As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
Exemption of House of Commons and House of Lords
I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 1, line 3, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
‘2 In Part 1 of Schedule 1 (public authorities) after “House of Commons”, insert “but in relation to the House of Commons only in relation to information concerning the expenditure of any member of that House in execution of their public duties”.
2A In Part 1 of Schedule 1 (public authorities) after “House of Lords”, insert “but in relation to the House of Lords only in relation to the information concerning the expenditure of any member that House in execution of their public duties.”’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 1, in page 1, line 3, leave out subsection (2).
No. 3, in page 1, line 3, leave out ‘paragraphs 2 and 3’ and insert ‘paragraph 2’.
No. 5, in page 1, line 3, leave out ‘paragraphs 2 and 3’ and insert ‘paragraph 3’.
No. 4, in page 1, line 4, leave out ‘relate to the House of Commons and the House of Lords’ and insert ‘relates to the House of Commons’.
No. 6, in page 1, line 4, leave out ‘relate to the House of Commons and’ and insert ‘relates to’.
No. 32, in title, line 1, leave out ‘exempt from its provisions’ and insert
‘to provide for certain exemptions from its provisions for’.
No. 33, in title, line 2, leave out ‘the House of Commons and House of Lords and’.
No. 34, in title, line 2, leave out ‘the House of Commons’.
No. 35, in title, line 2, leave out ‘the House of Lords’.
I wish to speak to amendment No. 9, which stands in my name and in those of the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) and for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The other amendments in the group stand in the same names.
We have a very serious matter before us today. This is a debate about whether there should be amendments to an Act that would restrict the freedom of information of the public on matters concerning this House and individual Members of Parliament. The Bill is seriously misguided, with the greatest respect to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), who is trying to address a particular problem. The previous proceedings on the Bill, which in essence consisted of one hour’s debate in Committee, revealed no evidence justifying a need for it.
I shall try not only to show how the present legislation appears to work, and to work well, in our interests, but to explain that it would be extremely bad politics, as well as extremely bad law, for us to seek at this stage, when Parliament is hardly the most well-regarded institution in the land, to exempt the House of Commons or the House of Lords, or both, from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
What would the hon. Gentleman say to those who say that the House of Commons decides on freedom of information for almost everybody, but is attempting to exempt itself? Does not that make a mockery of the House of Commons? If this measure was passed into law, which I hope that it will not be, it would do a great disservice to Members of Parliament, because the inevitable reaction would be, “Well, of course, MPs have something to hide.” I hope that none of us has anything to hide, but the suspicion will be that we are trying to hide our expenses, travelling allowances and the rest of it. That would do a grave disservice to Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point very early on, and I am grateful for that expression of a clear view. He has been a Member of this House for an extremely long time, and for the whole of the period of the debates he has argued for freedom of information. He will remember, as I do, that one of the things that the Labour Government did, to their credit, when they were first elected was to take up the argument, which had been going on for a very long time, that we should have freedom of information legislation, and undertook, as we both argued at the time, that that should be coupled with the protection of data by other legislation. Both those regimes are in place, covering thousands of organisations and public authorities. Every Government Department, local council in the land and agency of the public service in the land is obliged to be open about what it does.
All the evidence from the United States and other countries with freedom of information legislation is that that has been a good thing. For example, it has made for better environmental standards, better water quality and better quality of administration and of public service. Like the hon. Gentleman, I would be extremely perturbed. In the past few days, as the reality of this Bill has become more widely known, it has become apparent that the public would be very concerned. At the very moment when we were trying to establish that we were doing a decent job for our constituents, the Bill would have the direct consequence of exempting information on how we spend our money, what contracts we place and our expenses, unless we voluntarily agreed to provide it. Voluntary agreement has never been an acceptable answer for Government Departments, Government agencies or local authorities, so it should not be acceptable for us. Although Mr. Speaker has indicated that the intention of the Speaker’s Office and of the Commission would be to carry on as we are, there would be no guarantee of that; we could rescind that at any time, by one vote. That position is completely unacceptable.
The further point, which the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) made well, is that the Bill would mean that although, back in the late 1990s, we came to a considered conclusion that Parliament should be included in freedom of information legislation, suddenly, with no proper consideration, consultation or taking of evidence, we would exclude not lots of people and organisations, but only ourselves—and for those really lucky, good people, we may let them see some things because we are very kind and generous. That would be the implication and that is why the proposition is fundamentally mistaken. It is also one that comes to us having had no serious consideration.
I shall make one more point before giving way to the hon. Gentleman.
One thing is seriously troubling, and I accept that we are all at fault in one sense. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border was quite entitled to draft his private Member’s Bill, bring it to Parliament and have it put on the Order Paper. When he moved the Second Reading on 19 January, the rest of us were taken by surprise and objections were not made. Had they been, we would not have been in our position today, because the Bill would have been put back and had a Second Reading later, if at all. The Bill has not had a Second Reading involving any debate, only one that put it through on the nod. What was disturbing was that at that moment, the Government, who usually make it clear that they are willing to object at that stage so that there can be a debate, were silent; the Whip on the Treasury Bench who would usually object to make sure that a private Member’s Bill was properly debated, was silent.
The rest of us should have spotted what had appeared at the bottom of the list. Although somewhat belated, opposition will be heard in its full form today, and, if the right hon. Gentleman persists, later as well. However, it was very sad that the Government did not object on 19 January. The clear implication was—I read the speech made by the Minister in Committee—that the Government would be neutral about the issue. I understand that position, but usually the Government will facilitate an opportunity for debate even if they are neutral about a Bill. So far, they have not done so in this case.
The usual channels wish to make the Bill pass into law. My Government brought in the Freedom of Information Act 2000—all credit to them for that; the previous Government had refused to do so. However, there is a suspicion that the Government are collaborating with the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), who has introduced this private Member’s Bill.
Obviously, I accept that, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I wanted to report what the Minister said accurately— she rightly said that she was not taking a view. I want to make my position and that of colleagues clear on the amendments. This is a Friday, and it is the tradition of this House, strongly supported by Mr. Speaker and you and your colleagues Madam Deputy Speaker, that there should not be whipped votes on Fridays. I should like to make it clear that there is no whipped vote on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I shadow the Government on constitutional issues; I oppose this Bill and shall say so. Colleagues will form their own views. However, I am clear that the amendments are personal to the colleagues who have supported them.
The hon. Gentleman has moved on a little from the point that I want to make. Mr. Speaker has made it clear that expenses and allowances would continue to be published. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I tabled a new clause—unfortunately, it has not been accepted—that would have put that stipulation in the Bill. That would have been preferable, but the fact remains that it is inconceivable that our allowances would not continue to be published as they are at present. The public would expect that, and nothing in the Bill would stop that.
The difference is that if the legislation stated that allowances should be published, they would have to be, because people would ask for that. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes was one of those who did ask that allowances in relation to travel expenses should be published, and they were—but only after he had to take on the matter, not only with the House authorities and the Commission, but in a tribunal. The alternative, in the Bill, is that such disclosure would be discretionary, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North said.
It is worth putting it on the record that the House of Commons Commission resisted tooth and nail the call for MPs’ travel expenses to be published at every stage for two years. It used expensive lawyers to try to fight its case, with no regard to the cost involved, even when it was clear that the Information Commissioner recommended that the expenses should be published.
I make no comment about individuals holding particular positions, but it is clear that in their own behaviour as a body, MPs have not shown consistency or a guarantee that they will allow such matters to be published in due course, as has now been allowed. The only guarantee that could be given would be if those expenses had to be published under freedom of information legislation. If we give discretion, there will inevitably be pressure from MPs to rescind that position.
Amendment No. 9, the first of the group, addresses the first clause of the Bill, which would amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in particular ways. Clause 1(2) of the Bill would omit from part 1 of schedule 1 to the 2000 Act the two paragraphs that list the public authorities governed by the Act. At the moment, that list includes the House of Commons and House of Lords. The schedule contains a long list, which people can look at, of all the public authorities, and the House of Commons and House of Lords would be removed from it.
I shall go through each of the amendments so that people are clear about what we shall vote on later. Amendment No. 9 would insert after “House of Commons”:
“but in relation to the House of Commons only in relation to information concerning the expenditure of any member of that House in execution of their public duties”.
The first proposition of which I want us to be aware and which we are considering is exactly that referred to by the hon. Members for Hendon and for Walsall, North, from different sides of the argument. It is that there could be an argument about the obligation to disclose expenses; we could say that, as an alternative, we want to keep in the obligation to do so, but nothing else. Both propositions are unreasonable, but we have tabled amendment No. 9 because we want to focus the attention of colleagues on the fact that expenses are one of the issues. We could amend the Bill, as the amendment proposes, so that the schedule listing of the House of Commons applied only to information about the expenditure of hon. Members
“in execution of their public duties”.
Would that be enough? My colleagues with whom I have discussed the matter, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, say that it would not.
Although the expenses issue has been successfully contested—the information tribunal said that we must reveal travel expenses—there are other matters to do with the work of the House of Commons that we should be willing to divulge, for example, the cost of running the place, the cost of improvements that we make to the place, information about the number of visitors and the amount of revenue that visitors bring in, the amount that we pay generically—information about individual pay is protected under data protection legislation—to our catering staff. Other examples are regulations that guarantee minimum wages, any plans for reform of the institutions, information about how many more staff we might consider employing, whether we considered buying new computer equipment and whether we had any problems with our computers. There is a long list of things that might be of significant interest to the public and are not simply to do with the expenditure of individual Members of Parliament.
The matter that has been most in the public domain is the expenditure that individual Members of Parliament incur. I hope that everybody realises that the declaration and publication of expenditure has put pressure on all of us to consider whether we can justify it. Scotland has a far better and more open freedom of information system—much more information in the Scottish Parliament is open to the public. The Scottish Parliament is governed by separate legislation and has a different regime, which is possibly one of the best in the world. Evidence from the Information Commissioner in Scotland shows downward pressure on expenses. That is on the public record. Such pressure is a good thing. Evidence in a note that the Campaign for Freedom of Information supplied about expenses divulged, for example, by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, other police commissioners or authorities and other agencies, shows that, once people have to declare how much they spend on taxi fares, meals, entertaining, travelling by bicycle, car, plane or train, it leads to a proper public debate. We are all trying to be more environmentally responsible and it is good that information about our air travel—its cost and frequency—and about train travel as an alternative is in the public domain. It is therefore not sufficient to say that we want to keep only expenses exempt, even if that was the intention of the promoter and of the hon. Member for Hendon.
It is not only the expenditure of Members of the House of Commons that is of interest. Proposed new subsection (2A) in the amendment relates to the House of Lords. It proposes guaranteeing that the expenditure of individual Members of the House of Lords in the execution of their public duties remained subject to the Freedom of Information Act, even if other matters were not.
Until recently, I did not realise that expenditure of Members of the House of Lords in the execution of their duties has so far been subject to much less scrutiny than that of Members of the House of Commons. I do not say that to take sides against colleagues in the Lords who have debated the matter. We have hundreds of colleagues at the other end of the Corridor, and the proposal for reform of the House of Lords would increase that number in the short term even if it reduced it in the long term.
Members of the House of Lords do not receive a salary plus expenses as we do, but an allowance for attendance and other allowances that follow from that. They are “ticked in”, as it were, if they turn up on a specific day, and there is a maximum allowance that they can claim. They can then claim maximum allowances for travel, overnight stays, food, secretarial expenses per day and so on. I recently discovered that all those allowances are tax free. I do not know whether that is widely known by the public. Our salaries are taxable but, because Members of the House of Lords do not get salaries, their allowances are not taxable but are instead regarded as expenses for attendance.
The number of Members of the House of Lords who claim the maximum allowance on every occasion is not publicly known. It is not known how many claim the maximum daily attendance allowance if they stay for a minute, an hour or the whole day or how many claim the maximum amount for accommodation if they stay for only a day. That is of significant public interest. They are legislators. We can debate how they get to be legislators; some of us believe that we need to reform the House of Lords into a predominantly or wholly elected second Chamber, and we voted accordingly the other day. However, it is vital that the public have the same access to information about individual expenses incurred by Members of both Houses. It is therefore proper to include the House of Lords.
When we consider the second group of amendments—later today, next week, next month or later in the year—we will discuss the changes that the Bill introduces to communication with Members of Parliament. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border is now trying to limit the proposal to the House of Commons. Amendment No. 9 would deal with the expenses of both Houses. I hope that all colleagues will agree that information about the expenses of all Members in the execution of their duties should remain available to the public and accessible as of right, not of discretion. That must be the principle.
There is a further point to make. The Information Commissioner has ruled, after careful consideration, and the information tribunal has supported him, that information about Members’ expenses should be released in its current form. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we moved back from that position and exempted Members, as the Bill suggests, it would fatally undermine people’s confidence in the Information Commissioner and the tribunal process?
I agree. In some ways, it would be worse. My hon. Friend, with The Sunday Times, applied to ensure that information on expenses was made available—a similar application was made in Scotland, by newspaper representatives by and large. It would be unacceptable if, in the year that we received the tribunal’s judgment—indeed, in the few weeks following the decision—that such information must be publicly available, Parliament said, “You fought the battle, O House of Commons Commission, and lost, and you’ve taken it to the highest tribunal you can, but now we’re immediately going to change the decision.” It would undermine all the arguments that we are trying to present that local councils, Government agencies, quangos and Departments should have to provide information. Having set up a process that provides for an adjudication system, undermining it would be bad news. One of the great merits of the system is that it has an Information Commissioner halfway up the tree, who is the watchdog on behalf of the public.
Elsewhere, we are having a debate about the Government’s attempt to increase fees and reduce people’s ability to make repeat applications. That is another potential threat to people’s ability to access information from public authorities. In the same year, there would be a move from Government, and, at the same time, from Parliament to reduce people’s ability to access information.
I do not in any way question the good faith of Members, let alone officials, who took the case to the information tribunal. I have the ruling here with me. Would I not be right, however, in reaching the conclusion that the House itself did not discuss the matter, so that no decision was reached by the House in debate? That led to the case going forward to the tribunal. Had there been a debate on the subject, perhaps the House would have taken the view that there was no justification for withholding the information about Members’ travelling expenses.
I stand to be corrected by any hon. Member present, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the decision was taken by the House of Commons Commission, which is chaired by Mr. Speaker and includes representatives of at least three of the political parties. I do not think that any debate was brought to the Chamber by the Commission: it took the view that it did and instructed Officers of the House to do its bidding. They did so and the case was defended. I do not yet know the costs to the public—it is not us who pay for it out of our pockets; it comes out of public provision—of fighting all those battles, though perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes does. As well as Clerks, we employ parliamentary counsel and others who are paid, perfectly properly, out of the public purse. If we employ external barristers, solicitors and others, they, too, will be paid out of the public purse. There will be costs, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the matter did not come to us for deliberation. That is not to say that every decision that the House of Commons Commission takes should come to us. Indeed, we set up the Commission precisely to do much of the work on our behalf.
I was responding to the point put to me by the hon. Gentleman.
Amendment No. 1 is a more whole-blooded amendment than amendment No. 9. Amendment No. 1 would prevent the removal of the House of Commons and the House of Lords from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. It is my preferred position and we support that amendment. I believe that, when the time comes, the House should be able to express a view on this amendment, as well as on amendment No. 9, which deals with a separate issue. It is a more limited provision, but guarantees that expenses and other financial matters relating to Members of the Commons and the Lords can be protected and allowed to remain in the public domain.
Amendment No. 3 provides a variation on the theme. When we drafted these amendments, I had no idea what the House’s view would be. I took the view that it was important separately to consider whether the Commons and the Lords should be exempt from the application of the Freedom of Information Act. Amendment No. 3 would remove only the House of Commons from that Act, leaving the Lords within its scope. It would then be for the House of Lords to decide whether it wished to amend the Bill further to provide for its own exclusion. This is a private Member’s Bill, which has not got through its stages in this House. If it were to get through those stages, in whatever form, it would go to the House of Lords, which could then add or take away as it saw fit.
As it happens, I take the view that, as Members of the elected House, we are entitled to reach and express our view about freedom of information rules even as they apply to the House of Lords. It should not be left to the other place. I take the view that the Lords should be as open by law to public inquiry as we are. It is a legislature and we have the right to say that. Even if their lordships were to take a different view, I would hold to my view. I do not know that they would take a different view: we have not tested it and when it went through in the first place, there was no opposition to the proposition that the House of Lords should, like the House of Commons, be subject to freedom of information legislation. Amendment No. 3 would allow us to consider the House of Commons and House of Lords separately. Colleagues may wish to support the amendment, if that is their view.
It was indeed. Let me remind the House how the position that we are now in came about. It was not accidental. The original draft Bill produced by the Labour Government did not include Parliament in the provisions for freedom of information. We were not included. As the hon. Gentleman rightly reminds us, Committees of this House along with others addressed the question even before pre-legislative scrutiny.
I have with me the three volumes of the third report of the Select Committee on Public Administration for the 1997-98 Session. It is entitled “Your Right to Know: The Government’s Proposals for a Freedom of Information Act”, and it lists the members of the Committee as: “Mr. Peter Bradley, Mr. Ronnie Campbell, Dr. Lynda Clark, Mr. Mike Hancock, Miss Melanie Johnson, Mr. Fraser Kemp, Fiona Mactaggart, Mr. Rhodri Morgan, Mr. David Ruffley, Mr. Richard Shepherd and Mr. Andrew Tyrie”. Mr. Rhodri Morgan, now the First Minister in Wales was elected Chairman of that Committee. There was a change half way through, as the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) left and—
I am detailing the membership because some of the hon. Members in their places today signed up to a point of view expressed in the report. I want to say what that view was. It is important because this Select Committee was most influential in changing the view of Parliament about what should happen.
The Public Administration Committee looked into issues concerning the exclusion of Parliament from freedom of information legislation. I want to read paragraph 37 and its conclusion into the record. That is what changed the direction of travel, as it were, of this aspect of the legislation. The report was published on 19 May 1998. Paragraph 37 of the first volume states:
“We have not taken evidence on the exclusion of Parliament, which we expect to be the province of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. We have, though, been somewhat surprised that it should be excluded. To the extent that Parliament’s proceedings already take place in public, of course, the exclusion does not matter. The Government’s background paper explains that inclusion might be taken to be ‘an implied repeal of the Bill of Rights which declares “that the freedom of speech from debates or proceedings of Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament”’. Proceedings of many Committees take place in private, and the privacy of these would need to be respected. However, the proposed exemption for the integrity of decision-making is likely to protect these discussions. The papers held by individual Members, parties and their Committees do not relate to Parliament’s public functions and would therefore not, presumably, be covered by the Act, just as the political and constituency papers of government Ministers held in government departments will not be disclosable. Papers sent by Members to Ministers and departments may well, however, be covered by the Act in any case. But there are many administrative functions carried out within Parliament which, it seems to us, do not need to be protected, any more than do those of the police”—
that is the telling line. It then continues in bold:
“The justification for the exclusion of Parliament has not been made out. The exclusion may well convey the wrong impression to the general public, given the purpose of this legislation. We hope that the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege will review this question, and we recommend that the Government re-examine the exclusion of Parliament in the light of its Report.”
It went to a senior Committee of this House, which said that Parliament should be included.
I am pleased to say that the Government responded to it. The present Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), then Home Secretary, introduced proposals in the Bill that included Parliament within its terms—and they were not controversial. There was no significant debate about it, either in this House or in the House of Lords. So I have to draw the conclusion that, having thought about the issue as we prepared for the legislation, it would have surfaced as a concern if anyone had thought that it was the wrong approach to adopt.
There is a further reason why it is bizarre to suggest that we should return to this question in 2007. Although the legislation was passed in 2000, it did not come into force until 2005. It had a five-year gestation period, which is an unusually long time. The Liberal Democrats kept asking the Government when it would come into force, and the Government told us that they needed a lot of time to put it into operation. I understand that, but no protests were made at that time. Nobody said that Parliament should be exempt. I take the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Walsall, North. If, at any point before the implementation date in 2005 any Member of Parliament had said, “This is a bad thing. We should have discretion to decide if and when we will release information”, it would have given a very bad impression. The point is, however, that no one did that.
Amendment No. 5 proposes to
“leave out ‘paragraphs 2 and 3’ and insert ‘paragraph 3’.”
That would mean leaving out the references to the House of Commons and the House of Lords and replacing them with a reference to the House of Lords. That would ensure that communications by a Member of Parliament with a public authority would not be exempt. This takes us into a whole new set of territories. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border has argued that his communications with his constituents would be liable to be put in the public domain unless we amended the legislation.
I want to deal with the points raised on this issue in the Public Bill Committee on 7 February. Although this concern has been raised, I have read, re-read and read a third time every part of that relatively short Committee stage, and nowhere have I found evidence to suggest that that concern has been justified in fact. There is no evidence that publication of such information has occurred as a result of misuse of the system. This relates specifically to amendment No. 5. In Committee, the right hon. Gentleman said:
“Mr. Speaker has confirmed that even if the Bill becomes an Act, and even if technically or legally we will not have to publish information, the view of the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee and Mr. Speaker is that we should continue every October to publish the same information on travel, allowances, accommodation and secretarial costs that we have published in the past few years.”
That deals with the first point, relating to discretion. The right hon. Gentleman then deals with the second issue:
“The other main point of principle is the new vexed problem relating to our correspondence. I am sure that colleagues of all parties have become aware of it. In theory, our correspondence is protected.”
So there is common ground to start with; our correspondence with public authorities is protected. The right hon. Gentleman goes on:
“If somebody asks to see copies of letters that we have written to a public authority we can, if we wish, say no.”
That is the first, important protection. He continues:
“However, some people are now going to the public authority by the back door—albeit legitimately—and asking for copies of files relating to individuals.”––[Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee, 7 February 2007; c. 6.]
That is true. I do not dissent; the right hon. Gentleman is correct. Requests have been made for such information. He goes on:
“Theoretically, if that public authority carries out all the procedure—”
Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying into the second group of amendments. The second group deals with communication with Members of the House of Commons. The group that we are now debating deals with the exemption of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
I will of course follow your direction, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am aware that the second group has that as its principal theme. The reason that I have raised the matter here is that amendment No. 5, which would replace the references to the Commons and the Lords with a reference only to the House of Lords, would mean that we would no longer have an exemption as a public authority. May I suggest, therefore, that there is an overlap between the two groups? I understand that we must try to separate the two debates, but I was trying to do justice to the fact that this amendment would mean that we were no longer a public authority for any purposes, which would change the status of the relationship. I wanted to honour the point that the right hon. Gentleman made about there being a double concern. I shall be happy to make more substantive points about that second issue when we debate the second group of amendments.
I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon.
Amendment No. 4 is consequential to amendment No. 3, and amendment No. 6 is consequential to amendment No. 5. I was advised that, if we were to deal with certain aspects of our public activity—namely, the keeping of expenses and accounts—we would need to change the long title of the Bill. Amendment No. 32 deals with the consequential change to the long title, which would reflect the fact that there were certain exemptions from the provisions of the legislation, rather than a total exemption. Amendment No. 33 would cover any changes to the title, depending on whether we decided to exempt the Commons, the Lords or both. The long title would need to reflect those changes. Amendments Nos. 34 and 35 cover the same subject.
I want to make a few more points on the substance of the provisions, but I shall rein myself in from talking about communications. I shall limit myself to talking about the processes of this place. As I said earlier, one of the great benefits of the present system is that, because our activities are now much more in the public domain, we have had to become much more accountable. The public are telling us that they want us to be as accountable as possible. They want to know what we are doing and, in particular, they want to know how we are spending money on their behalf. It is not good enough for us to say that we should decide whether we are going to follow that principle by law. It is difficult enough when we fix our own salaries. We make that decision, and that is invidious enough. It would be regarded as completely beyond acceptable if we were to say, “You may not have some or all of the information about what we do.”
We already have important data protection legislation. No one has suggested, for example, that, in revealing information about the functioning of the House of Commons, we should have to reveal the amount of money that we give to the staff whom we employ. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes has never suggested that, and I think that the tribunal case made this point clear, although I stand to be corrected on that because he will remember the details better than I can. Such revelations appear to be outwith the freedom of information requirements. The amount of money that we receive as an allowance to pay for staff is about £80,000. I use that money perfectly properly to pay my four members of staff through the Fees Office in the normal way. That is, of course, a matter of public record. Members could, in theory, employ a single staff member on that salary, or use the money to pay two, three or four. In the past, Members—including me—have contributed much more than the allowance for staff purposes. But no one is suggesting that information about individual salaries and the individual contracts of individual members of staff should be included.
The tribunal, which considered the matter in some detail, conducted an analysis of the interaction between the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Acts, which had not been done in that way before. I suggest that Members read the judgment and study its consequences. One sentence reads:
“We consider our decision”
—on travel expenses—
“will only result in a very limited invasion of an MP’s privacy considered in the context of their public role and the spending of public money.”
The judgment reinforced the importance of data protection, and the fact that sensitive material is already protected.
My hon. Friend has dealt with the general point, but let me give another specific example. Obviously, no one wants a Member who represents a constituency outside London and who legitimately claims an allowance to cover the cost of living in London to have to state whether he or she has spent the money on installing a yellow bathroom suite or a white bathroom suite, or on improving a flat that he or she is renting from Mr. X or Mrs. Y. There is clearly a limit, and we all understand that. What is of proper concern to the public is information that allows people to know that we are using our money properly.
It is perfectly proper for individual Members of Parliament, acting on behalf of their constituents, to visit, for example, a Government agency to inquire about work that is being done. I am having a number of problems with the tax credit service, and am writing a great many letters to a man who is in charge of it, whose office is somewhere in the north of England. I have asked to meet him. I hope that he will come to London to discuss the cases of concern with me, but if he says “I cannot go to London but you are welcome to come and see me,” of course it will be justifiable for me to travel to Blackburn, or wherever it is, on behalf of my constituents, and the disclosure of the cost of my train journey will be covered.
What emerged in the Scottish example was that there had been a misuse of funds. A Member of the Scottish Parliament had wrongly claimed expenses for a trip to the party conference. I think he paid the price, and gave up his position as leader of his party in the Parliament. Clearly the public need to know that we are not mixing party spending, which is accountable and is governed by specific rules—we raise money for it locally and receive Short money; discussions are taking place about whether there should be other sources—with our parliamentary expenditure.
All this, obviously, is about our expenditure in our capacity as Members of Parliament. It does not affect anything done by the Under-Secretary of State in her capacity as Minister; that is dealt with separately, quite properly. I am sure that, like the rest of us, the hon. Lady understands the distinction. She knows exactly what are her constituency obligations, which she will continue to fulfil, and she is perfectly entitled to claim recompense for money that she properly expends for that purpose.
A culture has begun to develop in which public authorities are open to scrutiny. There was a great deal of resistance to it originally, but we all recognise that if the taxpayer, the council tax payer or the business rate payer is paying for members of police authorities, chief executives, councillors or other public figures, he or she is entitled to know how that money is being spent. There used to be large abuses and considerable suspicion. Polls conducted by organisations such as Ipsos MORI have revealed the level of discontent, but—the point made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North is very germane in this context—the discontent is not normally with the local Member of Parliament.
People have a relationship with their MPs. They see them in their communities. They know what they do, and can judge whether they are active and competent. But they have a general concern: they feel that Parliament does not do its job properly, and that MPs are abusing the system. That is the central point in the debate. We must ensure that the House of Commons collectively is seen to be following the rules that we think everyone else should follow.
There might be an argument for the Bill if there had been any discussion of the issue before—if any Select Committee had conducted an inquiry, or if any evidence had been provided that it was a matter of public concern. The Bill is unusual, in that, however well motivated it may be, it has not justified its further progress because it has not received what was described by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills as the pre-legislative scrutiny that Bills should be given. Private Members’ Bills come from a different place, as it were, but we are entitled to say “Hang on a minute: is the case made?”
One of our complex tasks if we were thinking of adopting these proposals—the tribunal case dealt with this very well—would be to explain to the public the interrelationship of freedom of information legislation and data protection legislation, both of which are not uncomplicated. Freedom of information governing United Kingdom public bodies applies throughout the United Kingdom, but there is separate legislation for exclusively Scottish bodies in Scotland. Northern Ireland has a separate regime, but it is governed by the legislation that applies here. The Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies are governed by the general proposition; there is no proposition in the Bill that either should be exempted, although that would be possible because their public authorities are on the same list as those specified in the United Kingdom legislation. The Bill does not propose an exemption for the London Assembly. The proposed exemption is solely for us—for the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It strikes me as ill-considered to concentrate on one part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements, and to suggest exempting two Houses of the United Kingdom Parliament but no other Parliament or Assembly. There is no argument in favour of such a piecemeal approach.
I hope Members will conclude that, although there may be an issue of concern, there is no evidence to support the proposals in respect of communications between Members of Parliament and public authorities; and that exempting other parliamentary arrangements, such as expenses and administration, from the legislation and leaving them to our discretion would therefore be a move in entirely the wrong direction.
My hon. Friend said that no public concern had been raised about the present arrangements. I would say that public concern had been raised, but in the opposite direction of travel from that suggested in the Bill. Evidence suggests that the public are very concerned and, sadly, do not hold Members of Parliament in very high regard. Surely the best way of dealing with that is to be as open and accountable as possible.
I was not arguing that there was no concern in the opposite direction. I have spent much of the last hour arguing precisely the reverse. There is plenty of concern that we should be accountable: the public want to know. I have heard no suggestion that we should be more secretive, take more power back to ourselves, and give ourselves discretion. I do not know whether the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border really intends that part of the Bill to remain, or whether he now realises that the idea does not have much merit and, indeed, could prove extremely damaging politically; but such a move has not been supported in any argument that I have heard since the legislation came into operation. I have not heard a single member of the public say that he or she does not want the right to seek information of this kind.
I sincerely hope that the votes on this group of amendments will make it very clear that the House of Commons and the House of Lords should remain fully included in the freedom of information requirements, and that making information public should be obligatory for us, as it is for every other public authority. If we do otherwise, we shall risk undermining confidence in this place significantly at a time when we can ill afford to do so.
I fully support the amendments that have been tabled by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). It is not my intention to make a long speech. I will put my points as concisely as possible.
There is no doubt that the reputation and standing of Parliament are at stake. It may be that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) introduced the Bill with the best intentions. I have no reason to believe otherwise. I do not believe that he had any sinister reasons for doing so. I do not believe that he has anything to conceal himself. He takes the view that the Bill is in the interests of the House of Commons. I believe that he is wrong and misguided.
It would be disastrous—I can put it in no other way—if the Bill became law. The House of Commons would be saying that the Freedom of Information Act was all right for everyone else and information should be given by other public bodies and the devolved institutions, but we the House of Commons, having passed the Act, wanted to be exempt.
As I understand it, at the core of amendment No. 9 and the others is the belief that, on Report, we have to work on the basis that the Bill may become law, which I hope will not happen. That is all the more reason to amend it, so that it becomes more acceptable. As I have said, obviously I hope that that situation will not arise, but we have to work on Report on the basis that there is a theoretical possibility—I hope no more—that the Bill will become law.
In Committee on 7 February, the right hon. Gentleman read a letter from the Speaker. I understand that there is a reluctance in these matters to quote the Speaker, but perhaps I may be allowed to refer to what he said. I should quickly add that the Speaker was writing on behalf of the Members Estimate Committee. He said that even if the Bill became an Act, the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee would continue to publish every October the information on travel, allowances, accommodation and secretarial costs. I accept that that is the position, but in effect that would be optional, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said. A future Members Estimate Committee may decide that that would not be in the interests of the House of Commons. Therefore, if the Bill became law and the Freedom of Information Act did not apply to the House of Commons, that information might not be published at all. The essence of the amendment is to make it necessary in law to publish the information.
In view of what I have just referred to, I find it a bit surprising that the authorities decided to fight the decision that information regarding travel allowances should be published. I have already said in an intervention that that was not debated by the House of Commons. I do not want to question the motives of those who decided to fight the decision. I am sure—I have no reason to believe otherwise for one moment—that they believe that they were acting in the interests of the House of Commons, but the fact remains that the matter went to the information tribunal. Lawyers argued the case on behalf of the House of Commons and I am glad to say that the House of Commons lost.
I quote paragraph 93 of the tribunal's decision:
“Having considered all these interests we find that the legitimate interests of members of the public outweigh the prejudice to the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of MPs”.
It went on to say that, if the information is published, which it decided it should be, it
“will only result in a very limited invasion of an MP’s privacy”.
For the life of me, I cannot understand why that information should be concealed. When we incur travel expenses we have to sign a form, rightly, from the Fees Office, as it used to be called, saying that the travel that we undertook at public expense arose from our parliamentary duties. Since the information has been published, I am not aware that any information has come to light that there has been abuse. I have not seen any evidence suggesting that we as Members of Parliament have been travelling extensively in a way that does not justify public money.
When I travel to my constituency, as I will be doing today, I will be using public money. There is nothing to hide about it. There is nothing that I wish to conceal. There is nothing that I would not wish the local press or the electorate to know. It could be argued that, if I travel to my constituency, the money should come out of my own pocket. I would obviously argue very differently and justify it to the electorate. For the life of me I cannot understand why that information is so sensitive and confidential that perhaps only MI5 should know about it. In all these matters, the test is: can we justify to the electorate what we are doing, what we claim for our secretaries and research assistants, if we have any, how much money we spend on travel and the rest of it? If we cannot and if we do not want the information to be known to the local or national press or to the electorate, of course, we may conceal information that is embarrassing to us. But if everything is, as it should be, above board, why on earth should we want to conceal the information?
I am prompted by what the hon. Gentleman said to ask him what we would say if the European Parliament, where there has been some concern about the matter, suddenly decided that such expenses would not be disclosed and if Members of the European Parliament were entitled to say that they were not obliged to tell us what they spent on air fares or train fares. There has been abuse, but it has only emerged because it has been in the public domain.
I can imagine the reaction in the House of Commons if the European Parliament did anything of the kind.
I come back to the point that I made in an intervention: the strong and cynical feelings, however wrong they may be, that would arise if the Bill were passed without the amendments and we did not have to disclose the information. Surely the reaction is bound to be, however much we may dislike it, that MPs have something to hide, and that having passed the 2000 Act for everyone else, we were exempt. That feeling would do no service to MPs. Suspicion would continue to exist that we are trying to hide information and have taken the necessary steps.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the devolved institutions: the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. As I understand it, there has been no attempt on their part whatever to conceal their expenses, so we would have a situation—let us be clear about it—where the European Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly disclosed information, which would be in the public domain—
Indeed. All the information concerning those elected bodies would be in the public domain. What about the House of Commons, the sovereign Parliament? It would appear that, while those other public bodies had to disclose, in law, rightly, how money was spent, we were exempt. How can we justify that? If the Bill were to become law, how could we go to our constituents and local newspapers and try to justify concealing this information?
I said that my remarks would be brief, and I have no wish to prolong my speech on this group of amendments, but let me repeat the following point. Although few Members are present in the Chamber, the standing and reputation of the House of Commons are at stake. It would be disastrous if the Bill became law, and if it is to become law that is all the more reason why the amendments should be passed, as that would give some protection—minimum protection, but nevertheless some protection as far as the public are concerned. However, I hope that when we come to vote on the Bill at half-past 2, sufficient Members will be present to ensure that it is rejected.
I am sorry that we have to discuss this Bill. Regardless of the motives of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean)—I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) in that I have no reason to believe that they are anything other than proper—the timing of the Bill, and the matters that we are discussing in respect of the amendments, are unfortunate. As the hon. Member for Walsall, North and my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) have said, the proposal to exempt the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which is at the heart of the Bill, sends entirely the wrong message at a crucial time.
It is a crucial time to seek to exempt the House of Commons and the House of Lords for a number of reasons. The flame of freedom of information has only recently been lit; it is not yet in the bloodstream—I apologise for mixing my metaphors—of the population and the public institutions of this country. There is a danger that the candle flame of freedom of information could yet be extinguished.
We in the House of Commons have fought for many years for freedom of information. That has been supported by the Labour party, and by the Labour Government who introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It has also regularly been supported by my Liberal Democrat colleagues and by individual Conservative Members, such as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), as well as by Members of the nationalist parties.
The freedom of information argument has finally been won, and Parliament is central; the role of Parliament—of the House of Commons and the Lords—is key. Freedom of information has been accepted as a concept, and the arguments have been won that openness and accountability in government and in Members’ dealings in this House lead to better performance by Government in terms of how they discharge their duties and better financial management by MPs in terms of House expenditure and our personal expenditure as Members of Parliament. The argument has been won that secrecy tends to benefit only those who are corrupt, those who are incompetent or those who are careless with public money. We should not protect the people in any of those categories. The freedom of information regime that now applies to public authorities, and to this House in particular, and which we are discussing in respect of this group of amendments, has led to the beginning of a change in culture in this country and in this House as to how we deal with information. The role of the House of Commons in how we approach these matters is central.
If the House of Commons exempts itself through this proposed legislation—we are seeking to reverse that by means of amendment No. 1—that will not simply be a small matter to do with how we deal with MPs’ expenses and with expenditure in this House such as on renovations, including the £422,000 spent by the House of Commons on the ludicrous covered walkway next to the turntable downstairs. Nor will it be a small matter to do with the environmental performance of the House, which is lamentable in many regards. However, it should be said that those issues tend to have been quite well concealed, which it might be thought is one reason why such expenditure and performance have been lamentable. Freedom of information drives up the performance of public authorities. That is one of the sensible reasons to have it. Not only does it empower the people—important though that is—but it drives up performance.
As I have said, if we exempt the House of Commons and the House of Lords, that will not simply be a small matter to do with MPs’ expenses. The ramifications of that decision will go far and wide out into society. That is why the Bill is so important, and why it is so important to defeat it.
Let us be clear what the consequences will be if the Bill is passed unamended, and if amendment No. 1 in particular is not accepted—I wish that to be voted on in due course. One important consequence would be to drive down further the reputation of Members of Parliament as a whole, which would be regrettable. We already feature below journalists in the list of trusted professions in society. I think that we are marginally above estate agents, although a friend has told me that we have fallen below them in terms of trustworthiness. If the Bill is passed and amendment No. 1 is rejected, that would drive down further the reputation of Members of Parliament both collectively and individually and the reputation of the House of Commons. I do not wish that to happen, and neither in their hearts do Members in all parts of the House, such as Liberal Democrat Members, Conservatives and nationalists. Nobody wants that consequence to result from the Bill, but that is what will happen if it is passed and amendment No. 1 is not agreed to. Members must decide on that.
If the Bill is not amended—by amendment No. 1 in particular—that will suggest that Members are guilty of hypocrisy. Members are not allowed to use that word about each other in this House, but plenty of members of the public are using that word in respect of the House because of this Bill. People are asking, “Why should Parliament be exempt from the legislation that Parliament itself has introduced and is now applying to other public authorities?”
I hear what you say, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I sincerely hope that those who wish to curtail the release of information will make the case for that. Thus far, that case has not been made. We have not had any justification for the removal from this legislation of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. We have not had any justification in respect of the issue to do with MPs’ correspondence, which allegedly is at the heart of the Bill. We have not had any justification for MPs’ and public authorities’ correspondence being turned into secret documents marked “confidential”. None of those matters has been justified.
It is germane to reflect on how we have arrived at this point. That is key to amendment No. 1 in particular. We have reached this point because there has been a private Member’s Bill, which has been presented on a Friday, when, as Members know, long lists of Bills regularly fail. They fall over the cliff like lemmings at 2.30 pm—
I am happy to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I was trying to do so; I apologise if I have failed in that objective. However, it is important to stress the following point. The scrutiny given originally by the Public Administration Committee in its document, the third report of the 1997-98 Session entitled, “Your right to know: the Government’s proposals for a Freedom of Information Act”—
I will be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, although with respect it is an important point in my argument, but clearly you will correct me if I stray too far. I was making the point that the Select Committee gave careful consideration expressly to the question whether Parliament should be exempt. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey that the Committee concluded:
“The justification for the exclusion of Parliament has not been made out. The exclusion may well convey the wrong impression to the general public, given the purpose of this legislation”.
MPs from all parties looked at the matter carefully, but by contrast we are now considering a Back-Bench Bill that until this morning has had only one hour’s debate in a Committee chosen by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border.
The hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), was a member of that Committee and it is my understanding that the Committee was not guillotined and could have continued for hours. Does the hon. Gentleman not talk to his hon. Friend?
Indeed I do. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman has read the Committee report, as I have. If he has, he will see that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) expressed concerns about the extent of the Bill and its consequences. Some of the points I am making this morning were raised in that Committee—
I hope you accept that I was responding to an intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am in some difficulty because amendment No. 1 goes to the heart of the Bill, so it is necessary to explain, as I was trying to do, the general importance of freedom of information and the consequences for the House of exempting itself, which is what we want to reverse through amendment No. 1. If that exemption is not reversed, it will bring the consequences that I had begun to explain to the House.
I have already mentioned that MPs would be brought into disrepute and the allegation that we would be seen as hypocritical, but there are other consequences. In the House, we are keen to ensure that public authorities take freedom of information legislation seriously. I am sure that many Members have used the legislation to make inquiries, whether of the Environment Agency, local councils or whatever. We expect those bodies to respond fully and properly. Unfortunately, it will be more difficult for us to do our job and persuade those authorities to respond fully and properly under the Act if we have exempted ourselves from it. That would send out the message, “You must do one thing, we will do something else”, which would bring the whole Freedom of Information Act into disrepute. It would fatally undermine it and could extinguish the candle flame that was lit not long ago. The Bill has enormous ramifications that go way beyond the narrow terms of MPs’ expenses—important though they may be in their own small way.
By reversing the assumption that the House of Commons and the House of Lords would be exempt from freedom of information legislation, amendment No. 1 would address a further consequence of the measure, to which I referred in an intervention, and which relates to the Information Commissioner. The commissioner was appointed under the Freedom of Information Act and he is doing a rather good job, although he has insufficient resources to deal with all the matters brought before him. He has given careful consideration to MPs’ expenses, covered in amendment No. 9, and to the general position of the House of Commons, covered in amendment No. 1. My application, to which I shall refer shortly, was a test case so it was given close scrutiny by the Information Commissioner. It then received close scrutiny from the information tribunal, which looked at all the arguments, including those we have heard from the hon. Member for Walsall, North and my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey today. The tribunal considered carefully the relationship between data protection and freedom of information. However, if we rejected amendments Nos. 1 and 9, we would be saying that the person appointed under the Freedom of Information Act and the information tribunal—the properly established body set up to assess appeals—can be overridden by a Back-Bench Bill that had no time on Second Reading, spent only one hour in Committee and is now being dealt with on a Friday morning, not in Government time.
To override the commissioner and the tribunal discredits them in the eyes of the public; they would be unable to do their job properly. Their writ would be overridden if they could be knocked aside by Members of Parliament in this faulty process. I do not think that we really want to undermine the Information Commissioner or the information tribunal, but that will be the consequence if the Bill is not amended by amendments Nos. 1 and 9, tabled by my hon. Friend and me and Members on both sides of the House. It is worth pointing out that the amendments are supported not merely by two Liberal Democrat Members, but by a Conservative Member, a Labour Member and a Plaid Cymru Member.
If the amendments were not passed and the measure became law, what would be the position if the devolved Administrations decided that they, too, wanted to be exempt? What justification would we, the sovereign Parliament, have to say no, if they wanted the same exemptions as the House of Commons?
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely pertinent and valid point. The Bill has the potential to unravel freedom of information provisions throughout the public sector and throughout the country. There is no question but that Members of the Scottish Parliament have accepted, perhaps reluctantly in some cases, the need to be open about their travel expenses—the sort of thing we are discussing in relation to amendment No. 9—and have taken some flak for their openness. They have a more open system than we do, as have Members of the Welsh Assembly and Members of the European Parliament, members of local councils and the London assembly and so on.
We are the cornerstone of democracy in this country—the keystone of the bridge—so if we suddenly say that we are getting rid of provisions on openness, what will be the consequences in other Administrations? The Scottish Parliament, which makes its own laws on such matters, could decide to forget the provisions, too. It could say, “The House of Commons has got rid of the requirement to include itself in the legislation and to publish Members’ expenses, so that gives us cover to revise our scheme, too.” The Welsh Assembly could do likewise, and before we know where we are the Freedom of Information Act will be wrecked, which would be a tragedy for this country. We are finally emerging from years of secrecy, but the Bill is a major threat to that process. It may be a small measure in itself but it opens up a huge hole in that important legislation, which is, above all, why it must be rejected. That is why amendment No. 1 is the most important one on the Order Paper and why we should vote for it.
Has my hon. Friend seen the article in The Scotsman of 8 March, headed “Welcome to secret Scotland”, which stated:
“Scotland’s public life remains shrouded in secrecy despite the Executive’s flagship Freedom of Information Act, campaigners and experts warned last night”?
The culture of a completely open system in all public authorities has not yet been won; there are still areas of significant—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, although to be fair to my colleague it will become relevant if the Bill is passed, because the measure will set an example that we do not want replicated. That is the point of making connections between this place and elsewhere.
Amendment No. 1 is the important one, so if it were to be lost amendment No. 9 would, for me, be only second-best. However, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North pointed out, it would ensure that, whatever else happened, information relating to MPs’ expenses and other financial matters would not be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act as the Bill would provide. We want to ensure that that does not occur.
Reference has been made to a letter from Mr. Speaker, which was read out by the hon. Member for Walsall, North. I will not repeat it now. Of course, I have no doubt whatever that Mr. Speaker’s intentions are entirely as set out. How could I dare to suggest anything else? I have no reason whatever to think that. I make that as abundantly clear as I can. However, with respect, Speakers come and go. Cultures change. If something is not written down in law, there is no guarantee that a convention—that is what it would be—would survive.
Let us say that the culture against freedom of information increases, as it will if the Bill is passed, and freedom of information becomes seen—wrongly in my view—as not important, as expensive and as something that the country cannot afford in all sorts of ways. Let us say that that argument starts to triumph. Can we really say, hand on heart, that whatever the circumstances, the House of Commons will stick by a convention to publish MPs’ expenses? Or will that be subject to some pressure at some future date for reasons that are indeterminate now, but that may well exist later?
A convention is not a sensible way of proceeding. A sensible way of proceeding is to ensure, for the protection of all Members of the House, that the requirement to publish information is there in legislation and cannot easily be undone. That gives us protection. I am afraid that, if that requirement is removed from legislation, it will lead to more questions about the behaviour and conduct of Members of Parliament. Individual Members of Parliament who have nothing to hide and are happy to have their information published will find themselves subject to scurrilous mutterings because information has been kept secret. I do not want that to happen. I want the House to be held in high regard, and the way to ensure that that happens as far as this matter is concerned is to ensure that MPs’ expenses are not exempted from the Freedom of Information Act as a consequence of the Bill. Amendment No. 9 seeks to address that.
Let us think what would be exempt. The allowance scheme, as we know, publishes information relating to the cost of staying away from the main home. It is perfectly proper that we should have the opportunity to have an alternative base, whether it is in London or the constituency, to carry out our jobs. No one is suggesting that that should not be the case, but we are talking about public money. Why should that information not be out in the open, as a matter of right, under freedom of information legislation, rather than as a matter of convention because MPs temporarily agree that it should be there?
We are responsible for public money. We are guardians of the public purse. The fact that we have the right to write blank cheques to some degree, either as individual Members within the overall limit or in the House when we are making expenditure decisions about the House itself, is no reason to say that that information should be exempt—in fact, quite the reverse. We need the biggest safeguards when people are given the power to spend someone else’s money. However, we are told that that area would be removed from the legislation and that there would be only convention to protect it. In amendment No. 9, we seek to ensure that that cannot happen.
We also have the office staffing costs. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, I make it plain that some of the scare stories about the amendments and the approach that I and others are taking are simply without basis. There should be no suggestion that we are talking about something that is entirely open-ended and that will roll out like a ball of string. Nobody is suggesting that individual members of staff should have their salaries put in the public domain. No one is suggesting that if someone buys a kettle for their London residence, which is quite properly claimable under the London allowance—the additional cost allowance—that should be put in the public domain. The scare stories that suggest that we are going down that road are simply unfounded.
People can have confidence in that because of the information tribunal judgment. That judgment carefully balanced the rights of MPs to privacy in personal matters, which I fully accept, with the obligation to be seen to be accountable for the expenditure of public money. That balance would be destroyed by the Bill. We seek to undo that damage in the amendments, and particularly in amendments Nos. 1 and 9.
The issue of Members’ travel is germane to amendment No. 9. It is worth reflecting on how it long took to get the tribunal decision. I will make this point directly relevant to amendment No. 9, Madam Deputy Speaker, before you have any qualms on the matter or any doubts in your mind. The hon. Member for Walsall, North was quite right to say that the House of Commons as a body corporate was not asked about the matter. He was not asked to comment on the matter. Those who represent us on the House of Commons Commission took it upon themselves, apparently unanimously, to resist what I think the hon. Gentleman referred to as a modest request—he might have used the adjective “unremarkable” or another word of that nature. They took it upon themselves to fight that request every inch of the way.
We also found out at the tribunal hearing that every other request for information about Members of Parliament has been, and is being, fought every inch of the way. Those involved will go no further. They will not assess applications for the release of information on their merits, as they are required to do under the Freedom of Information Act. Instead, they have a blanket policy of refusing any request whatsoever for information about MPs—contrary to the law as it stands. Not only are they willing to resist the law as it stands, they want to rewrite the law to make their position legal and to discount the one that is included in legislation at present.
The sequence of events in relation to travel expenses—information on those expenses must continue to be open on a statutory basis, which is what amendment No. 9 is about—is that the written request was made by me on 20 January 2005. I made the modest request for a
“breakdown of the already published aggregate figures for travel claims for MPs in the most recent year for which they are available.”
You know, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you are a Member of Parliament, as I am, that we already had those figures given to us. We already had a breakdown, by mode of transport—by car, taxi, air, rail and even bicycle—given to us privately. However, the House of Commons Commission, on our behalf, argued—I suspect that the same thought process is behind the Bill—that that information could not be given out publicly. Why not? What was so remarkable about it that it had to be protected? It was merely that request that generated this long, expensive battle by the House of Commons Commission, in our name.
The request was rejected in the initial response that I received. I sought a review on 25 February 2005. The original decision was confirmed on 24 March 2005. I complained to the commissioner on 6 April 2005. Following correspondence between the commissioner and the House, the commissioner issued a preliminary decision notice on 24 January 2006, followed by a final decision notice on 22 February—
I regard myself as deeply chastened, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I had hoped that I was doing that. If I failed to do so, I can only apologise for that oversight and re-examine my skills. I was seeking to relate my points directly to amendment No. 9. I will try even harder, having heard your strictures.
The point that I am making—I will try to make it succinctly—is that, every inch of the way, at every opportunity, the House of Commons has shown itself unwilling to release information, no matter how modest and unremarkable, and has used every single trick in the book to resist doing so, including not being very open about things. That is entirely germane to this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey asked me earlier how much has been spent resisting the claims. It is approaching £20,000 of public money. That might not seem like very much, but it was inappropriate to use public money to resist answering a question that was framed in such a modest way.
Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it appears that the three main parties, including his, were involved in the matter going to a tribunal? If, for example, his party—clearly not him—was really against the proposal on travel expenses any more than the Labour or Conservative parties, it would have been extremely unlikely that the matter would have got as far as a tribunal.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, although I do not want to go into the make-up of the House of Commons Commission. I listened to his sensible speech with interest and I endorsed it. I am not here to make party political points because the issue is much too serious for that. This is about the reputation of the whole House of Commons, not individual Members.
Let me deal with the intervention made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I have held conversations with colleagues who were involved in the process. The House of Commons Commission is made up of Mr. Speaker, as Chairman, the Leader of the House, a Member nominated by the Leader of the Opposition and three Members appointed by the House. I have talked to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) about the matter and I understand that the Commission was advised that it would be wise to test the existing law so that the current position could be determined. Today’s debate is timely because in the light of the decision, we now clearly know the current position.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, which has helpfully clarified matters.
The tribunal’s decision is key to this matter. It was reached following an analysis of three things: the Freedom of Information Act 2000; the Data Protection Act 1998; and the possible impact of the request for information. By carrying out that analysis and giving the matter due consideration, it provided an answer on what the appropriate scheme for the House of Commons would be. However, the tribunal’s decision would be overturned by this private Member’s Bill. We have had two detailed considerations of the way in which the House of Commons and House of Lords should be treated under freedom of information legislation, and they are in line with what the situation would be if amendment No. 1 were accepted.
The two Houses should be consistently regarded as public authorities under the legislation and subject to the same requirements as other public authorities. That was the view that was carefully reached by the 1998 Select Committee to which I briefly referred, and it is also the view of the Information Commissioner. If hon. Members want a third opinion, it is also the position of the information tribunal. All three have examined the matter carefully and concluded that the House of Commons and House of Lords should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The only argument against that conclusion is this Bill, which was not defended on Second Reading and received minimal scrutiny in Committee. If we were to pass the Bill without the benefits of amendments Nos. 9 or 1, we would be overturning the considered judgment of people in senior positions whom we have asked to consider the matter. With due respect to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, we would be replacing that judgment with the opinion of someone who has not been asked to consider the matter yet has brought forward a Bill that is half-baked at best and something that I regard as dangerous.
There is another reason why the public need to understand the importance of our argument. A note provided by the Library, which is clearly objective, states:
“Over 100 of these types of inquiry had been made by the end of 2006”
to the House authorities. All those inquiries had been refused on the grounds of the data protection exemption in section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Until my hon. Friend’s case had been dealt with, 100 people had been told that they could not get information, but they are now told that they are entitled to much of it, given the tribunal’s decision.
That is exactly right. The situation shows the endemic nature of secrecy in the House of Commons Commission and demonstrates why people will have no confidence in a voluntary scheme or a convention that says that the processing and publication of information will continue. By the way, it is not clear whether the Members Estimate Committee has promised to publish the information that was produced before the judgment on travel expenses, or information detailing MPs’ expenses that includes travel expenses. It would be useful if someone explained today whether the convention—I am not sure that it is worth the paper that it is written on—is meant to take account of the judgment of the Information Commissioner, or whether it represents an attempt to undo that judgment and revert to the position that was previously applicable.
Let me refer to the evidence given on behalf of the House of Commons by Andrew John Walker, the House of Commons Director of Finance and Administration, at the tribunal hearing on MPs’ expenses. It is worth noting that no one from the House of Commons Commission dared to show their face at the tribunal and left it to an Officer of the House to defend the indefensible. Paragraph 25 of the document produced by the information tribunal states:
“Mr Walker accepted that it was the duty of every MP to use public money carefully. Part of the objective of the annual verification exercise was to draw MPs’ attention to the details of travel expenditure so they could understand how they were using allowances and if appropriate review their modes of travel in the light of this duty.”
There was thus an acceptance by Mr. Walker, on behalf of the House of Commons, that the publication of information to MPs, whether publicly or privately, in the form of a breakdown of their modes of travel, would be useful for the reasons that he outlined. In other words, he made my case for me.
The publication of information is a good thing because it improves awareness, holds MPs accountable—not least of all to themselves—and helps to drive down costs. The publication of information on travel in Scotland has driven down the cost of travel claims. I predict that when next year’s details of Members’ travel expenditure are published—unless that process is stopped—they will show a downward drive in travel expenses. The production of information is good for the use of public money, as well as being the right moral and philosophical thing to do.
To be fair to Mr. Walker, I think that he put forward the best case that he could for the House of Commons. However, although he argues that it is appropriate for MPs to review their modes of travel, greater pressure comes when people outside the House ask MPs about their travel. One of the interesting consequences of the publication of MPs’ travel expenses a couple of months ago was that neighbouring MPs were shown to have made wildly different claims. Their constituents properly asked them why their claim was three times as much as their neighbour’s, or why they were travelling by air when their neighbour was travelling by rail.
We should be held accountable for our decisions because our travel uses public money and has an environmental impact, which was one of the reasons why I made the application in the first place. At a time at which we are all worried about climate change, our constituents have a right to know whether our decisions show that we are walking the walk rather than just talking the talk. The publication of Members’ expenses, which would be guaranteed if amendment No. 9 were accepted, is key to that. If amendment No. 9 is not accepted, the progress that we have made on driving down costs, encouraging people to make environmentally friendly choices and being accountable to public—that counts for something—will be wiped away as if it had never existed and we will return to the dark days. I do not think that that would be appropriate, which is why amendment No. 9 is important.
I notice that the person who appeared for the Information Commissioner, a man called Mr. Pitt-Payne, also addressed another question. He said that there was
“no evidence that MPs would or might be caused justified distress or damage if the disputed information were to be disclosed. No specific potential harmful consequences have been identified…nor”—
this is very important—
“is there any evidence of a specific refusal by MPs generally or by any individual MPs to permit the disclosure of this information.”
Even if one were being selfish about the matter, there is no evidence that colleagues were arguing that disclosure would be to our disadvantage.
That is exactly right, and I am afraid that those who want to change the present arrangements are unusually reluctant to make their case.
Mr. Walker also said, at paragraph 25, that
“there had been a reduction in overall expenditure on MPs’ travel since the publication of the annual aggregate travel figure.”
So there we have it in black and white from the House of Commons’ own officer: the publication of figures drives down the cost. Yet we have here an attempt to exempt the House of Commons and the House of Lords from publishing MPs’ expenses, except on the basis of a convention that could be overturned at the flick of a switch. That is why it is important to ensure that the measure is written into law, rather than written out of it by the Bill. Amendment No. 9 seeks to ensure that it is not written out.
The Scottish scheme has been mentioned, and it is worth pointing out in passing that the Scottish scheme allows far more disclosure of information in respect of MPs’ travel than does the present scheme, even after the information tribunal judgment. Those MPs who suggest that the present travel expenses declaration goes too far fail to appreciate that it does not go nearly as far as the Scottish system. That is a very Westminster-centric view, which fails to take account of what is happening in other Assemblies following devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It also fails to take account of how the public at large view matters, which is entirely different from the view of those who drafted the Bill.
Just so that we are clear: my hon. Friend is completely right to say that the Scots go further. For example, MSPs have to declare the destination of a taxi journey. However, the Welsh and the Northern Irish appear entirely content with the position that we have at the moment, which we on these Benches and elsewhere are trying to defend.
That is exactly right.
There are other benefits from the publication of details of the Members’ travel scheme. I have been able to go to my constituents and point out that I am one of the few MPs in my part of the world who has claimed more for rail travel than for a car, and nothing for air travel. That is important to my personal philosophy. A number of MPs have come up to congratulate me on the publication of the figures, saying that they have managed to release information that is very helpful to them, demonstrating their accountability to the public and the fact that they are spending wisely. Far from MPs as a whole resenting the publication of the figures, which may be concluded from reading some of the press, many, in all parts of the House, have welcomed it. The fact that the press have concluded that MPs did not want the measure brings us into disrepute again and lowers the opinion that people out there have of us. That lowered opinion can be reinforced only if the Bill is passed without amendments Nos. 9 and 1, which seek to repair some of the damage that has been done.
It is important at this point that MPs who believe in accountability and freedom of information stand up and say so now, if they are here, and more widely in their discussions with constituents and the local media. They should take the opportunity, when discussing the Government’s proposed changes, to say, “No, we will not weaken the Act. We need it to remain as strong as it is; indeed, we need to strengthen it.” This is a key moment. What happens with the Bill and the amendments, particularly Nos. 9 and 1, will be key to determining whether the House of Commons is serious about freedom of information; whether it has moved into the 20th century, let alone the 21st century, in how it addresses these matters; whether it accepts that democracy and the House of Commons are better served by openness and accountability; or whether we are going to return to the dark days, when discussions took place in smoke-filled, or perhaps smokeless, rooms, when cheques were written without anybody knowing and when MPs were largely unaccountable to their constituents. Surely we do not want to go back to those days. That would be the consequence of not agreeing to amendments Nos. 9 and 1.
I am very keen that we do not neglect any of the arguments that were put in my hon. Friend’s tribunal case. He was there and I was not, but I see from the report that two of the other arguments for amendments Nos. 9 and 1 are that they would allow the public to be more aware of the environmental or green choices made by MPs, as demonstrated by their mode of travel, and that the public would be aware of MPs’ choices of mode of travel, in light of their involvement in debating and legislating on transport and environmental matters. People could see whether what we said we wanted for other people was what we were doing ourselves.
Exactly so. We in the House have an obligation to be seen to be leading the debate. I hope that we do so on a whole range of issues, but we should certainly do so on questions of financial probity, democratic accountability and environmental responsibility. Those three elements are key, and we hit those targets with the publication of MPs’ expenses in an open scheme. That scheme may cause difficulties for individuals in the House; for example, I might be asked why, if I am so concerned about the environment, I have claimed nothing for bicycle travel. We all get asked questions about our individual returns, but so we should. We are accountable. We are not running this place without reference to what happens outside it.
We are here because we are the servants of the people who put us here on a temporary basis to represent their interests, not ours. It is not in their interests for secrecy to prevail; it is not in their interests for cheques to be written without knowledge of who and how much they are for; it is not in their interests for us to carry on behind closed doors, in our own safe world, with our own rules, without reference to the outside world. However, if this Bill is passed without amendments Nos. 9 and 1 in particular, that is the message that will be sent out from the House today. That message must be resisted.
In the judgment to which my hon. Friend referred, the key paragraph says:
“Having considered all these interests we find that the legitimate interests of members of the public outweigh the prejudice to the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of MPs. We consider our decision will only result in a very limited invasion of an MP’s privacy considered in the context of their public role and the spending of public money. In coming to this decision we have noted that the Scottish Parliament has for some years disclosed the detailed travel claims of MSPs supporting mileage, air travel, car hire and taxis. Also we note that in the Scottish Information Commissioner’s Decision 033/2005 in Paul Hutcheon, The Sunday Herald and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) the Scottish Commissioner went further and ordered the release of the destination points of taxi journeys of an MSP.”
A proper consideration has been given, balancing the valid data protection issues of which MPs should be cognisant with the right to have information published which holds MPs accountable for the expenditure of public money. That balance is an important one.
If the Bill becomes law, will not the interpretation inevitably be that the House of Commons, having fought strenuously to ensure that travel arrangements and expenses were not disclosed and having lost the case, quickly came back here and changed the law? It will look as though we could not justify our decision before the information tribunal, so we are changing the law for our own benefit.
That point is succinctly put and an entirely accurate representation of what will be said. Indeed, it is already being said by the public at large. Some MPs do not seem to listen to the public, but that is what they are saying. They are saying that MPs do not accept the independent judgment of a tribunal and are seeking to rewrite the law in a way that favours us. That is a terrible thing to be said about this House.
It happens because of the authority or power of these Houses to respond almost instantaneously should they want to change the circumstances, as is happening in this instance. It therefore behoves us to be extraordinarily cautious about bringing forward amendments to an Act, just like that. No other group or part of the United Kingdom can do that.
We are not just talking about the public now. I do not know whether the hon. Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) saw the comment item in yesterday’s edition of The Times entitled “What do MPs think they’ve got to hide” or the article in The Sunday Times on 11 March entitled “Official secrecy is back on the rise”, but people are beginning to notice that freedom of information is not all that it was said to be or hoped to be.
That is exactly right. Will the Government consider supporting amendments Nos. 9 and 1? They have said that they are neutral on the Bill, so presumably they will say that they are neutral on those amendments. But they cannot be neutral on these matters should they wish to retain the integrity of their own legislation—the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Amendment No. 9 seeks only to ensure that what they included in their own Act is kept. How can they be neutral on a matter that they have introduced and that our amendment seeks to retain in legislation? Are they neutral about their own legislation these days? Does it not matter if particular proposals that they have enacted are wiped away by private Members’ Bills?
If that is to be the test, let us have a few more private Members’ Bills on which the Government can be neutral. I look forward to introducing a raft of them and seeing whether the Government are neutral on them—I suspect that I might get a different response. We need to hear the Government’s view on amendments Nos. 9 and 1. We need to know who in Government took the decision not to oppose this Bill on Second Reading and to allow their own legislation to be watered down in this way.
Just as the decision to go to the information tribunal was taken without consulting the House of Commons as a whole, may I tell the hon. Gentleman that I am unaware of the parliamentary Labour party being consulted by the Government in about whether they should take a neutral line? Perhaps he will bear that point in mind too.
I am grateful for that intervention. For the avoidance of any doubt, I should say that I, for one, am happy to accept that there are MPs in all parts of this House who are committed to freedom of information. I hope that they will be supporting us today when amendments Nos. 9 and 1 come to a vote. There are too many doughty supporters of freedom of information on the Labour Benches to mention, although I should say that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher), who has added his name to our amendments, is clearly one. There are supporters on the Conservative Benches and on the nationalist Benches who understand the constitutional importance of freedom of information, and they will be supporting those amendments. That is not the issue; the issue is why the Government have not sought to stop this Bill at an earlier point and why they have undermined their own legislation.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North rightly talked about his own party. I raised this matter with my parliamentary colleagues, although Liberal Democrat Members are not being whipped because that would be wrong on a Friday. At our meeting, none of my colleagues expressed support for the Bill as it stands. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) also has clear reservations about it, even though he is a member of the House of Commons Commission.
May I refer to the tribunal judgment again and move on to a different point, Madam Deputy Speaker? This has been quoted in the helpful research paper on the Bill produced by the Library.
“The key is that the Data Protection Act imposes a test to balance the interests of both parties in disclosing or withholding third party information. However, every case needs to be examined on its merits. The Information Tribunal first considered fully the interaction between FoI and DP in its judgement on the release of information about Members’ allowances in January 2007. The Tribunal found that where the exemption on personal data applied, then the data protection principles in the DPA should be applied without regard to FoI. But para 2(6) of Schedule 2 to the DPA applied a balancing test similar to the public interest test under FoI. Only where the legitimate interests of those to whom the data was disclosed outweighed the prejudice to rights, freedom and legitimate interests of the data subjects, should the data be disclosed. In the case of Members’ allowances, the Tribunal found that the legitimate public interest in the expenditure of public money outweighed the privacy of Members, particularly as the allowances related to Members’ public functions, not private lives.”
I know that we shall have a discussion on the second group of amendments on correspondence, and I shall not go into that now. I hope that my citing that quote has demonstrated that the relationship between the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act is relevant to Members’ allowances, which are connected to the first group of amendments.
Like anybody else, Members of Parliament have protections as well as obligations under the Data Protection Act. There is no suggestion that asking for further information about MPs’ expenses will take us down some sort of endless route into the minutiae of our lives. Such a scenario simply will not happen. Should any Member be concerned that that is the likely consequence of the Freedom of Information Act, I am happy to say that they are wrong, because the information tribunal has applied a careful test to assess on the one hand the rights of MPs to privacy, which we all want respected, and, on the other, MPs’ obligation to be open and accountable. That balancing act must be examined.
There is no dispute that those two Acts act in concert in a way that affects the issue of MPs’ expenses. Quite a subtle relationship is involved. The tribunal has gone into this in some detail in a way that has not been done before. Unless amendment No 9 is accepted, there is the danger of the Bill seeking to overturn that. This is not an open-ended commitment to reveal every single piece of information about a Member of Parliament, because we also have the right to privacy in our own personal matters—they should not be revealed, and nor will they be. Like everybody else in the country, we are covered by the Data Protection Act. Everybody else is protected, so the argument necessarily flows that the same rules should apply to us in terms of protection and in terms of disclosure when it comes to being responsible for public funds and being in a public authority.
I have talked about amendment No. 9, so I shall now refer briefly to amendment No. 1 and the consequences for the House of Commons. It has been plain to me, although other hon. Members may not share this view, that money has not always been well spent in the House of Commons. We found—usually by leaks, well directed parliamentary questions, suggestions or conversations—for example, that the building of Portcullis House went over budget, that there were problems with the contract, that some features did not work, that there was Weil’s disease in the water features in the centre and so on.
Such information is important, because it demonstrates how we are spending public money on a prestigious building. It also shows whether MPs are capable of spending money well in the organisation of these big projects, and whether they are capable of taking good decisions, of awarding contracts and of dealing with all the other paraphernalia that goes with such a large building. What emerged from that exercise demonstrated that there are question marks about how we organise ourselves in those regards.
The Bill will exempt the House of Commons and House of Lords from the Freedom of Information Act unless amendment No. 1 is accepted, so how would we be guaranteed that such information would appear in future? Would we be able to guarantee that when money is wasted—for example the £422,000 spent on the ludicrous covered walkway downstairs—the information will become public? Would there be any guarantee that when we are writing blank cheques on behalf of the electorate to benefit ourselves, it will be money well spent? The only guarantee of money being well spent is that people are able find out about things and question the expenditure of that money.
Members may say that some of that information can emerge through parliamentary questions, which is true. What happens, however, if the House of Commons and the House of Lords are exempted from the Freedom of Information Act and someone has the bright idea of arguing, “The exemption means that we are not obliged to answer parliamentary questions with the same degree of honesty and openness as we have hitherto shown? The House has concluded that this matter should not be in the public domain because it will put MPs in a position where they have to defend themselves and answer questions about expenditure, so it is not appropriate to give the same full answers to parliamentary questions as have previously been given.”? That could be a legitimate argument advanced by someone at a not-too-distant point in the future. Exempting the House of Commons and House of Lords could undermine the system of parliamentary questions.
Exemptions from legislation for the House of Commons and the House of Lords do not have a good track record. You may remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, when we were exempt from regulations relating to food safety and health and safety because of the status of this place as a royal palace. The consequence of that, which I remember from my time as a researcher here, was that the quality of the food was appalling—there was actually a poisoning in the House of Lords. It took that sort of incident to persuade either the Government of the day or the House of Commons Commission—I am not sure which—to conclude that the exemption of Parliament from that legislation made no sense and was unhelpful to Members in the discharge of their duties. Similarly, I argue that the exemption of the House of Commons from freedom of information legislation will be unhelpful to us in the discharge of our parliamentary duties.
Some MPs no doubt think that they will gain if the Bill is passed, because they will not have to answer one or two difficult questions, but that is only a short-term gain. They will in the long-term be building up huge problems for the accountability of the House, the reputation of MPs, and the proper discharge of public functions and expenditure of public money. We know from the experience of the operation of freedom of information legislation in this country and others that keeping public authorities and public bodies working well requires the ability to find out information about those bodies through FOI requests and other means. The public, MPs and the media have to be able to pose questions to public authorities. When information comes out that is questionable or embarrassing, a self-corrective mechanism comes into play, which eliminates bad practice, incompetence or worse in a public authority.
In his evidence to the tribunal, Mr. Walker said that the publication of MPs’ travel expenses had acted to exert downward pressure on those expenses. He said that
“there had been a reduction in overall expenditure on MPs’ travel since the publication of the annual aggregate travel figure.”
In the same way—
I do not know whether my hon. Friend was going on to the point that it appears that the proposal is not widely supported in government and that, judging by leaked correspondence, our amendments appear to have support from the Lord Chancellor and other Ministers. If members of the Government want the Bill to be amended as we suggest, surely that is another very strong argument against its making progress in its present form?
It is indeed. I hope that, as a consequence of our debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), will make a statement in which she makes plain the Government’s position. I challenge her to give us her view on amendment No. 9 and, in particular, amendment No. 1. Does she, on behalf of the Government, want to defend the legislation that they introduced, or does she want to aid the pulling of the rug from under the Freedom of Information Act? Does she stand with the Lord Chancellor in resisting the watering down of the Act, or with less progressive elements in the Home Office, who are happy to see the Act weakened?
How does the Bill fit with the proposed fee changes? I know that you will not let me go into that in detail, Madam Deputy Speaker, but those changes are relevant in one respect, which is that we need to know whether there is a Government position on the Bill and on the amendments and that would be clearer if we knew why the Government did not to object to the Bill’s Second Reading and why they have introduced the new charging scheme under their own legislation. We need a statement from the Government—
I am sure that the hon. Lady will make the points that she wishes to make. I was encouraging her to make the points that she might not wish to make, but that she ought to make.
The Bill, if it is enacted in its present form, will do immense damage to the reputation of Parliament, will make MPs in the public eye appear hypocritical, will undermine the gains made in freedom of information, and will cause the spread once again of a culture of secrecy through the devolved Administrations, local councils and the public sector generally. We stand in danger of extinguishing the flame of freedom of information, which is flickering dangerously and is fragile in this country. That is why it is important that we have a statement from the Government. It is why the House should accept amendment No. 9, which would ensure that we do not appear hypocritical in relation to disclosure of MPs’ expenses. Most important of all, it is why we should accept amendment No. 1 and not exempt the House of Commons and House of Lords from the provisions of the legislation.
I hope that the promoter of the Bill will consider carefully the amendments, which stand in the names of hon. Members on both sides of the House. If there is a genuine problem in respect of MPs’ correspondence I hope that he will raise it when we debate the next group of amendments, but if he and others cannot justify exempting the House of Commons and the House of Lords from the Freedom of Information Act, or exempting MPs expenses and other expenditure of the House from the Act’s provisions, the only logical course of action for hon. Members will be to vote for amendments Nos. 9 and 1.
I rise somewhat reluctantly at this juncture as a supporter of amendments Nos. 9 and 1, which stand in the names of hon. Friends on both sides of the House and for which the case has been made extraordinarily powerfully. I hung back in the hope that I would hear what were the promoter of the Bill’s objections to the substance of the amendments, and would therefore be up to responding adequately on behalf of we who support the amendments.
There is a difficulty because the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is an important Act, which the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) would amend, and which we, in turn, hope to improve by the amendments that we have proposed. The 2000 Act was a flagship Act of the new Labour Administration—one in which they proclaimed their pride. I supported the dream that we would one day have such legislation, although the Act did not go far enough for my taste. However, the House made a judgment. All the matters included in the Bill now before us, to which our amendments are directed, were given reflection and consideration—indeed, I was a member of the Public Administration Committee that gave pre-legislative scrutiny to the original Bill.
One of the ringing absences from the debate on the Bill, both wider and in relation to the amendments that we propose, is the absence of a comment from the Government. The Government acceded to the inclusion of public authorities in the 2000 Act. The 18- line Bill—in substance, it is 18 lines long—before the House today contains one huge contention: the exemption of the House of Commons and House of Lords as a public authority. That is a huge concept, when one thinks of what a public authority is. Amendment No. 1 hopes to strike out the removal of the Commons and the Lords as public authorities. Anyone considering the structures of Government and the constitution of the country who was asked to name a public authority would name the House of Commons or Parliament. It is the pre-emptive public authority, and it rests on the consent of the people.
I always treat with diffidence the advice of my friend from Cambridge, who has a legal background. I have no doubt that there are a score of lawyers, even as we speak, working on either an exemption or a definition of public authority in respect of the House of Commons, depending on which is needed. Of course, the Bill is trying to limit that definition in one particular respect, but I do not want us to lose sight of what our amendments are trying to do to the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman may not remember, but in the schedule of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 that lists public authorities, the House of Commons and the House of Lords are second and third in the list. There are pages and pages of authorities, but “any government department” is the first mentioned, the House of Commons is the second and the House of Lords is the third, so in terms of importance and centrality, we could not be higher up the list.
I am always obliged to have a point that I am making reinforced, even at length. What the hon. Gentleman says is the truth of the matter. Everyone in this country would say that the House of Commons or the House of Lords was the pre-eminent public authority. My point about the Government’s silence on that matter is that surely they, who included the Lords and the Commons in the 2000 Act, would be the greatest advocates for maintaining the integrity of the inclusion of those bodies.
We are given to understand that the Leader of the House thinks that the Bill is valuable, or should be debated, and that is commendable. It is right that it should be debated if the subject is causing anxiety to my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border and those who support his Bill, but it was also possible for the Leader of the House to say, when the Bill was being debated, “We stand by the integrity of the 2000 Act as it was drafted.” It is not that Ministers are not well advised; they know perfectly well how the Bill is constructed and the relationship of its ingredients. We are saying that we should retain the House of Commons as a public authority, and that strikes at the very heart of the private Member’s Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend.
I have listened with great interest, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the exchanges on what is and what is not in order in a discussion on the Bill, but there is a serious difficulty to consider. The removal or continuation of public authority status has consequential effects that touch on the only other subject that the Bill mentions: communications with members of the House of Commons. The two issues are intimately related. Of course, communications is only one of the many instances of areas in which there would be consequential effects, but it is the one that is specified in the Bill. When considering the removal of the Commons as a public authority, we are therefore considering what that means for a wider range of interests, and for our work, doings and proceedings—not proceedings; I rapidly withdraw that, on the ground that I understand a little bit about privilege.
Hon. Members have said, appropriately, that the 2000 Act that the Bill seeks to amend, and which we in turn seek to amend—I hope that I have got the rubric right—is a trust with the people, in which we say that no institution or public authority is so grand that it is exempted. It is a curiosity that the House of Commons Commission decided to pursue a case without seeking any advice from Members on whether that was truly appropriate. I was unaware of that at the time; I am slow in these matters. In fact, no consultation has taken place, but the Government had previously ensured great consultation on the 2000 Act, and had received many observations. This is a valuable opportunity to look at some of the responses from. Members of this House.
I am mindful that the concept of “public authority” applies to almost everything that is important in our public processes and public life. As always, I am extraordinarily grateful to the Campaign for Freedom of Information for its diligence and pursuance of argument and reason. It lists, in a useful note, some of the public authorities that now give information that seems to trouble some Members. I am thinking of the expenses of chief constables and one of the areas in which I have had particular difficulty, local authorities. All people sometimes have a natural reluctance to explain what they think is sensitive information. That may be an innate human response, but the truth is that it is, as often as not, the people’s money that is being spent, and I maintain that they have an absolute right—I go too far, because nothing in life is absolute, except death. [Hon. Members: “And taxes.”] I have listened to my hon. Friends on the Public Accounts Committee, and they assure me that taxes are not absolute. That a touch of the golden days should arise is startling. The matter is as near to a certainty as possible; I put it that way. We are talking about a trust in the purpose of our construction of democratic government.
How do we know, without access to information, the appropriateness of every detail of the running of our Administrations? It is like shining a torch into a dark place—that is all that it is about—so that the public may judge whether such things are appropriate. We are all traduced—it is the fate of Members of Parliament to be caricatured, to be told that they are ineffective, to be this, that and the other—but that is the nature of our times and was probably always the nature of the times of this nation. We must be resolute in understanding that if we have a claim, whatever its nature, on the public purse that, just like the chief constable of the Thames Valley police, just like the chief executive of a local authority and just like public services in the national health service, our salaries, expenses and so on are a matter of legitimate concern or interest. It is not just being nosy, as we should be able to judge the effectiveness, the character and the honour of those who purport to spend public money in the interest of the public.
I have discussed the expenses of public authorities, including the police. There are exclusions, but how far, for instance, do expenses go? What detail is required of Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, in the period April to July 2005? On 9 May 2005, he had a business meal at a restaurant in London that cost £44.16.
Not much of a meal.
I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend thinks that it is not much of a meal. I am pleased that in those terms the commissioner is a diligent steward of public funds. He gave a floral tribute that cost £20. That is trivial, but it is reassuring that we can scrutinise those records. It is not my intention to delay or push on, but that is why it is important that in the absence of the Bill failing—and should it somehow squeak its way through—that our amendments succeed, even though it is a Friday and it is true that right hon. and hon. Members have many commitments in life.
There are benefits, too, that the Campaign for Freedom of Information highlighted in the briefing that it sent out, including the argument that the disclosure of aggregate annual figures has already led to a reduction in the overall level of Members’ travel expenses. If we want to look further, we could consider the disclosure of more detailed information about the expenses of Members of the Scottish Parliament. The briefing states:
“We think it would be wrong for Parliament to exempt itself from a disclosure regime which it has applied to the whole public sector”—
that is what I have been trying to say. It continues:
“The detailed expenses of ministers, judges, chief constables, councillors, civil servants, local authority chief executives and other public figures and officials are all disclosable under the Act. A number of these are included in an Appendix”—
to the briefing sent to every Member of Parliament. It continues:
“The particular case for exempting MPs’ expenses alone has not been made.”
I shall not go through the entire briefing, as that would extend the debate beyond the argument. I want to return, however, to the point first made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and by the hon. Members for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about the special position of the House. It has been pointed out that we are the second and third entries in the annexe to the originating Act that the Bill endeavours to amend—in turn, we are endeavouring to amend the amending measure. Our special case is that we make the law. How can it be right for us to direct that a law should apply to everyone else but, having found it inconvenient or not meeting what the Information Commissioner or one or two individual Members wanted, we should do something that no other public authority in Britain can do—change the law? That is what we are doing, but do we really think that it is quite right? Does it not look like the most extraordinary form of special pleading? Many people feel aggrieved, and I can think of a particular chief executive in the west midlands who is outraged at the fact that her salary should be made public. She thinks that it is like looking into her bank account. I can understand her concern. What if we suddenly started to say, having asked for this information to be published, “Now that I’ve found it inconvenient I think I should be exempted in some form or other”? That would be a profound corruption of public standards. I can see that my good friend from Glasgow, the right hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton, West (Mr. McAvoy), disagrees with the burden of that argument. Nevertheless, we have never liked particularisation of individuals or an individual class as against that of the public class in general.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Bill were passed into law without the amendment, it would be the most damaging blow to the reputation of Members of Parliament since the scandals of the 1990s, and that that should also be borne in mind when we come to our decision today?
We have had an interesting and well informed debate on the amendments, and several colleagues have spoken with great passion, including the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd).
When the Bill was debated in Committee, there was no guillotine and it was able to sit for as long as it wanted. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said there had not been a proper debate, but his hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) served on that Committee.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey spoke about the public interest in knowing what goes on in Parliament and how the money is spent. I would simply say that a huge amount of information is already made public. The House of Commons Commission publishes its report, which I looked at the other day. It is a huge, extremely complex document, and a mine of information for Members. If that is not enough, the hon. Member for North Devon, who is on the Commission, answers questions in the House, jointly with the Leader of the House. Any hon. Member can table questions, and we have business questions every week. Then we have the resource accounts for the administration estimates and the Members Estimate Committee, whereby, again, a huge amount of information is published.
To give hon. Members a chance to play a part in finding out what is going on and getting information, we have the Administration Committee, which was set up in July 2005 and is chaired by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran), with the Liberal Democrats well represented by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). Only this week, it published a very good report on improving facilities for educational visitors to Parliament. The argument that there is not enough information, and that there should be ways in which the public can get more and more of it, does not stack up.
No. I want to draw my remarks to a conclusion quite quickly because many Members have spoken and many want to speak on the next group of amendments.
On the highly vexed subject of Members’ allowances, I take the view that now that those allowances have been published there is no going back on that. I take on board the point made by colleagues on both sides of the House that that is a driver for better standards. Every Member now has an eye on trying to give good value for money and is a genuine custodian of the public purse. One example is that of travel. There was a time, before these allowances were published, when Members did not go quite as far as they should have done in trying to find a super-saver ticket, off-peak travel, a travel card concession, or whatever it might be. Now, all Members do those things. Perhaps we should have done them before, but very few Members did. That is just one example.
I want to nail the point that somehow the Bill would stop those allowances—and the breakdown of travel allowances, about which the hon. Member for Lewes spoke—from being published as they are at present. When the Bill was going through Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) read out a letter from Mr. Speaker, who made it clear that the allowances had been published. Mr. Speaker wrote:
“as you know, the House has issued a publication scheme which, I can confirm, the Committee has no intention of withdrawing whatever any changes made in its formal obligations.”
As my right hon. Friend pointed out to the Committee,
“the view of the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee and Mr. Speaker is that we should continue every October to publish the same information on travel, allowances, accommodation and secretarial costs that we have published in the past few years.”––[Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee, 7 February 2007; c. 6.]
Nothing will change there.
There has been a lot of talk—
I will not.
We strongly support the freedom of information legislation and we are appalled by Her Majesty’s Government’s attempts to curtail the release of such information. However, the Bill is very narrow. The amendments that we have debated this morning do not improve the Bill; I am not convinced that they have been well thought out. I have listened to the arguments and they are well intentioned, of course; however, Opposition Front Benchers do not feel that the amendments do anything to improve what is a very modest, small Bill.
I, too, shall be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker. The amendments have had a comprehensive airing this morning. I want to reiterate what I said in Committee: the Freedom of Information Act 2000 has been a significant success. It has resulted in the release of information that is of real interest to the public. Most importantly, it has increased the transparency of public authorities. As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) has just said, so much information is now available through Government Departments and the Houses of Parliament on websites and so on that a great deal of information is available to people.
The amendments are inconsistent with the intention of the Bill, and I suspect that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), in whose name they stand, would agree. The question for the House today is whether the House authorities should be covered by the 2000 Act; that is the thrust and question behind the amendments. There are very few examples of public authorities being covered for only some of the information that they hold—those that relate to the protection of the journalistic integrity of the BBC, for example. There may be a whole new debate on that, but I do not intend to go into it today.
Seeking to alter the scope of the 2000 Act to cover only certain types of information, such as Members’ expenditure, for example, would risk confusion within the organisations that have to administer and regulate compliance with the Act. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk read out some of the letter that Mr. Speaker wrote to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean); as it stated, the authorities of the House are already very open and already publish information on Members’ expenses. The right hon. Gentleman read that letter out in Committee and I am sure that he will want today to repeat the commitment given by Mr. Speaker on that issue and say that the House would continue to publish information on expenses if the Bill were enacted.
I should like to finish my comment. I cannot add to what the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said about the driving-up of standards; I believe that that has absolutely been the case. In Committee, several hon. Members made telling points, including the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), about Members’ ability to represent their constituents properly through correspondence and other means. We will deal with that shortly.
The amendments are inconsistent with the Bill’s intentions and it is therefore up to hon. Members to decide whether they wish the Act to continue to cover the House authorities. I leave it to the House to make that decision because it is a matter for this House.
The debate has been long and interesting. Of course, all hon. Members who spoke, including my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), kept within the rules of order and addressed the amendments, occasionally with a little chiding from you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Nevertheless, the substance of colleagues’ comments was that they fundamentally oppose the Bill in principle. Many of the points were Second Reading points—the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) nods—I have no objection to that. Colleagues felt that what I am doing in the Bill is wrong—they suggested that it would bring the House into disrepute or set it back a few years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said that amendments Nos. 1 and 9 went to the heart of the Bill. That is true. If they were accepted, the result would be inconsistent with what I am trying to achieve. It would mean an absolute reversal and I cannot, therefore, ask the House to accept them.
I emphasise the point that Mr. Speaker made in his capacity as Chairman of the Members Estimate Committee. It is not just a passing fancy. Yes, it is theoretically possible that a future Speaker could reverse the ruling—and that Mr. Speaker or a future Speaker could reverse a range of things that we have done—but it will not happen. I accept the assurances that we will continue to publish the details of the expenses of Members of Parliament as we have published them in the past, and with the more detailed breakdown on travel that has been provided in the past couple of years after the tribunal decision. That will continue to happen. The House of Commons will not be brought into disrepute because there will be no cover-up on expenses.
I said that I did not question the right hon. Gentleman’s intentions. I believe that they are wrong, misguided and would greatly harm the House of Commons, but I am sure that he has acted in all sincerity. Does he accept that, although the Speaker’s letter, which I quoted among others, is clear that if the Bill became law, we would continue to provide the information, it would be done not under the law but on an optional basis? Yes, the information would continue to be provided for the moment—and perhaps for the next few years—but the House of Commons Commission could reach a different conclusion. We would thus be in a completely different position from other public bodies.
I take the view that the House of Commons should be capable of governing itself on a range of matters. The decisions of the Chair are made under the rules and regulations of the House. There is a range of other matters that the House of Commons and the House of Lords do under their own conventions and rules, not because that is required by law. If we are incapable of maintaining a decision to publish annually reports of our expenditure, God help us. I believe that we will continue to publish the reports.
No. I am sorry, but I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He walked in about half an hour ago, when the debate was almost concluded. With all due respect, it is not acceptable to come in at the last moment in such an important debate and seek to catch my eye.
We know the game today. Hon. Members of all parties oppose the Bill in principle. I accept that. However, let me quote from Wednesday’s press:
“Freedom of Information campaigning MPs Norman Baker and Richard Shepherd have vowed that they would seek to stop the bill being passed to the House of Lords this Friday… ‘This will do nothing to enhance the reputation of MPs and I and others will attempt to stop the bill.’”
I shall not go into the detail of the amendments—I know the game. Colleagues have attempted to stop the Bill. I think that they are misguided and I hope that the House will vote against the amendment. On the basis that I am content to be assured by Mr. Speaker’s letter and the letter from the Members Estimate Committee, I hope that the House will reject the amendments, well meant though they may be, and stick with the content of my Bill.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) for speaking to his Bill. I want to deal with his points first. He made both a broad point and a slightly narrower point. On the broad point, there are, of course, some hon. Members who are opposed to the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman has been a Member of this House as long as I have, so he knows that we have two ways of making arguments: on Second and Third Reading, we argue about a Bill as a whole; and in Committee and on Report, we try to make a Bill as least problematic and least offensive as possible, by improving it. The amendments in this particular case are designed to restrict the scope of this part of the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman rightly and kindly acknowledged that: I am grateful to him and would expect no less.
On the narrower point that the right hon. Gentleman made, he followed up the question put to him by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I cannot believe that the right hon. Gentleman believes it credible, however good our practice as a result of our own choice led by Mr. Speaker—who absolutely represents the views of Members on the House of Commons Commission as well as his own views—to say that we should be able to make our own choices while everyone else has to follow laws that we impose on them. That is the issue.
Every public Government Department must do what we tell it. We say that the Welsh Assembly must do what we tell it. We say that the Northern Ireland Assembly must do what we tell it. We say that the armed forces of the Crown—with the exception of the special forces, which have to act to protect national security—must do what we tell them. Yet the Bill is effectively saying that we must not be governed by the same law, which some of us find unacceptable.
However good our practice—this point relates to what the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said—it is Members of Parliament who are driving what information is available. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, we can question the Leader of the House. We can also question the person who speaks for the House of Commons Commission—currently my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). We can question orally and in writing. We can read the reports that the Commission produces. Other bodies such as the Members Estimate Committee are also relevant. All those matters are driven by Members of Parliament and I have listed things that we can do. However, as it happens, the tribunal case was brought by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), but also by someone who was not an MP. The question is about whether people other than MPs can ask the difficult questions. For very obvious reasons, there may be people other than MPs who are prepared to ask questions that we are not willing to ask.
It is no great secret that the person responsible for Members’ standards in the House who was in post before the current occupant was regarded by some colleagues as over-zealous. Her contract was not renewed. I do not know whether she wanted it to be renewed, but there was common talk about not renewing it for her. The reality is that she was an external watchdog. The law is an external watchdog. The right hon. Gentleman, however, suggests that it is sufficient for us to drive our own agenda and that we should achieve by our own deliberations what the amendments are designed to achieve through legislative provision.
I do not accept that that is sufficient. I do not question the motives of colleagues. I do not doubt that we will diligently seek to be more and more open. I hope that that is the case, but as we always say about Government legislation—the right hon. Gentleman says it as much as I do—the reason we want provisions built directly into Bills is that we cannot guarantee that the next Government, the next Minister or the next Secretary of State will be as diligent, assiduous or open-minded as the present one. I do not think that the guarantee suggested by the right hon. Gentleman will work.
In reply to my earlier intervention, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) said that he believed that the House of Commons should regulate itself. Was that not the argument—it was certainly not a compelling argument—put forward at the time by those who strongly opposed having a Register of Members’ Interests? They said that it was totally unnecessary. They said that we were all honourable, so we should be able to regulate our own affairs. We all know what happened about that, do we not?
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. I have the latest copy of the Register of Members’ Interests with me. It is now regarded as hugely important and failure to comply with it is regarded as very serious, because the public expect to know the financial considerations that might occupy our thoughts and labours. That is absolutely right. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that the argument goes further than that. This has been the argument for all sorts of organisations for a long time. I have recently finished serving on a Committee dealing with compensation claims, in which the Minister’s Department was involved. We were investigating claims farmers who go round putting a note through people’s doors saying “We are willing to take up your compensation claim.” Why were we legislating on that? We were doing so because the Government, supported by colleagues on all sides, took the view that self-regulation would not achieve the right outcome.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been as critical as I have over the years, but I have had serious cause for concern about the way in which complaints against solicitors were dealt with. Solicitors were self-regulating. Yes, they are a private body, and we are a public body. A Bill is coming down to us from the other end of the building that deals with regulation. These amendments are not about the regulation of private bodies; they deal with the regulation of a public body. Amendments Nos. 1 and 9 would ensure that the House of Commons—a public authority—was governed by regulation, like all the other public authorities.
I made the point in an intervention on the hon. Member for Sheffield Brownhills—
I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon. I do not usually make that mistake.
I have made the point that the Commons and the Lords are the second and third bodies listed, but there are a huge number of other public authorities on which we place these requirements. There are six that are regarded as very important, of which we are one. There are also 28 local government authorities on which we place these requirements. We are seeking, through amendments Nos. 1 and 9, to ensure that the House of Commons is subject to the same requirements. There is one Northern Ireland local government organisation, and we are seeking to ensure that we have the same obligations as it has. There are nine NHS public authorities in England and Wales, and we are seeking, through amendments Nos. 1 and 9, to ensure that we are subject to the same requirements as they are. There are six Northern Ireland health and social services authorities—
Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that the concession of a wind-up speech is that it winds up the debate. He addressed the House for almost an hour earlier on, and I think that he would be trespassing on the House’s good will if he were to make an extended speech at this point. He is meant to be summing up the amendments that he has proposed.
Let me then summarise the points in regard to the relative consequence of the amendments for the legislation as a whole. I have not added up the total number of bodies involved, but there are two education authorities in England and Wales, and three in Northern Ireland. There are three police authorities in England and Wales, two in Northern Ireland, and three others. There are 371 other public authorities in England and Wales and 85 in Northern Ireland. The point that the hon. Member for Walsall, North made earlier was that it would be totally indefensible if we said to the public, “All those hundreds of other bodies must be governed by this law, but we will not be.”
The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) said that the argument that voluntary disclosure is enough—the amount of voluntary disclosure in this House is quite considerable—could be used by any of the other public authorities. Are we not trying to give ourselves an exemption that we are not willing to give to other bodies?
And—as was pointed out by the hon. Members for Walsall, North and for Aldridge-Brownhills—if we did that for local government, we would be seen as undoing progressive legislation that makes local government more accountable. As the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, the salary of that chief executive in the west midlands is of public interest, as it should be. We cannot have one standard for one body and a different standard for another body.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, by means of an example, amplified what had been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes. One of the benefits of the exposure of expenditure that we incur here—apart from revealing whether we are using “green” travel—is that people can know whether we, like most other members of the public including us when we are spending our own money, are taking advantage of cheaper fares by, for instance, taking a train after 9.30 am. The only way in which to guarantee such benefits of exposure, and to guarantee that the public have access to the information when they want it, is to support the amendments and, ideally, to reject the Bill even as amended.
I accept that there is no Whip on the Conservatives’ vote, as there is none on ours. Nevertheless, I was surprised that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk took the line that the Conservative Front Bench support the Bill. That was not said in Committee; it is a new revelation. I am not sure whether it has been cleared with the party leadership, but it is certainly not consistent with the new cuddly, friendly, open-government, we’re-on-your-side Tory party that the party leader is seeking to sell to the country over the next couple of weeks and beyond.
The Freedom of Information Act was not entirely accepted by all members of the Conservative party—they resisted it, and a Labour Government introduced it—but in the end there was a broad consensus. I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the view he has now adopted goes further than saying that this is a matter for colleagues alone, and that he would be ill advised to align himself and his party formally with the argument for exempting the House of Commons rather than supporting amendments Nos. 1 and 9. If that is his position, I should be intrigued to hear him defend it against the critique—already clear and voluble—that has been delivered not just by the well-regarded and respected Campaign for Freedom of Information but by the press, not least in the past couple of days.
The Minister adopted a neutral position, saying that it was a House of Commons matter, but failed to answer two of the major questions of the debate. First, how is it possible to be neutral about an Act which the Government introduced, which came into force only two years ago, and which the Government regarded as flagship legislation? The Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is the lead Department, has regularly and consistently made the point that it introduced freedom of information legislation. I have never heard it say that, having introduced the legislation, it now supports the idea—or is neutral or relaxed about the idea—that it may not apply to the House of Commons, the House of Lords or both.
The Minister expressly did not respond to the point made earlier in the debate about the view of her senior ministerial colleague. Perhaps I can tempt her to do so now. In any event, I remind her of the very specific report that appeared in The Guardian on 31 January. The paper’s Westminster correspondent wrote:
“The lord chancellor”
—the Minister’s boss—
“has warned ministers that exempting MPs from freedom of information inquiries will damage public confidence in the principles of open government.
A leaked letter from Lord Falconer, seen by the Guardian, shows that the cabinet is split on whether to back a private member's bill to exempt parliament and MPs' correspondence from the Freedom of Information Act.”
Apparently—I know no more than the report tells me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but this relates directly to amendments Nos. 1 and 9—
“Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett and Peter Hain want to back the bill…Mr Straw's support is crucial…Opponents include Hilary Armstong…Lord Rooker…and Gerry Sutcliffe”.
I quote the next passage specifically because it relates to the Minister’s Department.
“Lord Falconer expresses concern that the measure would add to the perception ‘of being an increasingly secretive government’ because he is already consulting on measures to curb the use of the act by journalists and the public.”
If the Minister is today saying that she and the Government are neutral, when between two and three months ago the Secretary of State was arguing that the Government should not be seen to be supporting the Bill and should be opposing the measure, something strange has happened in the Department. The public would find it troubling that the Government, who expressly, as we know, took the proposal from the Select Committee and put it in the legislation to ensure that the House of Lords and House of Commons were included, are now going back on that and not being consistent.
My intervention, as always I hope, is political; it is in no way personal. I have listened to the Front-Bench speeches. Does not all the evidence demonstrate that the three parties—I emphasise the three parties—are collaborating through the usual channels in order to get the Bill on the statute book?
I am seeking to deal with the speeches that have been made. I can only speak for myself on the specific point. The amendments were tabled by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes with colleagues in other parties. They have not been opposed by my parliamentary colleagues; I am not aware of any of them opposing them. I made clear earlier the view expressed in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon, who is a member of the House of Commons Commission. He has understood the issue but, if I can paraphrase the point that he made to me, he does not think that the Bill is the right solution to any problems that there are. I hope that that is clear.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to make a point at this stage. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is impossible for the Government to be neutral on the issue? They are either for their legislation as it currently exists, or they want to abandon it. Would it not be helpful on such a serious matter if the Minister made it plain whether she was in favour of her legislation or against it?
I have been surprised that there has been such a lack of clarity. I can understand the Government taking a view that they were content to let the Bill be debated on Second Reading, and to see what the mood of the House was and whether there was any basis for change, but no one here in the debate so far has argued that there is evidence that people outside the Chamber have expressed support for the Bill to MPs. All the argument that has been put to me and others is in support of the sort of amendments that we have tabled. They may not be perfectly drafted, but amendments Nos. 9, 1 and others seek to ensure that we do not today or later exempt the House of Commons or the House of Lords from the provision.
In a little exchange earlier, the question was asked, if the House of Commons and House of Lords are taken out of the Bill and they are not public authorities, what are they? We are clearly public authorities. The paradox is that we would be taken out of the Bill and not treated as public authorities. Therefore, we would be the two unique exceptions in the list of hundreds of other public authorities, which would be bizarre.
The proposition that has been put forward is that the House of Commons and House of Lords should be exempt from the legislation. As my hon. Friend says, no reason has been given. All that we have been told is that there is a letter that guarantees that the present situation will continue. If the intention is to continue the present situation, why change the law?
That is a question that we might have had an answer to, but we have not.
The support of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills is, as always, welcome. As he knows, his view on these matters is hugely respected. He has been here a considerable time seeking to win the battle for the advance of freedom of information legislation. He remembers how hard he and others had to fight for freedom of information. He remembers how it was seen to be central to bringing trust into government. He has argued many times that Members work hard as individual MPs to try to serve their constituents and to stand up for freedoms, and that it is often difficult to persuade Governments in respect of that subject because Governments naturally get nervous about it. However, the battle was won—effectively on an all-party basis. It was won less than 10 years ago, and we had the five-year implementation period. Today is a Friday just before the Scottish, Welsh and local elections so fewer colleagues than usual might be present, but on any day of any year after having fought that battle and having only recently reached the place that America, Australia and other countries have reached before, suddenly to row back from that place by saying that the Commons and the Lords should not be exempted from the Bill would be a most bizarre, strange, inconsistent and discordant note for the House of Commons to strike.
The other point that the hon. Gentleman made was that nowadays we are judged not only by our constituents but by the press, and that external comparisons are made. Let us look across the water to Ireland. It has an extremely progressive regime. Has there been any attempt to row back? No, there has not. People accept that there should be a more accountable and open structure. I hope that colleagues heed the hon. Gentleman’s reminder about having fought so hard. The point I am making is relevant to our recent debate on slavery and to debates on women’s suffrage and Select Committees, although the issues involved are different; great battles have been fought, and the idea that we should go backwards after only a few years is almost inconceivable.
If the Bill unfortunately becomes law, that will make all the more necessary the amendments that the hon. Gentleman has tabled and I and many other Members support—it will be all the more important that the Bill is amended along the lines that the hon. Gentleman urges.
I am grateful for that intervention. I have tried to make sure that we do not have a debate in which we suddenly discover what has happened. Having missed an opportunity on Second Reading for whatever reason and having had a Committee stage in which, of course, only a handful of Members participated, I wanted to make sure that the House did not miss the opportunity of making a judgment on the following questions. Should we include the Commons at all? If we include the Commons as an exempt organisation, should we include the Lords, which is what another amendment in the group proposes? If we include the Commons and the Lords, should that be done generally or should we make sure that we retain the ability for people to inquire about expenses and finances?
The hon. Member for Walsall, North is right in what he says about the amendments. If they are passed, we at least say that although there might be a debate, which we will come on to later, about communication with MPs—constituency correspondence—we reject the central issue about information held in this House being exempted from the freedom of information legislation.
The hon. Gentleman has been a veteran in standing up for liberties, and he has done so not in a party political way, but from a general political perspective. He has stood up for liberties regardless of which party was in government and who the Ministers were. He made two points that were not made previously and which I want to associate myself with. First, he said that Members are now judged in terms of our responses in respect of openness and accountability. We are being called to be more accountable, and as we are now under more scrutiny it would be a particularly bad time to seek to close that down. However clever or generous we might want to be in our arrangements, that would be an inexplicable route to go down.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman made the point that as far as he was aware there had been no consultation with his colleagues, and that there had been no formal proposition to test the mood of the House. Many matters of House business are brought before us merely in order to take a view—to take a sounding and find out the mood of the House. I have not heard any formal proposition, other than by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border and in other speeches today in the Chamber—
Of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise if I went too far.
I shall end by referring to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes and his comments on the tribunal judgment. The tribunal has just adjudicated and the law has now made it clear that certain things ought to be made public, although in theory that clarification could go to the High Court. However, the ruling is merely weeks old so I make this point to the public outside, as well as to the House. If we set up systems such as information tribunals and commissioners and are willing to abide by them and give their judgments credibility by respecting what they say, it is entirely inconsistent for us not to support the amendments, because they follow the logic of what the tribunal decided in the recent freedom of information case. I hope the House will make it clear that we support retaining the freedom of information provisions on public authorities that govern the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and that we can make sure that everything that we do financially is as accountable as in any other public body.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
Amendment proposed: No. 1, page 1, line 3, leave out subsection (2).—[Simon Hughes.]
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The House proceeded to a Division.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 14, leave out lines 7 to 12 and insert—
‘(1) For the purposes of section 41(1), information which—
(a) is held only by virtue of being contained in a communication between a member of the House of Commons, acting in his capacity as such, and a public authority, and
(b) consists of information relating to the personal affairs of a constituent of that member
shall, unless the contrary is indicated, be deemed to have been communicated in circumstances importing an obligation of confidence.’.
No. 10, line 7, leave out from beginning to end of line 9 and insert—
‘(1) Information is exempt information if—
(a) it is held only by virtue of being contained in any communication between a member of the House of Commons, acting in his capacity as such, and a public authority, and
(b) it consists of personal data relating to a constituent of that Member, and
(c) the constituent has not consented to its disclosure.’.
No. 11, line 7, leave out from beginning to end of line 9 and insert—
‘(1) Information is exempt information if—
(a) it is held only by virtue of being contained in any communication between a member of the House of Commons, acting in his capacity as such, and a public authority, and
(b) it consists of—
(i) personal data relating to an individual in connection with whom the member has made representations or enquiries and the individual has not consented to its disclosure, or
(ii) information relating to the personal affairs of a deceased individual.’.
No. 12, line 9, at end insert
‘, except insofar as it relates to any representations which the member has made to the authority in connection with—
(a) any matter of policy which it has adopted or may adopt, or
(b) any decision which it has taken or may take other than a decision expressed in terms which affect only the personal affairs of a particular individual or individuals.’.
No. 24, line 9, at end insert—
‘(1A) Information is not exempt by virtue of this section if it is—
(a) contained in a communication made to or received from a public authority from whom the member receives any remuneration or benefit, and
(b) relates to that remuneration or benefit whether or not the remuneration or benefit is recorded in the Register of Members’ Interests.’
No. 25, line 12, at end insert—
‘(3) For the purposes of this section “communication” means a communication in writing, or by electronic means, made by a member to a public authority or by a public authority to a member but does not include a record of meeting, or of a conversation, between a member and a person or persons acting on behalf of the public authority.’.
No. 26, line 12, at end insert—
‘(3) This section does not apply to any communication made before the Act comes into force.’.
No. 16, line 13, leave out subsection (4) and insert—
‘(4) After section 63(1) insert—
“(1A) Information contained in a historical record cannot be exempt information by virtue of section 34A except insofar as it consists of personal data information relating to the personal affairs of a living individual who can be identified from that record or from that record and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the public authority.”’.
No. 36, in title, line 2, after second ‘and’, insert ‘certain’.
The amendments deal with Members of Parliament’s communications with constituents and public bodies. The wider question whether the House of Commons and House of Lords should be exempted from the legislation was dealt with in the debate on the first group of amendments. The second group relates to the ostensible reason the Bill has been introduced—I hope that I do not misrepresent the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) by saying that. My understanding is that his Bill arose from concern about the security of MPs’ correspondence. In general, MPs’ correspondence falls into one of two categories. The first is MPs’ communications with public authorities in our official roles—as constituency MPs in particular, but in some cases as spokesmen for our parties if we have Front-Bench or shadow ministerial responsibilities. The second is communications with individual constituents, who may write to us.
There would indeed be grave concern if a letter sent to an MP by a constituent subsequently appeared in the public domain. That would be an intolerable breach of the trust that Members of Parliament quite properly expect to exercise on behalf of constituents who write to them. As we all know, correspondence sent to us by constituents can be of an extremely personal and sensitive nature. We all do our best to deal with their concerns in the most effective way possible, which frequently involves writing to public authorities. It would be intolerable if some of the correspondence that crosses my desk—and yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in your capacity as a constituency MP—were to become public.
The reality, however, is that that has not happened and would not happen. A change to legislation is not required to ensure that it does not happen. There are several reasons for that. First, we have the Data Protection Act. To assess the impact of any of the changes proposed in the Bill, it is important that the suggested alterations to the Freedom of Information Act relating to MPs’ communications with public authorities and individual constituents be read across to the Data Protection Act. Unless that is done, it is impossible to understand how the system works. The system can be quite subtle, but it seems to be effective in the delivery of what we want, and I suggest that what we want is a system that holds Members of Parliament accountable for actions that they take on the public’s behalf, and particularly on behalf of constituents, whether they be approached about personal matters, or matters raised by groups, voluntary organisations or others operating in the constituency. Of course, that is a slightly different matter from the Freedom of Information Act requirements on Members of Parliament to be accountable, open and responsive.
I hope that all of us in the House want an appropriate balance to be struck, so that we are held accountable when we need to be held accountable, namely for the discharge of public money and for the way in which we exercise our duties, both in the constituency and in the House. However, we have a separate role as Members of Parliament—a second job, as it were—which some would say involves acting as a one-person citizens advice bureau in our constituency. We receive large numbers of letters, e-mails, telephone calls, faxes and visits to surgeries from members of the public who have problems, which are often of a highly sensitive and personal nature, and which require the greatest discretion when they are brought to and handled by MPs.
Of course, it would be inappropriate to discuss those cases today in any way, shape or form, other than to say that the subject matter can range widely. Thinking back to my casework from the past couple of weeks, it has involved the need for a housing transfer for particular medical reasons, issues to do with child abuse, and allegations against the police. There is almost no end to the variety of casework that comes our way, and which we have to deal with in a sensitive manner. That much is common to all Members of the House.
The first question that needs to be asked of the Members who introduced the Bill is whether there are faults and deficiencies in the present arrangements that have in any way justified the proposal to change existing legislation. Also, we need to ask whether there are any reasons why the amendments should not be accepted. As was the case with the amendments in the previous group, by and large, the amendments that we are discussing essentially seek to support the status quo and the Government’s existing legislation. I am trying my best to support the Government, but they did not seem very grateful for it this morning.
The issue is whether we want to support the status quo, which seems to be working, or whether there is a reason to change. I suggest that it is up to the Members who wish to make the case that the present arrangements are not working to demonstrate in what way a problem has arisen. I went through the Hansard report of Committee proceedings recently. Let us face it: we had no Second Reading debate, and we only had an hour in Committee. We had a bit of discussion this morning, but obviously not on the group of amendments before us, as we were dealing with another matter then. I have yet to hear of any example, from any Member, of any deficiency in the present arrangements that justifies change to legislation.
I want to know my hon. Friend’s view on a matter; I have a clear opinion myself, but I have not yet asked him for his. Has he any example from his constituency experience, or had an example reported to him by any colleague, of a case in which there has been an improper disclosure of information relating to a constituent in a communication with a public authority?
I have not, and I hope that you will believe me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when I say that I write lots of letters on behalf of my constituents. I have not come across any example of a case in which there has been a problem. Indeed, the only problem that I have come across, if it is a problem—I do not regard it as such—relates to cases where a public authority is reluctant to release information to a Member of Parliament who is acting on behalf of a constituent. That has been dealt with by an amendment to the Data Protection Act 1998 and should no longer happen, but the public authorities with which I deal are scrupulous in the way in which they deal with individual data protection issues.
I have not come across any examples of information being released inappropriately by a public authority, whether or not an MP is involved. Data protection is an issue that is well understood by public authorities, which comprehend their duties, so the Bill’s proposals are not justified. Consequently, the amendments that I tabled with my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) and others should be accepted, because they retain the status quo.
If public bodies released information about Members’ correspondence and there was widespread disclosure, that would be a constant issue at Question Time, for instance, and Members would take every opportunity to raise points of order and to protest. There are no such examples, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, so that is simply a flimsy excuse for the measure.
I fear that that is a correct interpretation of events. The hon. Gentleman is quite right: if correspondence on a sensitive matter involving a constituent had been released, points of order would have been raised in the House and there would be a debate. It would be the subject of ministerial questions, and there would be stories in the newspapers. We would be under pressure to ask why it had happened because, in some ways, the kernel of our job is to look after our constituents and to inspire confidence. No Member of Parliament, however long he or she has served in the House, no matter what part of the country they represent, no matter what their political colour, wants to be party to an arrangement in which sensitive material about a constituent is released, as that would be extremely damaging to them. I believe that all of us, without exception, take very seriously indeed the need to be sensitive and discreet in our use of information with which we are provided. If anyone wishes to suggest otherwise, I challenge them to produce information to that effect.
I should be grateful if my hon. Friend amplified a point that he touched on. He said that his problem, if he has a problem at all in this area, is the reverse. Occasionally, he has run into difficulties when, with his constituent’s agreement, he has written on their behalf to seek information. Is that still the case occasionally, and are people more careful, rather than incautious, or was that historic commentary?
Occasionally, public authorities err on the side of caution, but that occurs less often. The sadness of the Bill, which must be corrected by the amendments that I tabled with other hon. Members, is that people are beginning to understand the situation. The slightly complex relationship between freedom of information and data protection is now being grasped by public authorities, and the number of occasions on which they err on the side of caution has diminished. It would be a tragedy to throw that up in the air and rewrite arrangements that are working quite well.
May I deal in detail with the concept of amendment No 2, which seeks to leave out subsection (3) of clause 1 and would ensure that communications by a Member of Parliament with a public authority are not exempted, as the Bill proposes? It is important to deal with that, as reference was made to it in Committee. Even if we are careful with correspondence as Members of Parliament, the argument goes, we could write to a public authority on a constituent’s behalf and it could release that information about our constituent. That is the thrust of argument in the Bill even though, as we know, the measure goes much wider than that. It is proper to ask whether or not occasions arise on which correspondence is released inappropriately by a public authority with the say-so or approval of a Member of Parliament. I have to say that I am not convinced that that is the case.
Dealing first with issues directly related to amendment No. 2 that do not involve constituents but a general exchange of correspondence between a Member of Parliament and a public authority, the Bill as drafted would include a new exemption to cover all communications between a Member of Parliament and a public authority. The justification for that is partly that it would protect MPs’ correspondence. It is worth pointing out that the exemption for personal data in section 40(2) of the 2000 Act protects information about any identifiable individual, the disclosure of which would breach the Data Protection Act 1998. In practice, that protects any information relating to an individual’s medical condition, housing or social services needs, entitlement to pension or benefits, education, immigration status, criminal record, relations with the police or probation service and similar matters. All those matters are already protected under the 1998 Act, so information cannot be released about them. Given that the existing law seems to be working pretty well, there is no need to try to change it.
The mere fact that a Member of Parliament had written to a public authority on behalf of a constituent, even in the absence of other information about that constituent, would in itself be personal data about the constituent, the disclosure of which would breach the 1998 Act, so that protection is already there. If public authorities are being cavalier in the way they approach this matter—I have seen no evidence of that—the remedy is there in law, because such behaviour can be dealt with under the 1998 Act. The promoter of the Bill seems to be arguing that a law that already exists and achieves what he wants to achieve is not working—although we have seen no evidence of that—so the remedy is to get another law, which presumably would not work either, to deal with the same thing. If there was a problem—I do not know of one—as regards correspondence and other material of a sensitive nature being released, the matter is already protected by law, and the answer would not be to enact more legislation but to improve the advice and training given to those who deal with data protection issues in public authorities. The Information Commissioner has told the Campaign for Freedom of Information that he has received no complaints, from anywhere in the country, from any source, about the improper release of personal information, either from MPs or constituents. I would suggest, for example, that had a constituent with a sensitive medical problem found that information to be in the public domain—in the local press or whatever—there would certainly have been a complaint about it. People are not afraid to come forward and make a complaint to an authority when they feel that their rights and privacy have been abused. There are frequent complaints about intrusions from the press, for example, and they are published on a quarterly basis, yet no complaints have been given to the Information Commissioner about the improper release of personal information from MPs or constituents.
The Information Commissioner, for whom I have a high regard, is a very active person who takes his job very seriously. His staff work effectively. I am sure that had complaints come in they would have been recorded and acted upon, and he would have produced recommendations for this House to say that there is a problem with the law—that there is a gaping hole and information is seeping out. But no such report has been received. He has found nothing wrong with the present law—he has had no complaints—so why should we want to change it? What we need is to change the Bill by adopting the amendments, which would ensure that the present satisfactory arrangements continue.
Amendments were moved by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), whose Bill this is, in Committee a couple of months ago. The issue was flagged up, and several Committee members said that there was a theoretical problem. Since that Committee debate, has my hon. Friend received any representations that suggest that the Bill is more necessary as it is than it would be if the amendments were agreed to?
As my hon. Friend says, the issue has been flagged up since the Committee stage. Those promoting the Bill were made aware of the need to ensure that active cases were brought forward. Nobody in this House, and I include myself, is unsympathetic to the stated objective of the promoter of the Bill. If there were genuinely a problem about constituents’ correspondence, I, for one—and every other Member would be the same—would want to deal with that.
The challenge has been put down for someone to give examples of when things have gone wrong, but none has been forthcoming. I shall deal with one or two theoretical examples that were given in Committee, but they do not stack up. There have been no actual examples of anything that has gone wrong. The Bill is seeking a purpose; the purpose of the amendments is to ensure that this purposeless Bill, in so far as it relates to MPs’ correspondence with public authorities and constituents, goes no further.
The only foreseeable circumstances in which such information about a private citizen might legitimately be disclosed would come if the individual concerned gave their consent, or if all the information concerned was already in the public domain—for example, if the individual had taken it to the press to run a campaign for a particular purpose. In such a case, the information would of course be in the public domain, but the Bill would not deal in any way with such a matter. Obviously, if the individual gave permission for information to be in the public domain, or to be passed to a public authority, they would quite properly have been entitled to do so. Again, nothing in the Bill deals with that circumstance.
Those are the circumstances of which I am aware in which information about individuals would come into the public domain. There have been such issues in my constituency, of which I can speak personally. It may be useful to give one example; I speak for myself, although I am not at all unique among MPs in how I approach such matters. My example has been in the public press, which is why I wish to talk about it. It concerns a young constituent of mine, in his 30s, who was losing his sight. Moorfields eye hospital would not make available to him the drug that he required for his sight to be retained. Representatives of the hospital said that they were not sure whether it would work; he said, “I will definitely lose my eyesight if I am not given the drug. I want to try it.”
The case involved correspondence over a lengthy period between the hospital and me—and, indeed, a health Minister and me. All the correspondence was dealt with properly, behind closed doors; proper confidentiality was observed. There was no question of data protection being abused. The matter became public, not because Moorfields released the information by accident or because the Government Department or some other public body released my information that included my constituent’s details but only because my constituent expressly asked me whether I would make it so to force the case with Moorfields eye hospital.
All Members of Parliament have stories of that nature, and I do not believe that we have fallen foul of the present arrangements. When we arrive in this place, we all know, as if it were instinctive and in our bloodstreams, that we must treat with respect and sensitivity issues raised with us by constituents. We all know that; we do not need to be told, nor do we need a Bill to reinforce the point—let alone the damage that the Bill would cause. I shall come to that.
I turn to the issue of public authorities. Correspondence between an MP and a public authority about an individual constituent would normally also be exempt under section 41 of the 2000 Act, which applies to information whose disclosure would be an “actionable breach of confidence”. The exemption applies when the information involved, first, is not publicly accessible, secondly, is supplied in confidence—either explicitly or implicitly—and, thirdly, is likely to cause some detriment to the confider if disclosed.
When we debated the 2000 Act, we found section 42 essential because so much of our correspondence concerns constituents. We want to protect individuals’ confidentiality. When we write to the authorities about matters arising from constituents’ correspondence, the information must be confidential. That was the reason for including section 42 in the Act. There is no justification for arguing that it is being undermined.
The hon. Gentleman is right. To be fair to the Government, for those responsible for drafting parliamentary legislation and those who scrutinised the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Data Protection Act 1998, such issues were central to their thoughts. They are the bread and butter of our job and we give them proper consideration. No problem has arisen.
In Committee, the promoter said:
“Clearly if one writes to a public authority and gives the personal details of a constituent, such as their CSA claim, information relating to their children and so on, that information should be protected. It should quite clearly be protected under the current Act.”
That is my point, with which the promoter agrees. He continued:
“However, inadvertently, someone may release it. This measure would remove that small problem.”—[Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee, 7 February 2007; c.7.]
If the Act already protects the information, an offence is committed if it is released. If a further Bill is drafted, it will only create a further offence. It will not prevent the information from being released.
There is an idea in Parliament—and sometimes more generally—that everything can be sorted out only by passing laws. That is not the case. Things are sorted out through advice, information dissemination and training. It does not come down to more legislation. The legislation already exists. Murder is a criminal offence. It still happens, but we do not introduce another Bill to outlaw murder. It is already an offence. The problem is not the legislation but its enforcement.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) referred to section 42 of the 2000 Act. Part 2—from section 21 to section 44—is intended to cover all the cases where disclosure would be unhelpful, wrong, unprincipled and inappropriate. Reasons include national security and helping to catch criminals. A raft of matters was carefully considered and included.
Indeed. Some of us may believe that the 2000 Act contained too many exemptions. The Act that was passed was but a pale shadow of the White Paper that David Clark, the then Minister, produced. He became the first Minister to be sacked for implementing his party’s manifesto. Nevertheless, the 2000 Act is full of exemptions and covers the concerns that hon. Members who have not examined the facts might legitimately have.
The correspondence of Members of Parliament with a public authority about a constituent’s personal affairs is normally protected by the exemptions to which I referred. They include: matters that are not publicly accessible; information that is supplied in confidence, and information that is likely to cause detriment to the confider if disclosed.
Even if correspondence is not marked “confidential”, the nature of the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his or her constituent, and of a Member of Parliament with a public authority, establishes an implicit expectation of confidentiality that the courts recognise. Everyone accepts the confidentiality of such correspondence—it is one of the most commonly understood matters in our conduct of public affairs. When constituents write to us, they sometimes include the most personal details. They expect their problem to be treated confidentially. One or two may write, “Will you please treat this confidentially”, but most do not because they know that that is the way in which we deal with our correspondence. It is universally understood.
Similarly, if we write to a public authority about a constituent, we would not expect it to publish the letter and no public authority would think of doing so. An implicit understanding has been built up over generations about the relationship of a Member of Parliament with his or her constituents and a Member of Parliament’s position in advocating and representing constituents and their concerns to a public authority. We do not need to meddle with that. It works well.
I have just one last linked point before my hon. Friend moves on. Does he agree that it is important to separate the need to protect information given to us in confidence so that we can take up a case on behalf of constituents from the issue of where a constituent—or anyone else—might want to access their own information? That is a linked issue in the debate, but a separate one. Sometimes people want to see information, though we or a public authority may not be so keen that they do. They must nevertheless have the right to see it if they want to.
Of course they must. It was suggested in Committee that one of the consequences might be that individuals would ask for the release of information about themselves. They can do that already under the Data Protection Act 1998—and quite rightly so. Indeed, I have used that Act myself to access information held about me, including from the Government—and very interesting it was, too. That right already exists, so this is another misunderstanding of the terms of the Bill, which the amendments in the group are designed to correct.
In Committee, it was also suggested that information about potential criminal offences passed by an MP to the police might be at risk of disclosure. I believe that it was the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) who made that suggestion. He said that
“if a constituent comes to me and says, for example, ‘The family at No. 60 are drug dealing,’ I make it a practice—and I am sure that I am not unique in this—to say, ‘I will pass that information on to the local police inspector, and I will not give your name or address, or mention the fact that we have had this conversation.’ That is important but, equally, drug dealers and individuals involved in low-level organised crime have the capacity to put two and two together. If they had access to privileged correspondence sent to a senior police officer, they could work out by a process of elimination who was in the frame.”––[Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee, 7 February 2007; c. 10.]
Individuals involved in low-level organised crime do have the capacity to put two and two together, as the right hon. Gentleman argued. Doubtless, he would argue against the amendments that are designed to negate that. In fact, such information is already protected from disclosure by no less than three additional exemptions in the legislation. There is thus a wide misunderstanding on the part of Members who say that they are in favour of this Bill about what the law already says. It already achieves a great deal of what the Bill’s proponents seek to achieve.
I am sure that many of us in the Chamber have followed the example of the case that I have just cited and passed information to the police. As I have explained, however, that is already protected. Why? First, because information whose disclosure is likely to prejudice
“the prevention or detection of crime”
“the apprehension or prosecution of offenders”
is exempt under section 31(1)(a) and (b). Secondly, because information held for the purpose of an investigation that could lead or could have led to criminal proceedings is exempt under section 30(1). Thirdly, because information relating to
“the obtaining of information from confidential sources”
is exempt under section 30(2)(b). Clearly, we are dealing with an Aunt Sally—a worry that we will not be able to tell police forces about suspected drug dealers—raised in Committee, which is absolute nonsense. We already tell police forces and we are already protected by the law as it stands in that regard.
In any event, public bodies such as police forces, NHS trusts, social services departments—indeed, all public authorities—and the devolved Administrations all take extreme care not to disclose personal data about the individuals they deal with. If there were shortcomings in the Act, which meant that such information was not properly protected, I am sure that it would have come to light by now. I am also sure that we would all have wanted on a cross-party basis to accept legislation that dealt with any problems that had arisen. No one is seeking to justify using information from constituents in an inappropriate way. No one wants to do that. The difference between those who propose the Bill and those who propose the amendments is that the latter do not believe that such misuse of data is happening. Until such time as we have information that demonstrates otherwise, it is difficult to support the Bill.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if there were many examples of the misuse of correspondence of Members of Parliament on behalf of their constituents, they would have built up over time into quite a dossier? That would then be dealt with by the House of Commons, and perhaps debated at Question Time. If such information were available—clearly it is not at the moment, to the best of my knowledge—there would be a case for looking at the Freedom of Information Act as it applies to Members of Parliament. But that would be in the future, and it would have to be based on evidence that would convince the majority of Members of Parliament that there was a case. At the moment, there is no such evidence.
That is absolutely right. Members of Parliament also have extra protection, in the sense that we have greater access to personal data than, say, a local councillor would have. If we write to an NHS trust on behalf of a constituent, for example, the trust will take us at our word that we are acting on behalf of the constituent. If a local councillor were to write to the trust, they would need an authorisation form from their constituent to say that the trust was authorised to respond to the councillor. So the law already allows us to go further in our representation of others. It could be argued that that would make problems more likely to arise, but no such problems are arising, even though the arrangements are more flexible for Members of Parliament than they are for, say, local councillors.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is correct. Furthermore, part of the solution is in our own hands. If I am writing a letter about an allegation of crime, for example, I write it in a way that does not put anyone at risk. I do not put a reference or a name at the top of the letter, and I do other things to protect people. We can solve the problem, and clearly colleagues are doing so, because there have not been any complaints.
That is exactly right.
I mentioned earlier that if information is leaked or inadvertently released, that is already an offence under the Data Protection Act 1998 and can be dealt with under existing regulations. There is no need for further legislation to deal with that problem. I challenge the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border—and, indeed, the Minister, who seems to be supporting him on behalf of the Government—to come up with some cases to show why changes to the present arrangements are necessary. If they cannot do so, they should support the amendments tabled in my name.
Any official with even the most modest understanding of the freedom of information regime would immediately recognise that an MP’s correspondence about a constituent’s personal affairs could not legitimately be disclosed. Unauthorised disclosure of such information would be likely to involve a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998, or a breach of confidence at common law. This could lead to enforcement action by the Information Commissioner under section 40 of the Data Protection Act. As far as I am aware, no such cases have been brought by the commissioner in respect of MPs’ correspondence. Such breaches could also lead to action for compensation under section 30 of the Act, if the individual concerned had been damaged by the disclosure. I am aware of no such cases involving the disclosure of MPs’ correspondence. They could also lead to action for damages at common law if an individual had suffered damage as a result of a breach of confidence. Again, I am aware of no such cases involving MPs’ correspondence.
The Bill seeks to deal with a problem that does not exist, and the amendments seek to recognise that, and to support the Government’s own legislation, which the Government themselves now seem to be abandoning. Amendment No. 2 deals with communications with a public authority. There might be other issues that do not involve constituents but which would involve discussions between Members of Parliament and public authorities. There is a concern that material produced by a Member of Parliament in his or her constituency role with a public authority might be released, inadvertently or otherwise, and that that would be damaging. The right hon. Gentleman told the Public Bill Committee:
“We must have the freedom to express to chief constables, the tax authorities and so on, our personal view about the veracity of a constituent. That may not be protected information in all circumstances. If that information is released accidentally by a police clerk releasing the file, it puts us in an enormously difficult position. We must have the right, as Members of Parliament, to express a personal opinion about a constituent or someone else when we write on behalf of a constituent and we must have a guarantee that that is protected. That is my motivation. It is what is driving me and I hope to convince the Committee that it is a problem that has to be remedied.” ––[Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee, 7 February 2007; c. 8.]
Now that we know what is driving the right hon. Gentleman, I hope he will accept that the amendments deal with the problem that he identified. What concern him are issues related to data protection rather than to freedom of information. I would have understood his intentions better had he sought to identify and articulate the problem, cited examples, and then tried to remedy deficiencies in the Data Protection Act, if there are any. The problem that he identified relates not to the freedom of information regime, which is ostensibly what the Bill is about, but to data protection. If that problem does indeed exist, the right hon. Gentleman is seeking to amend the wrong Act.
Personal information of the kind that the right hon. Gentleman described in Committee is not disposable under the Freedom of Information Act. It is as simple as that. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey pointed out a moment ago, it might, in theory, be available under the Data Protection Act, but that would not constitute a public release of information. An individual has the right to go to his or her Member of Parliament and ask to see information that is held by that Member of Parliament, or a public body, in a particular file. Members of Parliament are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act in the same way as public authorities, but we are subject to the Data Protection Act. The regimes are different, in terms of the way in which they operate, their purposes and whom they cover.
Even the right that is granted by the Data Protection Act, which is what concerns the right hon. Gentleman, is subject to exemptions. For example, disclosures likely to prejudice law enforcement or, in the case of health or social work records, seriously to harm the physical or mental health or condition of the individual or some other person are exempt even from the permissive provisions of the Act, which allow people to view their records. However, an opinion expressed about an individual—this may be what the right hon. Gentleman was referring to in Committee—is not as such protected, whether it is expressed by a Member of Parliament, a member of a public authority’s staff or anyone else. The right hon. Gentleman wishes to deal with that, but the Bill would not affect disclosures under the Data Protection Act, and therefore would not deal with his concerns. He may wish to consider amending the Data Protection Act, but what the Bill deals with is the freedom of information regime, and what information about public bodies can be released as a result of requests from individuals, Members of Parliament and the media.
We all have massive experience of dealing with these matters. We know that if people complain to us about having been unlawfully sacked, one way of assisting them is to consult their files to establish whether procedures were followed properly. There may be revelations about something that was said inappropriately, but if we think a complaint is entirely self-delusional, there are perfectly proper ways in which we can say that, sometimes to the constituents themselves. We must accept that we cannot say one thing to a constituent and another to an authority, and not expect to be accountable for that.
That is true, and it brings me to my next point, on correspondence between Members of Parliament and public bodies. I do not think we should have the right to make libellous or slanderous comments about individuals. It is entirely proper to pass on concerns to, for instance, the police or a law enforcement agency about certain information that has been received and needs to be checked out; but it is a very serious matter for a Member of Parliament to make allegations about an individual in a letter to a public body, and I do not think we should be able to do that in a cavalier fashion. We would be able to do that if we were exempted from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. I personally do not have a problem about letters that I send to public authorities being made public. They are accountable. They use public money. They are listed in the Freedom of Information Act as public bodies that are subject to the Act. I am elected, as we all are in the House, to represent the public. We spend public money. We are publicly accountable, so the idea that there should be some problem with correspondence from a public MP to a public authority being released seems to be difficult to sustain.
There may be occasions when there is sensitive information that needs to be conveyed from one to the other. If that is the case, I believe that that is already covered by the exemptions in the Data Protection Act which relate to health and social work, mental health conditions or other matters of that nature. It is possible to pass on information without libelling or slandering someone. If we are going to exempt MPs from having correspondence scrutinised, the danger is that we will all become loose in our language about individuals who are our constituents. That would be entirely improper.
Would not it have been useful if the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) in introducing his Bill had given examples of where abuse has occurred concerning MPs’ correspondence? If he had given example after example after consulting colleagues as well as perhaps his own cases, we would be in a better position to decide whether there is any justification for what is being proposed.
That is absolutely right. In referring to the right hon. Gentleman and his contributions, I keep hoping that he will intervene to say, “Here is a cast iron case. Will you deal with that?” I invite him to do so. It is a most curious Bill and debate. Arguments are advanced in these amendments and in the previous group of amendments. We do not hear much against them, but there is a vote, with 46 MPs coming from nowhere to decide that the law should be changed. However, that is one of the curiosities of the House of Commons. That is open debate—so far as we have it. The votes are recorded. It shows the value of accountability and openness that we know the result. Accountability and openness are certainly worth preserving in terms of how we operate in the House and how we deal with public authorities.
These are important matters, as everyone who is here testifies, but there is huge merit in the present system being retained. If I think that my police force, the Metropolitan police, has far too few police and I write to the commissioner of the Met police saying that I think that Southwark should have 200 more police, surely I must expect that to come into the public domain. If I am saying one thing privately and writing another thing publicly, I should be exposed for doing that. If on the other hand I want to say to the commissioner that one of his deputies is corrupt, presumably, I should have the intelligence to ask to see the commissioner privately to say that to him face to face and not put it in a document, which could then be released, with all the implications that would follow.
Yes, or indeed in an e-mail that might be subject to investigation by the Metropolitan police under certain circumstances for particular alleged offences, as we may find out shortly.
The main impact of the proposed exemption in the Bill, which the amendments that I have tabled with colleagues seek to negate, would be to exempt MPs’ correspondence with public authorities on matters other than constituents’ personal affairs, as well as that relating to constituents. That is the point that my hon. Friend has referred to. The Bill as drafted would protect classes of information, including, for example, a response by a Member of Parliament to a public consultation exercise. By definition, public consultation exercises are public and it is generally the habit of public authorities to publish, sometimes individually, the responses that they have received to a public consultation.
In my constituency, we have had a very controversial proposal for an incinerator, which has been agreed, I am sorry to say, by the Conservative county council. I have been vociferous, along with the population of Newhaven and others, in opposing that. I have opposed that publicly and written to make representations to the county council and to the Minister responsible in the Department for Communities and Local Government. How would it be if I said—I hasten to say that I have not done this—to my constituents in Newhaven, “This is terrible and I will do everything I can to fight the incinerator,” and then wrote to the county council and said “Actually, chaps, it is not too bad, go ahead but do it quietly, and if we get there quietly, we will be all right”?
If I, or any other Member of Parliament, had behaved in that way, that would be reprehensible and should be exposed. I would be very happy for my correspondence with my county council or a Minister on any issue to be available for public scrutiny, provided it did not cut across the data protection legislation protecting constituents. If I am writing on general issues of relevance to my constituents, of course my views should be on the record. My constituents want to know what my views are, as do constituents of all MPs, and they have the right to know them—they have the right to receive a full view. If MPs are to be given the capacity to say one thing in public and then separately to write something very different to a public authority, that will be a dangerous road to go down and it could bring parliamentary democracy and individual MPs into disrepute, as will exempting the House of Commons from the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
Should not the distinction be made between when we are writing on behalf of constituents, where it is essential that the information should be confidential, and when we are writing on broader policy matters? When Members of Parliament engage in criticism, we are the first to send out press releases expressing our opinions and the last thing we want is for such information to be kept confidential. If we write to the chief executive of our local authority saying what we feel should or should not be done, we are the first to let the press know about that. Therefore, we should be a little careful about being sensitive about our correspondence being so confidential.
That is right. It would be easy for public bodies—such as Government Departments, NHS trusts or individual MPs—to present a rosy picture of their activities when there might be something less rosy underneath the skin. The Government are appointing hundreds of new press officers at vast cost and yet they are also telling us that the Freedom of Information Act cannot be afforded. In a democracy we ought to be able to access all relevant information, except in respect of the proper exemptions on which we are all agreed, rather than merely the information that the public authority feels that it is beneficial to it to release. The key test of freedom of information and of accountability of MPs—which is being threatened by the Bill, and which the amendments would negate—is whether information that the body concerned, such as the Government Department or the MP, does not wish to be released can be accessed under freedom of information legislation. If we move to a position where MPs are able to put out a line that is popular and to cover up that which is not popular, that will be dangerous, and it could bring MPs into disrepute. Further lessons should be learned about how we are perceived by the public.
I mentioned public consultation exercises. A planning application might be called a public consultation exercise. If an MP writes to a planning authority about a planning application, at present what happens is that the MP’s representation is included in the file of representations made on that application, which is available for public inspection. That is what should happen. We might have written on behalf of our constituents because there is a perceived wider issue. There might be particular adverse effects on the neighbours which the MP feels so strongly about that they wish to support them. There might even be an issue that personally involves the MP. There might be a planning application next door to where the MP lives. If that is the case, we are perfectly entitled—and so we should be—to exercise the same rights as anybody else and to submit comment on that application.
However, if there is a planning application for a House next door to an MP and the MP then sends in a representation—which might be libellous and include many unfounded allegations in respect of the property or the applicant—if the Bill is passed unamended by the amendments in this group that representation will be exempt. It, uniquely, will not be on the planning file and will not be available for inspection by the public. Therefore, we will not be accountable to anybody for what we put in such a planning representation. Why should we be exempted from legislation relating to planning matters, unlike anybody else in the country? There is no case to be made for such an exemption.
Sometimes there are difficulties. Someone wrote to me the other day saying, “You have written to the police and the council saying that I’ve been guilty of being a nuisance neighbour”. I replied that I had not done that, but had in fact written to the police and the council saying that an allegation had been made and asking for the facts. If we tell people the facts, they normally understand; these are not problems that cannot be dealt with by intelligent communication, which most MPs are well able to undertake.
I am sure that we can. As and when such situations arise, we can all deal with them sensibly.
Let us suppose, however, that an issue arises about jobs in our constituency; for example, the employment consequences of the possible closure of a factory in the defence industry—I use that illustration to depersonalise my argument, as there is no such industry in my constituency. Clearly, if we had such an industry on our patch our constituents would expect us to protest vigorously in defence of those jobs. We have to represent local views, so we would have to say that the closure was wrong. We would try to find either a way of protecting the jobs or, if there were to be job losses, alternative employment for the work force. All MPs recognise that we have to do our best to represent our constituents and we all try to do so.
What if the Government line was different, however? If one was a Labour Back Bencher at present, or a Back Bencher in a Conservative or Liberal Democrat Government, what would happen if the Government took a different view? What if they had a policy of closing defence establishments? For example, if there had been a Labour Government in the early 1980s, they might have wanted to close defence establishments. In such a case, the consequences for the individual constituency would not matter; the important thing would be to carry through a national policy of winding down defence expenditure. If that was the policy, the Member of Parliament would have a conundrum— should they support their constituents, or their Government who want to make cuts that affect the constituency?
Such dilemmas arise time and again. Do MPs support their constituents who want better flood defences—a problem that I face in my constituency—or, if they are in the governing party, do they support their Government, even though the Government want to cut the DEFRA budget so that there is no money for flood defences? Do Government MPs support more police on the beat because there are antisocial behaviour problems in their constituency, even though that year’s Home Office budget has been redirected towards something else?
Such political dilemmas, where the constituency and parliamentary interests are different—
I shall do my best. Those dilemmas are difficult and I do not envy anybody who finds themselves in such situations—although we all do in various regards—but if it happens we have to take a view. Do we say, “Yes, I shall support my Government”—whoever they are; I assure the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) that I am not talking about the present Government—or do we stand up for our constituents and say, “No, this is wrong”? I am sure that all Members of whatever party find themselves in situations where they have to make such choices. Whatever they do, they will make somebody unhappy—either in their party or their constituency.
The choices are tough, but we have to make them. What we cannot do, however tempting it may be, is to say one thing to our constituents and something entirely different to Ministers in the House. Of course, the matter may be flushed out by a vote, but not always; not everything is put to a vote. Things may be dealt with in Committee or in other ways. It is thus possible that an MP could paint a picture of his or her constituency activities that is wholly at variance with the position that they take in discussions with Ministers. I think that is improper and that it should not be allowed. The way we stop it is by—
Order. I have listened carefully and attentively to the hon. Gentleman, but he is making the same point over and over again—it may have different clothing but it is the same point. He is in danger of being unduly repetitious. I think the House has probably understood his argument, so to produce 100 or 200 examples of the same thing is not necessarily to advance it.
I am grateful, as always, for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I concede that there are hundreds of examples, but in the light of your comments I will not outline them to the House today.
To summarise the point that I was making and to conclude this section of my contribution, the exemption in the Bill—which some seek to put into law and which the amendments in this group seek to negate—for MPs’ correspondence with public authorities would allow Members of Parliament to present different faces at local level and national level. That is also a reason why the exemption is unhelpful. Members of Parliament should be made to make a choice and should be clear where they stand. It is key to whether we are seen to be accountable that members of the public in our constituencies are able to access letters that we have written to public authorities on important matters. Where the matters are inherently sensitive, they will, of course, fall within the scope of the existing exemption in the same way as normal. The Bill would mean that correspondence would be protected regardless of its sensitivity. That cannot possibly be right.
Moving on to a new point, having taken your strictures to heart, Mr. Deputy Speaker—painful though it may be—I also wonder why the correspondence of Members of Parliament should enjoy special protection that is not available to correspondence from other sources. There is no special protection for communications to a public authority from, say, a local councillor. Local councillors are elected at various levels, including, of course, the London assembly level. They have constituents, as we do, and they take on issues on behalf of their constituents. They have their representational role, as we do. In many ways, their roles in public life mirror what we do. They have a role in creating the framework for action in their council and they have a role in looking after individual constituents.
If the correspondence of Members of Parliament is exempted, why should that exemption not apply to local councillors in the same way? However, there is no suggestion that local councillors should be dealt with in that way. There is no suggestion that Members of the Welsh Assembly, Members of the Scottish Parliament, or anyone in the Northern Ireland Assembly should be dealt with in that way—or anyone in the London assembly, or any other elected public body in this country, all of which have their democratic mandate and constituents with whom they deal, and all of which interact on a daily basis with public bodies of various sorts.
So what is so special about the House of Commons that we have to exempt MPs’ correspondence in that way? It gives out a double-edged message—a message that we create the law for somebody else and do something else ourselves. That is an extremely unattractive message. It risks our being seen by the public at large as hypocritical and it does not command public support. If we are going to provide a special exemption for Members of Parliament, there needs to be a pretty good reason for it, and so far no such reason has been given. I mentioned local councillors. The same thing might apply to NHS chief executives—
Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot go on repeating examples. He is making the error that he made earlier. I would respectfully say to him that—if we are not going to hear any other arguments—so far there has been no opportunity for anyone else to intervene.
I am happy to take any interventions.
If MPs’ correspondence alone is withheld—regardless of the circumstances—while everyone else’s is disclosed, that will diminish rather than enhance the esteem in which MPs are held. Unfortunately, it will raise the spectre of the possibility of improper lobbying. Above all else, we need to make sure that we are seen as pristine clean and that we have our house in order and have the highest possible standards. The amendments are part of the campaign to achieve that. In recent years, we have seen progress in that regard, whether it is the Register of Members’ Interests or the publication of MPs’ expenses. Those things are part of the same deal.
Would we not have a particular problem in our constituencies and boroughs? If our correspondence is protected in the way outlined in the private Member’s Bill of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), what do we say to councillors in our own borough who say, “Why don’t we have the same protection?” Councillors could ask, “Is our correspondence less important than yours?” That correspondence may be about the same problem. It may be quite likely that someone has written to both of us, so—
Order. The question that the hon. Gentleman is posing follows the answers that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has already politely given to the House. The hon. Member for Lewes should not be tempted to repeat what he has said in response to the desire of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) to get information on that point.
I am grateful both for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and for the intervention made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North. It is useful to know that one is not alone and that other Members share my concerns.
Having dealt with amendment No. 2, let me turn to amendment No. 14, which states:
“Page 1 [Clause 1], leave out lines 7 to 12 and insert—
‘(1) For the purposes of section 41(1), information which … (a) is held only by virtue of being”—
I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was merely trying to be helpful to the House as we address this complicated matter.
Amendment No. 14 would slightly reinforce the protection of personal information about Members’ constituents by a different route. As I explained when I was speaking to amendment No. 2, I do not believe that amendment No. 14 is necessary. Nevertheless, it has been tabled in good faith to encourage Members who have genuine worries about the issue to find an alternative way forward. I make it plain for the record that the amendment is not my preferred solution. However, it offers a way forward to those who have concerns but are not persuaded by the arguments for amendment No. 2, difficult though it is to believe that that could be the case.
Amendment No. 14 would establish part of the case for the exemption of personal information about Members’ constituents under section 41 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. There are three criteria under which information would qualify for an actionable breach of confidence: the information disclosed must be confidential; it must be supplied explicitly or implicitly in confidence; and it must be likely to cause detriment to the confider if disclosed. The amendment would establish the second criterion precisely, especially through the phrase—I was about to read this out before you properly curtailed me, Mr. Deputy Speaker—
“communicated in circumstances importing an obligation”—
I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not intend to read the entire amendment. I was merely picking out eight words to highlight the key point about the criterion, but obviously I will not read them out if you believe that it would be inappropriate for me to do so.
It is clear that the supply of material to a Member of Parliament in confidence is at the heart of our discussion. The question whether it is implicitly or explicitly supplied in confidence is also important. Constituents will write to us saying that information is being explicitly given in confidence by writing “confidential” on a letter, or by expressly saying in a letter that they do not want the information to be passed on. However, we get a much greater volume of correspondence including information that is implicitly given in confidence. Amendment No. 14 would ensure that that implicit confidentiality was recognised. I hope that that will give succour to hon. Members who still have concerns.
I do not want to cause trouble for my hon. Friend’s amendment. However, given that there is now a lot of common law about confidentiality, did he intend the amendment to be in line with judge-made law on confidentiality, or to start a whole new statutory scheme?
It is important that we try to build on existing law when possible. We should try to ensure that what the House does through legislation corresponds as fully as possible to what the public expect and case law in the courts. It would be very foolish to begin a whole new process and create a structure that people did not understand. That might lead to correspondence being dealt with inappropriately. The strength of the present position is that the Data Protection Acts and the Freedom of Information Act are clearly understood. They work well together, and amendment No. 14 builds on them without seeking to open up new avenues—
It being half-past Two o’clock, the debate stood adjourned.
Debate to be resumed on Friday next.