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Freedom of Information

Volume 479: debated on Thursday 17 July 2008

I beg to move,

That the draft Freedom of Information (Parliament and National Assembly for Wales) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 15th July, be approved.

The House is familiar with the issues that have led to the Government bringing forward this statutory instrument. The question of the House authorities being obliged by law under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to reveal our addresses and other security information has been raised in a number of debates that we have had in this House over the last couple of months; in comments made during the business statement; most importantly, in early-day motion 1620, tabled by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and signed by no fewer than 256 hon. Members; and, most recently, in the debate that we had on 3 July, in which I told the House of my intention to bring forward this order.

We have all agreed that, to do our job properly, we have to be able to speak freely in this House, without fear or favour. We must be able to say what we believe to be true about controversial issues without feeling that to do so would put us or our families at risk. If the House authorities were to be obliged by law to publish our addresses and our travel plans, we would know that a controversial speech in this House might lead to harassment at home.

This is not just about current threats but about the future. Threats could be made in respect of an individual Member at some time in the future, whether from a fixated individual or following the Member’s involvement with a particular controversial issue, or threats could be made to all Members in circumstances posing new dangers that are as yet unforeseen, such as a terrorist threat focusing on Parliament. Once a Member’s address is in the public domain, it cannot retrospectively be made private again without their moving home. This is also a question of the security of the public. The publication of our addresses would put at greater risk those who happened to live in the same block of flats as a number of hon. Members.

I have had the opportunity of discussions with the Chair of the Joint Committee on Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), and with the parliamentary security co-ordinator. I thank them both for their important work and their advice to me as Leader of the House on this issue. The security co-ordinator’s advice is that it would be a risk to put in the public domain our addresses or anything that would lead to identification of our addresses or our travel plans. That is his expert advice, but it is also clearly common sense and, I would say, the belief of all hon. Members.

The statutory instrument restricts the scope of section 7(3) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It amends the schedule 1 entry relating to both Houses, and to the National Assembly for Wales, to exclude four categories of information disclosure under the Act. First, it excludes from disclosure under the Act the residential addresses of any Member, by which I mean any address registered to an hon. Member, not just addresses in respect of which there has been an additional costs allowance claim. Secondly, it excludes from disclosure under the Act information about the regular or forthcoming travel arrangements of any Member in order to prevent the profiling of travel undertaken by any hon. Member.

The explanatory notes say:

“except as to the total amount of expenditure incurred on travel during any month”.

Will that be broken down by mode of travel—mileage, train or aircraft—as it is at the moment?

As the hon. Gentleman suggests, the information will be given monthly. It will not be excluded from the scope of the Act, and it will be given in the categories that he describes. The House will still be obliged to publish individual MPs’ travel expenses on a monthly basis, but it will not be broken down any further than that, as further detail might risk the identification of travel patterns week by week, thereby prejudicing security.

Thirdly, the order excludes from disclosure under the Act information that would enable the identification of any person who has delivered goods or provided services to a Member at any residence belonging to the Member; again, that is because it could lead to the identification of the address. Fourthly, it excludes from disclosure under the Act information relating to expenditure by a Member on security arrangements. We do not want a list that sets out who spends on security such as burglar alarms and thus, by a process of elimination, which Members do not have any security.

Presumably this applies only where a Member of Parliament has not in one way or another made his or her address public. During elections, we tend to put our addresses on the ballot papers. I assume that when that happens, even though we are not Members of Parliament at the time, the information is regarded as being in the public domain and these provisions would not apply to it.

The statutory instrument restricts the scope of the Act, which places an obligation on the House authorities to disclose information. It does not apply to anything that an hon. Member might want to do in the future or might have done in the past. It simply provides the rules that the House authorities will have to comply with in respect of what they do. They will not have to say to themselves, “Has this particular Member put his or her address in the public domain? Yes, they have, so I’ll put his or her address up on the website.” They will know that it is a category of information that comes within the scope of the restrictions and that they therefore do not disclose it.

I think that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) has put his finger on a key issue, which I hope to address if I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I should like to press one point in any case. Just because once every four or five years we have to disclose one of our addresses on certain documents to do with elections does not mean that we should disclose them all, en masse, in an easily accessible way. When I enter one of my addresses—the one that I have sometimes disclosed at election times—and my name on to the Google search engine, not a single match comes up, but if we did not do what we are doing now everyone’s addresses would be freely available at home and abroad.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I congratulate him on the work that he has done that led to us introducing this statutory instrument. Although the public are strongly in favour of openness and freedom of information, and want to know about public money that is spent on our residences and travel, they also understand that there are security issues and that we should approach such matters with a measure of common sense.

Should this House and the other place see fit to pass the order, it will not change the fact that the overwhelming majority of information held by the House of Commons and the House of Lords will remain subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and will be published. It is right that there should be openness about spending public money, so the House still plans to publish information on the expenses of every Member in the autumn. I commend this statutory instrument to the House.

My party supports the statutory instrument, which affects not only Members in this House, but those in another place, as well as those in the Welsh Assembly. I join the Leader of the House in complimenting my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) for all the effort that he has put into ensuring that we have reached this stage to make this change to the Freedom of Information Act.

It is important to recognise that this is a matter not of secrecy for secrecy’s sake, but simply of striking a balance between greater openness and the need to ensure safety and security for both Members and their families. It is also to ensure, as the Leader of the House said, that Members can speak freely inside and outside the House, and that they can carry on with their duties without fear of harm to themselves or their families. It is worth noting that although we accept that we are public figures, that burden is not imposed on our families—they remain private citizens.

We welcome not only the statutory instrument’s proposals as regards home addresses, but, as the Leader of the House said, all the measures that apply to keeping confidential future travel and information held by those who deliver services and goods to Members. The measure is clearly a logical progression and will lessen the risk to those concerned. Of course, it will not guarantee security for those concerned, but we all agree that it goes some way to ensuring greater security for parliamentarians, Assembly Members and their families. I have nothing further to add, except to reiterate my party’s support for the order.

I, too, recognise that the order implements the will of the House, as expressed without opposition during debate on relevant motions. I always have reservations about allowing security to impact too much on our legislation, and allowing security advice to restrain what we do, but the measure seems to make sense. The hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) made a point about family, and the Leader of the House referred to neighbours and the duty of care to others.

The more robust the auditing system is, and the more robust the National Audit Office’s inspection is, the less concern people will have that the freedom of information process is trying to hide something. I congratulate the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) on focusing on the issue. As we learnt yesterday, he is a wily individual—his ability to sell a second-hand washing machine for 18 free dinners suggests that he is quite an efficient negotiator.

With the reassurance from the Leader of the House that the global travel figures will still be broken down by mode of travel—information that people are keen to know, which does not have a security implication—and that the order does not affect that process in any way, my party will not oppose the order.

I welcome this order. As someone who received a credible death threat, which was sorted out by the forcible deportation of the person in question by the South Yorkshire police, I was truly astonished when I read of the Information Commissioner’s ruling that all of our private addresses should be published. I can think of no better definition of a burglar’s charter because many of us do not live at our addresses at weekends or during the holidays. It was even more astonishing when two Law Lords, or two lord justices, upheld his suggestion.

What happened calls into question the Freedom of Information Act. Those who want to know where we live can find out. Journalists from The Mail on Sunday forcibly came into my late mother’s home when she was suffering from a severe stroke to try to extract some tittle-tattle about me when I was a Minister. We cannot protect ourselves against that. If people really want to know our addresses, they can be found, and they are published at the time of an election.

We need to consider the matter more widely, however, and I welcome the fact that this statutory instrument shows that the Freedom of Information Act is amendable. I regret that it has to be amended. If the Information Commissioner were competent—I cannot believe that he is about to be awarded an extra £40,000 next Monday, at a time of huge public pay restraint—we would not have had to take up the House’s time with this legislation.

Let us look at the Freedom of Information Act to see how it might be amended so that it can apply to other public bodies, particularly the BBC—it extracts a large amount of obligatory tax from my constituents, even though few of them watch it—to find out about the salaries and expenses of its employees. Let it also be amended to apply to other organs of high public importance. Frankly, the press is much more important than many Departments, in terms of its actual impact on people’s lives. Let the Act be amended soon to include the organs of the media, so that all of their expenses, salaries, payments and other financial arrangements can be put into the public domain.

I am a former president of the National Union of Journalists; freedom of information legislation is in my DNA. The Information Commissioner, however, is not up to the job and we need to extend the Freedom of Information Act to cover many other public bodies including the BBC and the wider media. I stop at that point, leaving other hon. Members to make their points.

I would like to begin by thanking the Leader of the House and all of her staff for the extremely positive way in which they have reacted to the concerns, initially expressed by me and then by hundreds of other right hon. and hon. Members, about the situation we were in danger of getting into. I say with the greatest sincerity that I only hope that the stance that she took did not contribute to the fact that her home has been invaded twice—by people who no doubt feel in the depths of their being that the cause they propose was justification for their actions. Nevertheless, such things are precisely what should not be allowed to happen. She has excelled in her office in the work that she has done and in the way in which she has spoken out in defence of Members’ rights and interests on this matter.

I would like to thank the 98 Members of my party, the 111 Members of the Labour party and the 31 Members of the Liberal Democrat party who supported early-day motion 1620. I would also like to thank the several Ministers who told me that they could not sign the EDM because of the posts that they held, but who nevertheless wrote to Mr. Speaker explaining why they supported the principle of the motion.

I know that we are waiting for an important debate on intelligence and security, so I shall not detain the House for long. This, however, is a debate on a related subject. It is a debate about security, but on an issue where not very much intelligence has been shown by a certain number of people from whom we thought we could have expected it. I exclude, however, the Information Commissioner from that criticism. I say that because I had laboured under the mistaken impression that he wanted our individual addresses to be disclosed, but as he later pointed out to me, he had not ordered that. After an appeal, that requirement was added by the information appeal tribunal and upheld by the High Court in a subsequent hearing. The guilty men, as it were, were those two latter bodies. It was not the Information Commissioner. In fact, he proceeded to enter the lion’s den and, at short notice, 50 to 60 hon. Members of all parties came to meet him and his team. I think that even he was quite shaken by the stories that they told him about their experiences when their constituency addresses had been exposed. Indeed, some honourable Ladies were in tears at that meeting and the Information Commissioner and his team were shaken by what they heard.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work. I was one of those who attended the meeting with the Information Commissioner and, like him, I witnessed the genuine concerns that were expressed. Does he ever speculate on whether those venerable High Court judges who made the decision would publish their private addresses if the occasion demanded?

I have not only speculated on the matter but put it to the test. After one of the earlier debates on the subject, I took the liberty of sending the relevant Hansard to each of the three judges, who had, in their wisdom, determined that our addresses should be published en masse. I asked whether I could have their home addresses for future correspondence. Every one politely but firmly declined.

There is a postscript. One—the right honourable Sir Igor Judge—was subsequently appointed Lord Chief Justice and I asked, on what some might consider a bogus point of order, whether it was possible within the rules to send him our congratulations, and express how happy we were as a House that one silly mistake had not spoiled his promising professional career. I duly sent the Hansard to the royal courts of justice, but I have not yet received a reply and I can only regret that, if I had gone to the trouble of finding his home address, I might have discovered whether he saw the joke.

There is an incredible lack of self-awareness in the wider debate. I hope that the House will indulge me while I quote from a short letter, which was published in my local paper, the Southern Daily Echo, on Monday 9 June. It is headed: “Why is MP secretive?” It reads:

“Why has Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest, East, attacked the decision to disclose details of MPs’ homes?

He has access to our home details through the nation census and other government data. The freedom of information process was brought in by the government, so he should respect it.”

At the bottom of the letter, a little note states that not only the writer’s address, but his name has been withheld.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion 1620 and I was not one of the 256 Members who signed it. Does not he think that he is going a little over the top? Although the correspondent to whom he referred requested anonymity for some reason, he has a point. People have a right to know that Members of Parliament live in their constituency. Like many Members, I am in the phone book and I welcome constituents who turn up at my address, if they wish to do that. The information on the ballot paper for a general election every four or five years can include a bogus address. Candidates—of all parties—can simply rent a flat in the constituency and visit it once a month from their real home 100 miles away. Why do not people have the right to know?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman had many important things to do at the time, but if he had attended some of the earlier debates, he would have heard me address those points in detail. It is not fair to the House for me to go over them again now. Let me put it in a nutshell. First, anyone who wishes to disclose a home address and put it in the phone book can do so—it is a matter for him or her. However, if the decision had been implemented, 646 private home addresses would be made available to anybody—including any troublemaker at home or abroad—who wished to send something through the post to 646 unprotected mail boxes. If there is any sense in our having the expensive and complex screening arrangements at the House of Commons to ensure that nothing horrible, explosive or contaminated is sent through the post en masse to Members of Parliament, who are probably being targeted not individually but as a body, it is obvious madness to reveal the 646 home addresses. I could make many other points, but I shall leave it at that and refer the hon. Gentleman to my previous speeches on the subject.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) typically put his finger on the heart of the problem when he referred to data that are published at election time. We have to include a home address on specific documents every time we stand for election. I have already said in an intervention that, just because we have to reveal some addresses occasionally, it should not be regarded as an excuse for revealing them all, en masse, all the time in a way that makes them accessible at home or abroad at the touch of a button. Nevertheless, that bogus argument—that the cat is already out of the bag—led the judges and the appeal tribunal wrongly to conclude that there was no point in refusing the request for addresses en masse.

It is important to close that loophole and I would welcome a response from Government Front Benchers on that. I believe that the idea that people had to publish a private home address—even if it has not found its way on to the internet—at election time predated the time when one could put the name of one’s party on the ballot paper. The requirement is archaic and an unnecessary infringement of individuals’ rights. If people want to stand for public office, I do not understand why they must disclose their home address. The Information Commissioner has a wise ruling, which is that, in almost all circumstances, he would at most recommend disclosure of only the first three digits or letters of the person’s postcode. The Government should take the opportunity—I am not sure whether the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 is the relevant vehicle—to close the loophole, because it was seized upon. Without that, we would not have to go to such lengths.

I want to consider anonymous registration. In the past, it was possible to give a nom de plume if one felt that one was at risk and wished to be on the electoral register under another name. The rule has changed and someone who wishes to be on the electoral register anonymously must have the signature of a police chief constable, that of a director of the Security Service or that of a director of social services. We need to reconsider that to make it clear to chief constables that, when a Member of Parliament wants to be on that list, that is all that is necessary for anonymous registration.

I will conclude, much to the satisfaction of my Whip, who has been making noises offstage. I hope that anybody present today who believes that I am wrong will divide the House. I do not think that it will happen, but I hope that it will because The Sunday Telegraph, whose reporter was responsible for this mess in the first place, found plenty of space to attack me and suggest that my party opposed what I was doing. However, it found no space other than for two sentences of a letter that I wrote in reply to try to explain that the House had already resolved to take action, without a vote. I wish that there could be a vote so that even the idiot scribblers on The Sunday Telegraph could understand that our action has nothing to do with expenses and everything to do with security.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Freedom of Information (Parliament and National Assembly for Wales) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 15th July, be approved.