regular shopping—shopping at the same time at a particular shop—would also arise in this regard. We must put into the public domain information that is required by law, but that is not as easy a job as it might seem, given that we are talking about 1.2 million receipts.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab) rose—

Ms Harman: I shall give way to my hon. Friend, who usually sits to my right. I do not know whether there is some significance to his sitting somewhere else.

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The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): It is not his main residence.

Andrew Mackinlay: I invite the Leader of the House to deal with the following point. We also have obligations to third parties under the Data Protection Act 1998. Surely that is the most important thing, because the documentation could contain the telephone numbers and details of other people. I am talking not about businesses, but other individuals. I would like her to deal with the Data Protection Act, because that is the other side of the same coin. We need adequate time to review the receipts, not on a disc, but on paper, and argue for any redactions that are necessary. I want an assurance on that, because I understand that the person who runs this was talking about the information being on a screen—that is not the way to deal with hundreds of bits of paper. We need the information on bits of paper so that we can go through things and redact. I hope that there is agreement on that.

Ms Harman: My excellent deputy points out that the Bench on which my hon. Friend is sitting is not his main residence. There are issues to address in relation to the Data Protection Act and protecting information on third parties. He makes the point that although it might be evident to a Member what something might reveal, with the best will in the world and however professional they are, it might not be evident to the people doing the redacting and the scanning. That is why the Members Estimate Committee has agreed to set up, and the House authorities have set up, provision to ensure that once the 1.2 million receipts have been scanned, each Member will be notified and will be given an electronic version of their receipts going back to April 2004—that is a lot of receipts.

Hon. Members will have to check this with the House authorities, but I understand that if a request for a hard copy is made, Members will be able to see one—the Clerk of the House nods in assent. That will enable them to go through things and say what information should be crossed out and what should be left in. When the scanning exercise has been finished and this information has been given to Members, they will be given a month to go through all their receipts dating back to 2004 to check each one before it goes into the public domain. People may think that a month is a long time and they may think that feet are being dragged, but that is not the case, because a lot of receipts are involved and Members have their work to get on with in the meantime. They have the business of this House and the business in their constituencies to attend to, so they need time to check the receipts, and a month has been settled on as the right period.

Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab) rose—

Ms Harman: I shall give way to my hon. Friend, who is also a member of the House of Commons Commission and Chair of the Finance and Services Committee.

Sir Stuart Bell: The Leader of the House says that 1.2 million bits of paper will be put into the machinery and will be published under the Freedom of Information Act. Will she confirm that the cost to the taxpayer of dealing with those 1.2 million documents is £1.2 million?

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Ms Harman: I think it is a bit more than that—I believe it is more like £2 million-odd. There is no doubt that it is an expensive exercise.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): If the new regime that the Leader of the House is describing is to be as open as we want it to be, presumably there will be no reason to exempts MPs in future from freedom of information legislation. I think she has been asked twice about that, without giving a clear answer. Will she simply say that no future attempt will be made to exempt Members of Parliament from freedom of information legislation?

Ms Harman: The House fully supported the freedom of information statutory instrument that we introduced last summer, and I am glad that no Minister at that point had made a grandiose commitment from the Dispatch Box never to provide any exemption; otherwise, we could not have introduced that statutory instrument providing an exemption for the sake of security, with which the House agreed.

If I may, I want to discuss what I am introducing today. I am not introducing the statutory instrument on freedom of information, and I shall deal with that in my speech. If any hon. Member intends to ask that same question, perhaps they will desist, but I am happy to give way to hon. Members who want to ask a different question.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I welcome the clear understanding that the Freedom of Information Act will be fully complied with in the release of material in the 26 categories. Does the Minister accept that that may require a further publication schedule and programme to ensure that redaction is consistent between hon. Members’ releases of information, and that the issue is finalised with no further challenges to what has been put in the public domain and what has been redacted? All hon. Members must have an equal opportunity to release their material on the basis of a consistent programme of redaction, which should be based on a publications programme beyond the 26 categories that my right hon. and learned Friend said will be in the public domain?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend’s point was the subject of his amendment—I examined it carefully—which was not selected. I know that other hon. Members supported it, but my understanding is that it is unnecessary because provisions are already in place on how the House authorities will go about the process of publication under the Freedom of Information Act in response to the requests that they already have. It may not be called a scheme with a capital “S”, but a programme of work according to clear criteria has been undertaken since July, and will produce something like the book I have here, which is what Congress has. It is published quarterly, and includes matters such as maintenance of the water cooler and sending recorded delivery letters. If any hon. Members want to see what it is likely to look like, they can come to my office and read this book.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): It was said that hon. Members would have a month to go through 1.2 million receipts. Will the Leader of the House assure us that when Members’ feedback has gone back into the
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system, they will have an opportunity to check that the corrections have been made before the receipts go into the public domain? If a mistake is made the first time round, hon. Members should have the opportunity to check that it has been corrected before publications, especially for issues such as credit card numbers, telephone numbers and home addresses.

Ms Harman: In the first instance, there will be an opportunity to raise mistakes with the House authorities, who will understand that something may have been evident to hon. Members and to people in their local area, but not to the House authorities or those working under contract to them. If there is a dispute about whether the House authorities were right to insist on not redacting, I think I am right that the next port of call is the Members Estimate Committee and, ultimately, the Speaker. I hope that there will be as much discussion and flexibility as possible, and I am sure that that is how the House authorities will want to deal with the matter.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that the High Court ruled that individual receipts should be released because it was not satisfied with the rigour of the auditing process in the House? Now that she is putting forward a more rigorous and independent auditing system, people are concerned about what will happen in future. Might it be unnecessary to go down to receipt level, with the costs and effort involved, if the Court, the information appeals tribunal and the Information Commissioner were satisfied that the auditing process was rigorous enough? It was upsetting the public that we would do something different from what other people in similar positions must do. Has the right hon. and learned Lady done any research into whether High Court judges and other senior people who take money from the public purse—for example, in the BBC—for allowances and who have good auditing procedures in place must reveal millions of individual receipts? If they do not, why should we have to do so once we have improved procedures in place?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman captures the spirit of the High Court decision that in the absence of rules with sufficient clarity and of audit with the necessary independence, the balance of public interest lies in publication of information down to receipt level. If the House accepts the resolutions today, the legal position may change. The House must comply with its legal obligations, and having complied with past legal obligations, including information down to receipt level, the view may be taken that although we might not be under a legal obligation to provide that information in the future, we may as well do so as we have done it in the past. Such a decision would be over and above the legal obligations, if the view were taken that the legal obligations can be satisfied with 26 categories, and a strong Green Book and audit. Two decisions are involved—the legal decision, and the public policy decision on whether, having published receipts once, it is sensible to go back on that and not publish them in future.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): What the right hon. and learned Lady has just said is of great interest. Many of us believe that if the scheme and the audit proposals had been in place three years ago, the
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matter would not have gone to the tribunal and the High Court, and we would not have the unholy mess that we now have. However, the fact is that she is proposing a scheme of publication that falls short of that full disclosure that the High Court has determined is correct—[Hon. Members: “It does not.”] I am sorry, but it falls short of the full disclosure that the High Court has determined must be the case under the existing scheme. Is she suggesting that that should be tested again through the Information Tribunal and the courts, or does she plan to introduce an alternative scheme of full disclosure to full receipt level? If she intends to leave the matter where it is, and if someone makes an application, whether that goes to the tribunal and what the decision is will be left to fate.

Ms Harman: I shall make the position absolutely clear for the hon. Gentleman. Nothing in the resolutions alters the legal obligations on the House authorities in respect of freedom of information requests under the old regime. Nothing in the resolutions affects that. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said that the court made its decision about the balance of public interest requiring full disclosure down to receipt level because of the lack of clear rules and the absence of audit, and asked whether there would be a requirement in future to produce receipts when the matter has been sorted out. What I said is that I think that, in its own right and irrespective of anything that the court might say or any FOI request that might be made, the regime that I am proposing to the House today—which has been the subject of discussion by the APMA and the Members Estimate Committee—is a good regime. But there remains the question of whether this regime will satisfy the obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. I contend that there is a good legal argument that it might do so, but we are not bound to do just the minimum that the law requires: we might think that, having revealed the receipts for past expenditure, it might not be appropriate to stop producing receipts even though the legal obligation has been superseded by the new motions that I have tabled.

I have spoken for some 40 minutes, and I am anxious to answer hon. Members’ questions, but I do not want to try the patience of the House. From all the meetings and discussions that I have had, I know that this speech could go on for 40 hours. Like the 1.2 million receipts, this is a marathon, not a sprint, but I do not want to deprive other hon. Members of the opportunity to speak. I urge hon. Members not to repeat questions that have been asked. If they are struggling to understand my answers, they can ask me after the debate, and I will try to be as helpful as I can.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Will the Leader of the House give way?

Ms Harman: The hon. Lady asked a question on this issue in business questions, so I am cancelling her out on this occasion.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): As a co-signatory of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), I think that we are doing the right thing on this occasion. Up to now, the public perception has been, rightly or wrongly, that
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the House has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, each step of the way. However, what the Leader of the House now proposes probably goes beyond our legal obligation because it says that if constituents are in doubt about the size of a particular cost, we are willing to go down to receipt level to satisfy them. That is the right thing to do, and we are right to go further than we are absolutely required to go by law. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on doing so.

Ms Harman: I said that I did not want any more questions, but if they are like that one, I would like to encourage them. I thank my hon. Friend for his comment.

The bottom line is that we will comply with our legal obligations both for the past and in the future. There has never been any doubt about that. In the past, we have put under one heading the costs of staying away from our main home. Under the publication scheme, that global figure will be broken down to mortgage interest, rent, hotel costs, council tax and so on. That will provide a clearer picture for our constituents.

The fourth motion would turn the Advisory Panel on Members’ Allowances, which has existed since July 2001, into a formal Committee of the House. We are grateful to the APMA for the work that it has done and it is time that it should be formally constituted. That would put the Committee on the same footing as a Select Committee in that it would be able to call for evidence and publish its own reports. Nothing in the motion—or in any other motion today—prejudices the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards or the very important work of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

As the Prime Minister, and then I, told the House yesterday, we have attempted to reach agreement on all these issues. We introduced a statutory instrument which would mean that these resolutions replaced the FOI provisions that apply to the House. The official Opposition said on Tuesday that they do not support the FOI statutory instrument so we have not moved it and I will seek further discussions with the Opposition, as I always do on all matters, and with other hon. Members. But it remains important that we pass these resolutions today. They provide for clearer rules, tougher audit and more transparency. I hope that at least on these resolutions, that is something on which we can all agree. I commend the motions to the House.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has not selected any of the amendments that were tabled, and I hope that hon. Members will respect that fact.

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