I remind the House that with this we are discussing the following amendments:
No. 14, page 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 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. 40, page 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 contained in a communication between a member of the House of Commons, acting in his capacity as such, or a member of the House of Lords, and a public authority, and
(b) in the case of a member of the House of Commons, 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, page 1, 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, page 1, 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. 41, page 1, 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, or a member of the House of Lords, and a public authority, and, in the case of a member of the House of Commons,
(b) it consists of personal data relating to a constituent of that member, and
(c) the constituent has not consented to its disclosure.'.
No. 42, page 1, 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, or a member of the House of Lords, and a public authority, and
(b) if 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, page 1, 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, page 1, 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. 44, page 1, line 9, at end insert—
'(1A) Information is not exempt by virtue of this section if it is contained in any letter between a member of the House of Commons or House of Lords and a Government minister.'.
No. 25, page 1, 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 a meeting, or of a conversation, between a member and a person or persons acting on behalf of the public authority.'.
No. 26, page 1, line 12, at end insert—
'(3) This section does not apply to any communication made before the Act comes into force.'.
No. 39, page 1, line 12, at end insert—
'(3) Information is not exempt by virtue of this section if it is contained in a communication between a member of the House of Commons, acting in his capacity as such, and a public authority, relating to any proposed legislation which was before either House of Parliament at the time of the communication.
(4) In this section, "legislation" means any of the following—
(a) a public general Act or local Act (whether passed before or after the commencement of this section), or
(b) any Order in Council, order, rules, regulations, scheme, warrant, byelaw or other instrument made under an Act referred to in paragraph (a).'.
No. 45, page 1, line 12, at end insert—
'(3) For the purposes of this section "letter" means a communication in writing, made by a member to a public authority or by a public authority to a member, but does not include—
(a) exclusively electronic means of communication, or
(b) a telex, telegram or facsimile transmission.'.
No. 16, page 1, 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, title, line 2, after second 'and', insert 'certain'.
I heard your comments of course, Madam Deputy Speaker, a few moments ago and I will abide by them, naturally. It is my intention not to repeat anything that was said on a previous occasion. There are many others—not least on the Liberal Democrat Benches—who wish to contribute to this debate and I am very keen that they be heard.
For the sake of clarity, I have formally moved amendment No. 2, which is the lead amendment in this group. According to column 602 of Hansard of
"I am here to defend Back Benchers, and on Friday everyone will get a voice in this Chamber."—[ Hansard, 16 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 625.]
That is a splendid statement from Mr. Speaker, and I am very grateful to him for allowing that to be the case.
I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman, who is speaking from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench this morning, is saying. Can he explain why, when this Bill was in Committee, Liberal Democrat Front Benchers not only did not oppose it or table any amendments to it, but actually supported it?
I think that you would rule me out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I re-opened what happened in Committee; I am keen to make progress this morning. In any case and for the sake of clarity, I am not on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench in terms of my role. I am simply sat here geographically, as opposed to that being the result of any appointment process.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He referred to Mr. Speaker's remarks earlier in the week about everybody having a chance to speak on this Bill. I presume that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that the most important person to be heard today is the Bill's promoter. This Bill was not debated on Second Reading—
May I finish my point, Madam Deputy Speaker? Unfortunately, I was unable to be here for the previous debate on Report stage, but so far as I can see from reading the record carefully, the Bill's promoter did not speak then. How is this House to consider the Bill when we have not heard the case for it? Indeed, the last time that this Chamber discussed it, not a single person spoke in favour of it. So as yet, there has been no prosecution of the case for why this Bill is important. I hope that Norman Baker agrees with me that one of the voices that should be heard today—and in some detail—is that of the Bill's promoter. Sadly, the promoter is not in his place; he has left the Chamber.
Order. I think that I have got the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. If Members care to reflect on the Hansard of the previous debate, they will see just how much time was taken up and given to Members speaking, which perhaps precluded other people from making a contribution. I urge today that we make progress, which is why I made the initial remarks that I did to the hon. Member for Lewes, who was on his feet last time. The debate was adjourned and he is now continuing. I wish to ensure that all Members who wish to contribute get that opportunity —[ Interruption. ] I said all Members.
I notice that the hon. Gentleman's amendment seeks to remove clause 1(3). When drafting that amendment, did he consult Bob Russell, who had a local regional daily paper apply under the freedom of information legislation for sight of his correspondence with his local authority? The hon. Gentleman was not happy that the law had been used to secure sight of what he considered private correspondence with his local authority.
If the hon. Gentleman's interpretation is correct, why was a daily regional newspaper in the eastern region able to secure, under existing legislation, the correspondence of the hon. Member for Colchester with the chief executive of Colchester borough council?
I am not familiar with the details of that case, but the data protection legislation already prevents correspondence between MPs and constituents from being released. That is the law at present. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the law has been broken—
Well, I am trying to answer the point that the hon. Gentleman has already made. If correspondence has been released contrary to the law, the answer is that the law needs to be enforced, rather than simply passing a further law to say the same thing. I am not familiar with the case, but I hesitate to agree, even if I accept that version of events.
Perhaps the following quotation from the Committee stage will be helpful to my hon. Friend:
"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. However, inadvertently, someone may release it." ——[Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee,
Those words were spoken by David Maclean himself.
The hon. Gentleman will know that Members of Parliament are not usually reluctant to complain. I asked the Library how many complaints had been made before the introduction of this Bill by Members about correspondence being released without their permission. The Library was, as usual, very diligent, but could find only one Member—my hon. Friend John Smith—who intervened in a debate about Liverpool. That was the only recorded protest on the Floor of the House by a Member of Parliament before this Bill. Members of Parliament are not usually reluctant to raise issues when they believe that they are essential to their standing.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North is correct. Had there been example after example of MPs' correspondence being inappropriately used or leaked to newspapers, the House would have been in uproar about it. We would have had hon. Members making points of order, but that has not happened. It is not an issue.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although, of course, the confidentiality of correspondence is essential—if mine were released without authorisation I would hardly be reluctant to raise it with Mr. Speaker to defend the honour and privilege that I have as a Member of Parliament—this Bill is about concealing our expenses? That is the essence of the Bill.
Order. I have already said this morning that we must focus all our remarks and attention on the amendments under discussion. The point made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North was widening the debate.
Mr. Burns made an interesting point, but if we were concerned about breaches of the data protection legislation, the most serious breach would be the release of confidential medical information by the NHS. However, there have been no calls for hospitals and the NHS to be removed completely from the Freedom of Information Act 2000. They know what their duties are under the data protection legislation and it would be illogical to use a Bill such as this to protect Members' correspondence when, important though it is, it is not as important as confidential medical information. If there is a problem, the priority is wrong.
My hon. Friend makes a telling point, which I had failed to make in my earlier contribution. I am pleased that it has now been made and it underlines the case firmly. This is an inappropriate Bill and would send out all the wrong messages.
I was intrigued by the point raised by Mr. Winnick about the number of complaints—only one on the Floor of the House—that had been made before the Bill was introduced. As there has been much publicity since then, has there been a flurry of complaints to Mr. Speaker or on the Floor of the House? I have not been aware of that happening, but I wonder if my hon. Friend has.
We have been looking for them. Indeed, with the publicity that the Bill has had, we have expected them to come out of the woodwork. We expected MPs from all parties to say, "Yes, this has happened to me." However, that has not happened at all. We have had no such examples. In Committee, all we heard were theoretical examples.
The hon. Gentleman has accepted the point that my hon. Friend Mr. Winnick made about the Library. Is he also aware that we have a very good Information Commissioner, Mr. Richard Thomas, who has not had a single complaint or query from any Member of Parliament? Indeed, he does not recognise the issue as a problem. If he does not—and he probably knows more about freedom of information and data protection than anybody else in the country—and his office has not been bombarded with complaints, what on earth is the Bill about? It is a Bill to solve a problem that does not exist. If the right hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill had had problems, he would presumably have taken them to the Information Commissioner, but he has never done so.
That is correct. David Maclean is in his place. Apparently he has many supporters, including those on the Conservative and Government Front Benches. Perhaps some of them will come forward with some arguments in favour of the Bill, because it is a curious boxing match that has only one person in the ring.
As I understand the amendments, they seek to protect the law as it stands. Is my hon. Friend aware that for many years now I have tried to obtain information about the deaths at Deepcut Army barracks, especially in regard to Cheryl James, the daughter of two of my constituents? I have found that the existing Freedom of Information Act 2000 is virtually toothless in those attempts. Is my hon. Friend attempting to preserve what little freedom of information we actually have, and is he—like me—concerned that the mood music of the Bill, without the amendments, would make it even more difficult for me to get the important information that Des and Doreen James have been seeking for four or five years about the death of their—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is aware that interventions should be brief. The hon. Member for Lewes has been generous in taking interventions, but I remind all hon. Members that interventions are not speeches and should be brief.
As my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik said, the Freedom of Information Act already includes many exemptions for public bodies. The data protection legislation also includes some strict regulations that make the protection of correspondence and information about individuals very strong. It is difficult to obtain information; in fact, Members of Parliament have complained that they are even being asked to sign documentation to the effect that they are acting properly on behalf of their constituents. If anything, public authorities are keen not to release information.
Has the hon. Gentleman considered the important point made by Mark Fisher, that in a widely leaked brief from the parliamentary Labour party urging support for this dire Bill, there is a request for evidence? That is evidence after the fact, because no evidence for the Bill is available.
My hon. Friend's point is confirmed by the Freedom of Information Act 2000, sections 21 to 44 of which all provide different exemptions from that measure. In addition, section 2 of the Data Protection Act 1998 particularly protects sensitive personal data, which could, for example, deal with the point made by Mrs. Cryer on the radio this morning.
Does my hon. Friend agree not only that the Data Protection Act provides substantial protection for confidential data in correspondence, but that there is a double lock, as he will recall, in the form of the Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) (Elected Representatives) Order 2002? The order addressed the fact that Members could not get access to confidential information in the course of their correspondence, so our constituents are protected not merely by the Data Protection Act but—
To finish the point about Deepcut, does my hon. Friend fully understand the concerns, and does he agree that we should actually be proposing amendments to make it easier for Members to get information that helps us to represent our constituents, rather than making it more difficult for our constituents to get information about us?
I must not go too far along that line, Madam Deputy Speaker, or you will tell me off. Suffice it to say that the Freedom of Information Act is a flickering candle and I fear that if the Bill goes through it could be extinguished.
I dealt with amendment No. 2 in a previous sitting. I have also dealt with amendments Nos. 14 and 40, so now I want to address amendment No. 10.
Before my hon. Friend moves on, may I express some concern about amendment No. 2? By deleting subsection (3), while retaining subsection (2), Parliament is made not to be a public body—absurdly—yet the converse does not apply for bodies that have a conversation, dialogue or correspondence with a Member of Parliament. The situation will be one-sided: a Member who writes to a body may be protected but the reverse would not be the case. If the amendment were accepted, would not that imbalance occur?
I have some sympathy for my hon. Friend's viewpoint. Let me make it plain: the best solution entirely would be that the Bill does not go through, because the current arrangements are working quite well and there is no need to change them. However, my hon. Friend and I, with others, are trying to find a way to accommodate the concerns that have been expressed. I have taken those concerns at face value and as genuine, and tried to find an amendment that would deal with them, but I re-emphasise that the best solution is not to have the Bill at all.
I fear that the hon. Gentleman may be guilty of tedious repetition if he carries on in that way. Concerns were expressed by the one Liberal Democrat member of the Committee, my hon. Friend Nick Harvey, who said he was squeamish about the measure—if I may paraphrase him. Our position is a logical progression.
"I confess that I am slightly queasy about the suggestion that the solution is to take Parliament out of the Freedom of Information Act altogether, and I imagine that some of my colleagues, not least my hon. Friend Norman Baker, will have strong views on the issue on Report. However, it is up to those who do not believe that the Bill, which has the advantage of clarity and simplicity, is the way to address these very real issues to come up with a better suggestion." ——[Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee,
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It goes without saying that I always respect the Chair, but many of us are very surprised that after only a short debate, when no other Members were allowed to contribute, the closure motion has been accepted. It will inevitably be seen as gagging Parliament and I must protest.
Far from attempting to gag Parliament, the motion is to allow the question to be proposed, to enable discussion and the contributions from Members that are clearly wanted on this group of amendments. It is not a closure motion.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My difficulty is that I thought I heard my hon. Friend Norman Baker say that it will be recorded in Hansard that at the start of his speech he did in fact propose the question. He proposed the question in the course of his speech, too, so I cannot see why we should vote on something that has already been done.
May I remind the hon. Gentleman of procedure? The question is not actually proposed until it is proposed from the Chair; it is moved by the Member, but proposed by the occupant of the Chair. That is what we are now proceeding to do, which will, I hope, enable further debate to take place.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given that it would seem that more hon. Members are going through the Aye Lobby, which has managed to clear successfully, would it be in order to investigate the delay in the No Lobby?
I will comment briefly on the group of amendments to which Norman Baker spoke. I will be brief for a simple reason: the hon. Gentleman and several of his hon. Friends are quoted in the Press Gazette and other press reports as going all out to wreck the Bill. It is said that they intend to stop it and do not wish it to reach the other place.
The hon. Gentleman takes the high-minded view, as is entirely his privilege, that if the Bill was passed, it would somehow strike a general blow to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but I do not accept that argument. The amendments are deliberately intended not to improve the Bill, to make a few tweaks to it or to make it operate better, but to wreck and stop it. The delay in the No Lobby was further evidence of that. I think that the House will thus understand why I will not go into detail on any of the amendments, which I consider to be bogus.
If we get to Third Reading, as I hope that we will, I will set out in slightly greater detail the reasons behind the Bill. However, at this stage it is suffice to say that I did not wake up one morning and suddenly decide that I must change the Freedom of Information Act. I have the honour and privilege of serving on the House of Commons Commission, along with senior colleagues from both sides of the House. I am aware of the growing problem of correspondence being released.
I apologise to the hon. Lady, but I am going to be very brief.
Of course the Library will not know some of the details of the problem. I have in my hand a letter sent to an hon. Member by a third party that boasts that that third party has acquired correspondence from that Member that was sent to a public authority on behalf of a constituent. I have other examples.
Hon. Members who have supported me in the Aye Lobby have told me that some of their correspondence relating to a constituent has been released against their will. Theoretically, it could be protected under data protection—[Hon. Members: "Legally!"] But it has not been. An officer of a local authority—inadvertently, by mistake or by design—released correspondence that the hon. Member to whom I referred thought was confidential. That is damaging. My Bill is necessary to give an absolute guarantee that the correspondence that Members of Parliament write to public authorities on behalf of our constituents or others remains confidential.
The piece of paper that my right hon. Friend held in his hand and cited as evidence to the House was heavily redacted—people's names had been extracted from it. It thus did not identify the constituent at all.
My hon. Friend might have been making a good point—but on this occasion he is utterly wrong. The letter is redacted because the Member of Parliament who handed it to me made the deletions to disguise his constituent in case I left it lying around the House today.
May I read into the record the fact that the document that I handed to the right hon. Gentleman was a letter to me from someone who was able to access correspondence that I took up in confidence on behalf of a constituent, which identified the name of the original complainant? It is absolutely monstrous that the sanctity of confidentiality is being breached.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving the House vital information.
If the hon. Members who oppose the Bill had bothered to read the Committee proceedings, they would have seen that Members of all parties—Liberal, Labour, Conservative and the Democratic Unionist party—support the Bill. Committee members said that organisations—some thought the British National party; some thought criminal organisations—were attempting, as third parties, to access files of correspondence and get information that should not be in the public domain because it was confidential and related to constituents.
I conclude my remarks, and will speak further on Third Reading, if we reach it.
Let me make it clear right from the start not only that this is not a Government Bill, but that the Government are neutral on the Bill. The earlier remarks of Norman Baker were thus quite wrong. The Government have been neutral on the Bill throughout. We believe, as I and others have said, that this is a matter for Parliament to discuss, not for the Government to decide.
Dear, oh dear, oh dear. It comes to something when Members are expected not to vote on private Members' Bills. I thought that that was the whole point of them.
Let me point out two things to David Howarth. First, it is has become clear this morning that most Liberal Democrat Members do not understand parliamentary procedure. Secondly, as he will know, on every occasion on which the Bill has been before the House, whether on consideration of amendments or otherwise, I, representing the Government and the Department that deals with freedom of information, have not voted in favour of it.
Since the Minister has been in her job, have any of her colleagues in her Department or its predecessor Department, the Department for Constitutional Affairs, seen evidence that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 or data protection legislation has been breached in a way that would cause us to need to pass such a Bill? Have there ever been any discussions about such a plan in her Department?
We have had no discussions in the Department about a plan to do such a thing. The hon. Gentleman will know from answers from me and from the Leader of the House to written questions that we have said that because this private Member's Bill is up for debate, we are leaving it to Parliament to come to a decision. There is clearly an appetite for debate on the Bill, so it would be inappropriate for the Government to intervene.
The hon. Lady will know that through parliamentary correspondence over four years—and more recently, actually—I have been trying to get the release of a Devon and Cornwall police report on Surrey police's handling of the death of the daughter of one of my constituents. The Government have not been forthcoming in helping me to use existing freedom of information legislation to get that information. Does she not understand that our personal experiences—such as mine in relation to Deepcut—of the mood music coming from the Government make us sceptical? It appears to us that the Government are keen to see the Bill pass. Can she give us an assurance that the Government really do believe in the tenets of the Freedom of Information Act, which they originally supported?
Not only did we support the Act, but we are the Government who brought in the Freedom of Information Act. I cannot think how our support for freedom of information and for the release of information by the 110,000 public authorities that are subject to the Act could be more obvious.
The Minister says that the Government have taken a neutral stance on the Bill. Later, there will be opportunities to vote for amendments to the Bill. The amendment moved by Norman Baker would remove the reference to the entirety of Members' correspondence, not only the type of correspondence that has been the subject of debate—correspondence about individual constituents. Alternative amendments offer an opportunity to exclude that type of private correspondence. Will the Minister enable the House to understand whether the Government might take the opportunity to support one of those alternative amendments, so that Members can be confident that confidential matters relating to their constituents will be protected, but that material on matters of public policy on which they correspond with public authorities will be available to be revealed in public—something that all of us as Members of Parliament should be prepared to allow?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because she allows me to explain why I feel that the amendments would make the Freedom of Information Act more difficult to operate and complicate the work of the 110,000 public bodies that have embraced freedom of information.
I am one of the Labour Members who do not particularly like the Bill, but what sticks in my craw is the behaviour of the Liberal Democrats. I listen to them on the radio, and in any forum in which they can be heard, hijacking the issue for party political purposes. I have not had pressure put on me to vote either way on the Bill, and do not know of any colleague who has. In fact, I have received e-mails expressing every sort of view within my party, but nothing from Whips or any member of the Government. I do not like the Bill, but I do object to the Liberal Democrats—
My hon. Friend makes his point well. The matter should be for Parliament to decide, not the subject of party political grandstanding.
The Minister says that 110,000 public bodies are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Does she not think it peculiar that here we are in the House of Commons considering the exclusion of just one of them—this one? Does she not believe that that is an utterly self-regarding proposal, which brings MPs and Parliament into disrepute?
If I may say so gently to the hon. Gentleman, for a Liberal Democrat to talk about people being self-regarding must be rather like looking in the mirror. It is for David Maclean, whose Bill this is, to justify its being before the House; it is for me, as a member of the Government in whose Department freedom of information sits, to explain why the amendments are not appropriate.
Amendment No. 2 would remove or limit the power of the new exemption for Members' correspondence in the Bill. Whether such an exemption should exist is a question for Parliament to consider, but the amendment would clearly scupper an important part of the Bill.
I am giving the Government's view on the Bill. In debates on private Members' Bills, it is entirely for Members of Parliament to decide whether to support or oppose them. In the past, the Government have supported private Members' Bills, opposed them, or remained neutral. On this Bill, the Government are neutral.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to move on, so that we can move the debate on.
Amendments Nos. 12, 24, 39 and 44 would qualify the new exemption so that public authorities would need to consider the public interest in withholding or releasing Members' correspondence. The public interest test can encompass all the factors mentioned in the amendments, including any relationship that the Member may have with the public authority in question and the nature of the information—whether it is about general policy or an individual case.
I am not sure that the House would wish, through amendments Nos. 25 and 45, to create an exemption limited to letters and electronic correspondence. I suggest that we should guard against inhibiting such communications, which might cause Members to decide to discuss some of the important matters that their constituents raise only in meetings or on the telephone, rather than commit themselves to paper.
Amendments Nos. 10, 11, 16, 41 and 42 relate to personal data. The personal information contained in MPs' correspondence is already covered by the exemption as drafted. It is for the House to determine the scope and the extent of that exemption, but I remind hon. Members that there is already an exemption for personal data.
I am most grateful to the Minister, first for giving way and secondly for making that clear point. That very clear exemption is the reason why many of us oppose the Bill. Is she aware that some of her earlier arguments are the exact reverse of the arguments adduced in the Standing Committee on the Freedom of Information Bill, on which I had the honour to serve, with Mark Fisher? In that Committee, the Minister told us that class exemptions, rather than general exemptions, were absolutely essential, and that is why the Freedom of Information Act is framed as it is.
The original intention was to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act. It was a later decision that brought Parliament within its scope.
Let me put one point clearly on the record. There has been much discussion of the role of the Data Protection Act. That Act applies only to personal data. Where a Member's correspondence contains personal data it should be withheld only if disclosure would breach one of the data protection principles—
I would like to finish my point first.
That does not mean that in all cases personal data will be protected. In common with many exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act, the Data Protection Act requires public authorities to conduct a balancing act when deciding whether to disclose. The cases that some hon. Members have raised of information being brought into the public domain shows that that balancing act is not always simple.
Is it not of some interest that the Information Commissioner's office stated that in nearly two and a half years since the Freedom of Information Act came into force, it had not received a single complaint from a Member of Parliament or from a constituent concerning the improper disclosure of such correspondence—not a single complaint? Surely that demonstrates that what David Maclean said a few minutes ago in favour of his Bill simply does not add up. I hope that the Minister will bear that point in mind.
I hear what my hon. Friend, and indeed other hon. Members, have said about the Information Commissioner not having received any complaints. I cannot speak on behalf of other Members and say why they have not raised issues with the Information Commissioner. I know that some hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches have raised that point, both with the Leader of the House and with me. There is a tragic case in my constituency that I heard about only yesterday, in which information was disclosed to a husband who, it is alleged, commits domestic violence. I corresponded with a public authority on behalf of my constituent, and information in that correspondence was released to that husband. I now fear very much for my constituent's safety, and indeed for the safety of my constituency staff, as the husband has been to my constituency office. Hon. Members may say to me, "That information shouldn't have been released," and that may well be the case, but there is not much point in saying that after the fact.
The Minister makes the reasonable point that it is not good enough to say that information should not have been released once it has been released—but I ask her, as the Minister responsible for the Freedom of Information Act 2000, what action she is taking with regard to authorities that wrongly release information. What training scheme does she have in place? As she pointed out, public authorities have released information when legally they should not have done so; how will she prevent them from doing that, and why does she believe that another law will be better obeyed than the present law?
The Department for Constitutional Affairs issued guidance on the subject on more than one occasion, and as I understand it, the Information Commissioner issues guidance to public authorities. However—this is the nub of the debate—it is for the House to decide whether the 2000 Act, as it stands, is sufficiently robust on the issue. It is up to the House to make that decision.
I shall move on to the confidentiality amendments, Nos. 14 and 40. Replacing the exemption as currently drafted with a presumption that the holder has an obligation of confidentiality will merely have the effect of making it easier for public authorities to refuse requests for Members' correspondence. In Committee, hon. Members agreed that there are occasions when it is right that such correspondence should enter the public domain—I think that my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart raised that point—and the exemption, as currently drafted, recognises that. It is a qualified exemption subject to the public interest test. The amendments would add a rigidity, so the House needs to consider that carefully.
The exemption, as currently drafted, is already subject to the public interest test. If the amendments were made, it would make it much more difficult for public authorities to carry out requests.
My final point is that that the Bill as drafted contains express provision to ensure that it will not have retrospective effect. It is important that the House is aware of that. Any request for information received by a public authority prior to the commencement of the Act, should the Bill ever become an Act, will be treated as though the Act were not in force. It would be for both Houses of Parliament to comply with freedom of information requests received up to the date of commencement. Amendment No. 26 would put a limit on the exemption, and that is inconsistent with the rest of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It would unnecessarily complicate the operation of that Act.
As I said at the beginning, the Government remain neutral on the Bill. It is for the House to make up its mind whether it thinks that the 2000 Act, which I commend to the House as an excellent piece of legislation that created transparency that was not there before, needs to be further enhanced in this private Member's Bill. That is a matter entirely for the House, but I can tell the House that, on behalf of the Government, I will not vote in Divisions on the amendments, or on the Bill's Third Reading, should we reach it.
It is a pleasure to speak on the large group of amendments before us. As I said in an earlier intervention, I had the pleasure of serving on the Standing Committee that considered the Freedom of Information Bill, along with Mark Fisher, although when I asked him about it earlier, he had forgotten that he served on it, so broad is his experience in the House. He did indeed serve on the Committee, and he made a valuable contribution to it. I feel a degree of proprietorship over the provisions of the 2000 Act. In many ways, it was not perfect, and we tried hard to make it stronger. Nevertheless, it fulfilled some of its objectives. That is why I am loth to accept anything that waters down its provisions, especially when the arguments for doing so are so sparse, so badly expressed and so vacuous in nature.
As my hon. Friend says, those arguments are unsupported by the evidence, too. We have asked time and again for the evidence in support of those arguments. That is why the group of amendments is so important.
The hon. Gentleman says that the arguments in favour of the Bill are sparse, but hon. Members in the Chamber have not heard any of them. The proposer of the Bill, David Maclean, has yet to speak on the Bill; is that not an extraordinary state of affairs? We are being asked to consider a piece of legislation, but the person proposing it has not made the case in favour of it. He kindly tells us that he will bide his time until Third Reading, but by that stage, we will have already discussed amendments. If we are to have an intelligent debate on the amendments, do we not need to hear the proposer of the Bill tell us what the Bill is about? Plainly, we are all very confused in opposing it, but we have not yet heard—
I will in just a moment. On the sparseness of the argument, I suspect that I know why we have not heard a proper rebuttal of the amendments. The right hon. Gentleman can correct this impression when he intervenes on me in a moment, but he gives the impression that consideration of the Bill on Report is a sort of procedural anomaly that must be borne with forbearance, rather than a crucial part of the House's consideration of a Bill that will have a profound effect on not only the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but the reputation of the House. That is what causes many of us concern.
I just want to put on record that my Bill had been on the Order Paper for some time. It received a completely unopposed Second Reading, and I could not talk on a Bill with an unopposed Second Reading. In Committee, it had the unanimous support of Labour, Conservative, and Ulster Unionist Members, and the support of the Liberal Democrat Member— [Interruption.] If I get to Third Reading—
It is not outrageous. Those are the facts, and the facts on the record speak for themselves. The Bill had unanimous support in Committee. If we get to Third Reading, I will speak.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. There was a risk of interventions on interventions, and it is important that we keep in order.
Let us take the charitable view and suggest that the cases involved a properly constructed freedom of information request to a public authority, and that, for some reason, the bureaucrats involved had no idea what the law says, and were therefore prepared to provide information that they should not have provided, in contradiction to the laws that are already in place to give protection. Let us say that the information was put into the public domain in that way. If that is the case, it raises two important questions. First, was any action taken subsequent to the release of that material? Was it referred to the Information Commissioner? Was the public authority involved reminded of its duties under law? Was there any subsequent action? [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border says from a sedentary position, "They just did it". Yes, and they will continue to just do it if his Bill is enacted, because somebody who is ignorant of the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998 and of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 as it is currently constituted is just as likely to be ignorant of the provisions of his law.
The hon. Gentleman was talking about the process, and process is important. Is it not the case that for a private Member's Bill unopposed at its Second Reading, the construction of the Committee is entirely in the hands of the promoter, and that therefore this was more of a—
I could not possibly use the word "stitch-up". It is inappropriate language. I shall return to the amendments before us, rather than discuss the process by which we reached them. The amendments are important and I want to do them justice, but I notice that there are still at least two hon. Members wishing to intervene.
The hon. Gentleman will have heard my intervention in the Minister's speech, when I said that the Information Commissioner had not received complaints. If there is a genuine problem, which I doubt, would it not be more appropriate to strengthen the Data Protection Act, if need be? What is proposed in the Bill would spread the suspicion among many, many people in the country that we want to conceal information—I shall not go into what sort of information, as that would be out of order—and that we want to be separate. Everybody else would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act—public bodies, local authorities, the devolved institutions—but not us.
May I bring the hon. Gentleman back to the intervention by his hon. Friend Julia Goldsworthy? Let us set aside for a moment the issue of Members of Parliament. If there had been a widespread misuse of the public interest override on release of personal data, the House would have expected the Information Commissioner to report on that and bring it to the attention of both the Government and the House. No such thing has happened, and my hon. Friend the Minister made no such claim in her speech.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which crystallises many of the arguments about the lack of evidence. First, he makes the point that none of the reports of the Information Commissioner has suggested that the problem is widespread. Secondly, the public interest override is retained.
The Minister asserted that amendment No. 14 made matters more complicated because it made it more difficult to interpret the public interest override. Absolute nonsense. It is still there. Whoever wrote that briefing for her was in a very confused state of mind when doing so. Nothing changes as a result of the amendment being passed, other than a tightening of the exempt material so that we are clear what is the exempt material and the mischief that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border presumably has it in mind to remedy. Some of us do not believe that mischief exists, but he does. We are therefore helping him by tabling amendments that identify that mischief in specific terms, rather than in general terms that are likely to bring the House into disrepute.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that my right hon. Friend's Bill would never allow the House to withhold information such as the personal expenses of MPs? The real argument is about the Government's and my right hon. Friend's proposal to exempt our correspondence to public bodies about public policy matters, whereas the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Shepherd, amendment No. 40, is more strictly controlled so that it protects what we all want to protect, which is correspondence on behalf of individual constituents?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Some of those matters were debated on the previous occasion, so I would be out of order were I to go on any excursions into that territory.
It worries me that the consequence of the Bill as currently drafted is that the whole of Parliament is exempted as a public body. The House of Commons is no longer a public body, according to the Bill if it is passed. What an extraordinary state of affairs.
In discussing the amendment, will the hon. Gentleman take into account my experience of freedom of information requests made to me and to the county council about information that it holds about a constituent? Before such information is released, the local authority writes to me and gets me to sign, so there is ample opportunity for me to object if safety issues affecting my constituent are involved. There is no need for the amendment.
Of course there is ample opportunity. There are all manner of provisions in the original enactment that safeguard the interests of the individual. That is why the whole Bill is otiose in the extreme.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and understand his impatience to get on to the substance of the amendments before the House. To reassure Ms Keeble, it is an important principle to bear in mind that we are talking about Parliament being a public authority and subject to the Act, not individual MPs. Individual MPs have never counted as public authorities and therefore have never been subject to the Act.
I would be accused of inconsistency if the very last words that I said prior to taking the last intervention were that that would be the last intervention before I got on to the amendments, and I then took an intervention from my hon. Friend Norman Baker, despite the fact that I would love to do so. I shall store it up and take it later.
In an earlier intervention I expressed my disquiet with amendment No. 2. It seeks to remove many of the obnoxious elements in the Bill and I could not quarrel with that intention. If my hon. Friend intends to press the amendment to a Division—because of the procedural shenanigans earlier, we were not allowed to hear his speech in favour of other amendments, but he may have an opportunity to return when he sums up the debate.
My problem is with amendment No. 2, and the reason that I prefer some of the other amendments, is that if it were accepted, the result would be that clause 1(3) would be removed. It would not exist. We would have subsection (1), subsection (2), subsection (4), which would become subsection (3), and subsection (5), which would become subsection (4). Subsection (2) has already been discussed, so we cannot revisit it. It removes the House of Commons and the House of Lords from schedule 1 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Schedule 1, which is the list of public authorities to which the Bill would apply, would be minus the House of Commons and the House of Lords which, as I said earlier, are an absurdity if they are not public authorities.
Let me develop my argument a little, if I may.
There would be a serious imbalance in interpreting the legislation on the part of other authorities or individuals, because the House of the Commons and the House of Lords would not be a public body, but the body to which we were corresponding—which is, by definition, one of those covered by the 2000 Act—would. We would be in the extraordinary position that no application could be made to the House of Commons or the House of Lords on one side of any dialogue or correspondence, but the application could be made—without exemptions, were the amendment to be made—on the other side. There would be a fundamental imbalance.
Some might argue that amendment No. 2 would be an improvement because it would make it even more obvious what an absurd Bill it is. However, on balance I prefer a Bill to have a degree of internal integrity and equilibrium in its structure. I fear that the amendment would lose that and create an unbalanced Bill.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the House of Commons "or" the House of Lords. In subsection (3), new section 34A applies only to the House of Commons, not to the House of Lords. This is a matter for Parliament—both Houses—yet the Bill appears to confine itself to the House of Commons. Am I wrong, or have I missed something?
The hon. Gentleman is not wrong, nor has he missed anything—he is absolutely right in his interpretation. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border is the only person who can explain this; perhaps he can return to it on Third Reading. For some reason, under subsection (2) the House of Lords would no longer be a public authority. It is arguable whether the House of Lords as currently constructed is a public authority, but it is the upper House of Parliament until it is reformed, and I would say that it is a public authority. It is exempted in subsection (2) but not mentioned in subsection (3), which relates only to communications with the House of Commons. Were one to accept the difficulties that the right hon. Gentleman raises, which I do not, one could argue for that difference on the basis that Members of the House of Commons have constituents and Members of the House of Lords do not, although they often take up cases on behalf of individuals.
One of the questions that has often been asked in relation to the Bill is what the difference is between a Member of the House of Commons taking up a matter on behalf of their constituents and a county councillor doing so. I was a county councillor for 12 years, and I used regularly to write to public authorities on behalf of my constituents. There is no difference in kind between a Member of the House of Commons and a county councillor, a district councillor, a parish councillor, a member of a community council or a member of a unitary authority. That is an inconsistency that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border would do well to explain when the Bill reaches Third Reading.
We have tried to address that in the amendments that were tabled and from which Mr. Speaker has selected. The House has an option. If it supported amendment No. 14, the provisions would relate only to the Commons, but if it supported amendment No. 40, they would apply to the Commons and the Lords. It is a perfectly proper question, and the selection allows us to make the choice.
It is a proper question. I am about to move on to amendment No. 14, because we may have exhausted amendment No. 2.
My hon. Friend has hit on an inconsistency in the Bill. He referred to county councils, but there is also the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Subsection (3) would create the absurd situation whereby if the constituency MSP and I wrote a joint letter on behalf of constituents concerning public policy, it could not be released, but if we wrote separate but identical letters, the MSP's letter could be released and mine could not.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan would have to write very clearly at the top of his letter, "I am writing this as a Member of the House of Commons", or "I am writing this as a Member of the Scottish Parliament." If he wrote the letter as First Minister, he would be writing as a member of the Government, and there are Government exemptions within the scope of the original enactment. We would need to check whether his letter was written as from the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, as from the MSP for Gordon, or as from the First Minister. Does it contain personal information? Does it contain policy discussion? Is that policy discussion based on information that he has received from the civil service in Edinburgh, in which case it may be exempt information, or is it from the Government here, in which case it falls into a completely different category? There are all sorts of complexities, and I wish I had not started thinking about it. The more I do so, however, the more I realise that this whole area requires the Bill to be recommitted, because it fails to address the new and important issue about hon. Members with dual membership. However, that has nothing to do with amendment No. 2.
It is indeed relevant to the amendment. As a Member of this Parliament and a Scottish Member, under the Bill a letter that I wrote to a Scottish authority in my capacity as MP—to the Greater Glasgow health board, for example—would be treated entirely differently from correspondence under the stronger Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. That correspondence would not be exempt, but any correspondence to, say, the Department for Work and Pensions would be exempt. I do not know whether it would matter whether I had written to the DWP office in Scotland or the office in London. The Bill would bring many confusions to Scottish Members of Parliament.
I am so happy that we simple souls in Somerset do not have these problems. It must be a daily problem for Members who represent Scottish and Welsh seats to work out exactly what is what. We see that every time there are Scottish or Welsh questions, because the question nearly always concerns something that is not the responsibility of the Minister on the Treasury Bench.
My hon. Friend is neither Scottish nor Welsh. Surely he does not suggest that there is a further difficulty in Cambridge.
There is a further difficulty everywhere. My hon. Friend's comments are relevant to the amendment. If I manage to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am happy to expand on the point. The Bill as it is currently drafted refers to what Members of Parliament do in that capacity. The meaning of those words is unclear. For example, if I wrote a letter to my local authority protesting about a planning application from my next-door neighbour, would I be acting in my capacity as a Member of Parliament or not?
That is a cogent point, which we tackled in the Standing Committee that considered the original measure. Some of us argued that there should be a more objective test of the exempt material. However, Ministers told us that it had to be subjective and at the discretion of the public authority and, subsequently, of the Information Commissioner. That is why the Under-Secretary's response to the amendments is so perplexing because she turned that argument on its head and said that the position that I described is no longer the Government's. She said that they no longer expect that extent of subjectivity, which was prayed in aid by the Solicitor-General, who was then Minister of State at the Home Office, and Mr. David Lock, who was then Solicitor-General.
May I make it clear to hon. Members that, as the occupant of the Chair, I am bound by Standing Orders? When a closure is moved, if granted, the Question must be put forthwith.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My understanding is that putting the Question is at the Chair's discretion. You have accepted closure on a limited basis, after announcing at the beginning of our proceedings that you would give all hon. Members a chance to speak. I tabled amendments but I have not been able to speak about them. No Labour Member has been able to speak about their amendments and no other Conservative Member has been able to speak against the dire Bill during consideration of the amendments.
Order. I understand that separate Divisions are sought on a number of amendments. The approval of subsection (3) by the defeat of amendment No. 2 limits that choice substantially, but I am prepared to allow a Division on amendment No. 40.
Amendment proposed: No. 40, in page 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 contained in a communication between a member of the House of Commons, acting in his capacity as such, or a member of the House of Lords, and a public authority, and
(b) in the case of a member of the House of Commons, 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.'.— [Mr. Shepherd.]
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understood your point about our not voting further on matters covered by earlier votes, but I wonder whether you could reflect on whether it would be possible for us to consider and vote on amendment No. 16, which does not appear to be linked with earlier votes in the same way.
It has never been the practice of the occupant of the Chair to engage in a discussion on the Floor of the House about the selection of amendments. As I said, I have already given the House an opportunity to vote on amendment No. 40. My decision was marginal, but I thought that hon. Members should have the benefit of the doubt. Now we must move on.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I refer you to
"After a question has been proposed a Member rising in his place may claim to move, 'That the question be now put,' and, unless it shall appear to the chair that such motion is an abuse of the rules of the House, or an infringement of the rights of the minority, the question 'that the question be now put,' shall be put forthwith."
The point of order for you, Madam Deputy Speaker, is this: a large number of Members—
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I accept the genuine opinions of Members in all parts of the House who take a serious view of the Freedom of Information Act, support the Act, and oppose the Bill on principle. But I must tell some Members that I do not think they have helped their cause by supporting Norman Baker, who has made clear in the press on countless occasions that his intention on the past few Fridays has been not to amend the Bill or make it work better, but to prevent it from passing to the House of Lords today. He has stated:
"This will do nothing to enhance the reputation of MPs and I and others"—
I will, but I should like to make a bit of progress first.
The hon. Member for Lewes said:
"I and others will attempt to stop the bill."
That has obviously coloured my view of the hon. Gentleman's amendments. I believe that moving the closure motion after two hours and 40 minutes was perfectly legitimate, given that all the amendments were designed not to improve the Bill but to wreck it. I think it right that the House has made legitimate progress.
As I said earlier, I am honoured and privileged to serve on the House of Commons Commission, along with other Members who are infinitely more distinguished than I. It was because of my work on the Commission—
I will in a moment.
It was because of problems that I saw arising through my work on the Commission that I decided to table the Bill. Of course, the House of Commons Library might not have details of some of the problems that Members have experienced, but I am aware of many of them and I referred to one today. I have also been informed by other Members of problems that they have encountered when correspondence that they have written in confidence on behalf of a constituent to a public authority has been released on the say-so of someone else. Theoretically, if the law is to work properly, when a third party attempts to access a file containing a letter from a Member of Parliament to a public authority, an officer of the public authority should consult the Member and should look at the file, and then should make a decision on whether it should be released. If it contains personal information, the officer of the authority should invoke the Data Protection Act 1998 and should not release it. There are an awful lot of "shoulds"—there are a lot of things that should happen—but unfortunately I have come across cases when they have not happened.
If the word gets out more widely that some of the information Members of Parliament receive in confidence when talking to our constituents will get into the public domain—perhaps inadvertently, by accident or by negligence—that will be damaging to the relationship that we have with our constituents. It is not good enough to say, "Well, if the current law is not working, how will this one improve it?" If my Bill is scrutinised in the other place and is enacted, I hope that we will be able to circulate the news to all public authorities that correspondence with a Member of Parliament relating to a constituency matter is now sacrosanct. Therefore, if Members wish to release correspondence, we make that decision. I am perfectly content for Members of Parliament to decide to press release their letters to constituents if they wish—I am content for them to release anything they wish. However, the decision on whether letters relating to our constituents are released should not be made on the whim of a chief constable or in the judgment of a junior clerk in one of 2,000 public authorities who will now have the right to determine these matters.
I have in my file records of cases from Members of various parties about worries that they have had on the release of their correspondence.
Let me conclude this point. Such concerns were stated in Committee, not by me or other Conservatives but by Labour Members and also by the Liberal Democrat Committee member. Let me say this about that Member: he is a very honourable Member and he is also a member of the House of Commons Commission. As the Liberal Democrat Member who served on the Committee—which was unanimous in its opinion on the Bill—is also a member of the House of Commons Commission, I say to his Liberal Democrat colleagues that it is clear that he has information that most Members of this House are not party to. I consider his opinions and views on the matter under discussion to be decisive.
Let me make a final point before taking any interventions.
We must make decisions about the sanctity of our correspondence on behalf of constituents with public authorities. We have to be able to look constituents in the eye when they come to us about tax credit cases, Child Support Agency cases or their dealings with the police or the council. We must be able to say to them, "I will take up that case on your behalf and pass on your letter or write on your behalf and I guarantee that that will not be released." We cannot at present give that guarantee. The procedures in place allow someone else to make that judgment. If they make an erroneous judgment, that damages us. I shall now give way to Fiona Mactaggart.
The point I wished to intervene on was that the right hon. Gentleman referred to the number of amendments that had been tabled and said that that was part of a movement to oppose the entire Bill. Does he accept that one of the reasons for that is his failure to justify his Bill? He has not spoken in favour of it until now.
Also, the point that the right hon. Gentleman is now making would have been covered by an amendment which he has voted against. The issue on which he is depending is that the Bill is required in order to protect correspondence about individual constituents, but he voted against an amendment which narrowed the protection precisely to that point, and which stopped the protection in his Bill in respect of much wider areas of correspondence. Will he use the opportunity of this Third Reading speech to justify that?
We all know that Third Reading debates are narrowly curtailed, and I cannot return to amendments that were dealt with hours ago. I point out to the hon. Lady that I spoke at length in Committee—probably for longer than 15 minutes—and dealt with the various issues. The Bill was on the Order Paper for weeks. I suspect that there are some colleagues in the House today with a guilty conscience who are trying to pad out the Bill because they were negligent in not opposing it on Second Reading. It could easily have been stopped on Second Reading if any Member had wanted to do so, but it got an unopposed Second Reading and unanimous support in Committee upstairs. I explained and justified it then.
I heard hon. Members—not of my party—make some very telling points. They said that they were dealing with a complex immigration case, and that there were demands from some third parties, whom they thought were representatives of the British National party, to access the files. We cannot have a situation where such information could get into the public domain.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he agree that it is a bit hypocritical of the Liberal Democrats to have changed their mind? Nick Harvey, who represented the Liberal Democrats in Committee, raised no objections and tabled no amendments. In fact, he said:
"I commend the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border on giving us the opportunity to have this useful debate. Whatever position Parliament takes, I am perfectly clear that some real problems have been identified and that solutions need to be found." ——[Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee,
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record.
We are all honourable Members in this House, but Nick Harvey, a Liberal Democrat, serves on the House of Commons Commission. He is a very senior Member of Parliament serving on that body. His comments in Committee are based on his experience in serving on the governing body of this Parliament, through which he has come across the problems that my Bill addresses. We are aware of those problems. The Leader of the House has been criticised for commenting on the Bill, and some said that he has been too supportive. Well, he has not been voting on my side today; I wish he had. He, too, is a very senior member of the Commission and I suspect that any comments that he made on my Bill are based on his experience in serving on the Commission.
I want to move on to another point. I hope that Mr. Speaker will forgive me for mentioning it.
The Commission never leaks information. I must tell the House—and I will tell the House—that on the agenda for its next meeting is the routine publication of all our expenses. Mr. Speaker, writing on behalf of the Members Estimate Committee, which is the House of Commons Commission by a different name, has made it absolutely clear in a letter to me—it is on the record in Hansard—that if my Bill becomes an Act, because it would legally exempt the House of Commons and the House of Lords, theoretically and in law, we would not have to publish expenses. However, Mr. Speaker has made it absolutely clear that we will continue to publish in October or September—
Not yet. Please let me finish my sentence, because this is a very important point. The main, ill-informed criticism that I have received from outside, including from the media—egged on by some hon. Members—has been about expenses. Mr. Speaker, as Chairman of the Members Estimate Committee, has made it crystal clear that we will continue to publish in October or thereabouts the totals for modes of transport such as bicycles, cars, planes and trains; that we will continue to publish the totals for the incidental expenses allowance, the new communications allowance, allowances for secretarial matters and administration, and the additional costs allowance. I do not wish to cast aspersions on the hon. Member for Lewes once again, but I think that he suggested in a debate on the previous group of amendments that this was a passing fancy and that, of course, Mr. Speaker could change his mind. I find that absolutely deplorable.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He is a very experienced parliamentarian and he understands the significance of the Pepper v. Hart judgment. He knows that there is a total difference between this House volunteering, out of its own good will and courtesy to the public, to publish these expenses, and what is in a Bill. Through his Bill, he would be changing the Freedom of Information Act 2000 so that we are exempt and do not in law have to publish such things. The fact that we have an assurance from the current Speaker that he will continue with publication is irrelevant. It is not right that we should set ourselves above the law, saying that out of courtesy we publish such things, but the law does not require us to do so. The right hon. Gentleman understands what Pepper v. Hart is all about. What is said in this House and in correspondence to him by the Speaker does not have the force of law. We are exempting ourselves from the obligation to publish—
None of our Standing Orders has the force of law. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should cast aside "Erskine May" and our Standing Orders and pass an Act to regulate ourselves? All of our procedures in this House are governed by our own internal Standing Orders, by the rulings of Mr. Speaker and you, Madam Deputy Speaker. If we cannot be trusted, and if we cannot trust the word of the Speaker of the United Kingdom Parliament, to publish our expenses, God help us! I happen to trust the word of Mr. Speaker and I also trust that no future Speaker would ever be able to reverse that.
No, the hon. Lady has been harping on a little too much this morning. I may give way to her in a moment.
We could, theoretically, go back to dragging people before the Bar of the House and sending them to the Tower of London for contempt. We do not do such things anymore. The openness about the publication of expenses will continue. I trust the word of Mr. Speaker on that and Parliament will not renege on it. We can therefore tie down the bogus argument that if my Bill is enacted we will somehow go back to the dark ages and nothing will ever be published again. We will not go back to the dark ages and we will continue to publish that information as we have done every October for the past few years.
In fact, I anticipate that this October we will publish more, when we publish the details —[ Interruption. ] I mean in October next year, when we publish the details of the new communications allowance.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the Standing Orders of the House. The Bill would amend a statute. He will know that what he is proposing is discretionary. I do not detract from the statement by Mr. Speaker, the current Speaker of this House, but who is to say what conclusion a future Speaker may draw? The assurance the public have is that this is by statute required.
I take my hon. Friend's point. I was trying to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, who suggested that unless publication was covered by statute it would be wrong and the House of Commons would not be seen in the right light. I was suggesting that many of the vital things that Parliament does, which are of huge importance to the nation, are dictated not by statute but by our own rules and procedures. They are covered by our conventions and by the fact that we would not dream of going back to the dark ages of another way of operating.
Does the right hon. Gentleman also agree with the comments by the hon. Member for North Devon in Committee when he said
"Indeed, we have a comprehensive publication scheme, which puts into the public domain exactly what MPs' expenses are for, the rules that pertain to those expenses and how much each Member has claimed against each expense each year...I believe that we have got the balance about right"?
Once again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out what the Liberal Democrat representative, who is a man of absolute integrity —[ Interruption. ] I am not suggesting that other hon. Members do not have his integrity—
The Liberal Democrats clearly intend to talk at length today. I intend to sit down in a moment and give them more opportunity to justify their position. If the whole Liberal Democrat party is opposed to this Bill, as its new leader is, it is a little late in the day making its opposition known. The Liberal Democrats were not here on Second Reading to oppose it. The Liberal Democrat representative in Committee serves—I say again to the House, which may be sick of hearing it—on the House of Commons Commission, which is the governing body of this House. He knows what is going on and he understands the problems. He was in favour of my Bill, which was unanimously supported in Committee.
The Bill deserves a Third Reading—
Madam Deputy Speaker, you are wise and right. I was conscious of the fact that I was beginning to repeat myself, because I was getting the same silly intervention. I will take no more silly interventions, so I shall not repeat myself and become tedious.
I made my points about the Bill in Committee. A Committee of Members from all parties, including the Liberal Democrats, heard the detail. The Committee was absolutely unanimous. The amendments today were decisively defeated—by at least three to one. I believe that the mood of the House is that the Bill should proceed to Third Reading and be tested in the other place. I want the Bill to receive a Third Reading and I commend it to the House.
This is a bad day for Parliament—a sad day. Members should understand what we would be doing by giving the Bill a Third Reading and sending it to the other place. We are saying to the public that although we only recently passed an important piece of legislation, which should be a terrific jewel in the crown of the Government, to introduce freedom of information in this country at last—a measure that has been in force only two and a half years—we are now moving to exempt Parliament and Members of Parliament from the provisions of that Act.
If we give the Bill a Third Reading, and if it ever becomes an Act of Parliament, we shall be saying to the public, "We believe in freedom of information. We have enacted a major statute on freedom of information that applies to all public bodies—police authorities, health trusts and so on—but we alone are exempt. We are above the law." We shall be saying that it is right and proper that everybody should abide by freedom of information legislation except Members of Parliament—that we do not wish to be subject to the law.
That would be an extraordinary thing for the House to say. It would inevitably bring this place into complete contempt—subject to the ridicule of the public. How would the public judge us? After all our fine words in this place about openness, transparency and wanting everyone to see what is being done in the name of democracy, we are saying that when it comes to freedom of information we are giving ourselves an exemption. Such a proposal is ridiculous and it is extraordinary that the Bill has not been laughed out of court. It is absolute nonsense.
There were years of thinking behind the Freedom of Information Act. We were one of the last democracies to introduce such legislation and for years, through the late 1980s and the 1990s, we looked at legislation in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States and learned from it. In 1993, I introduced the Right to Know Bill, which was based on best practice in other countries at the time. If a Labour Government had been elected in 1992, the then shadow Home Secretary—now Lord Hattersley—would have introduced legislation but, like David Maclean, I was lucky enough to be able to promote a private Member's Bill and picked up the measure that the then shadow Home Secretary had drafted. We had the help of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and Mr. Maurice Frankel, and other experts on the subject, who had studied freedom of information measures all over the world, in producing a state of the art Bill. It had commitment and support from the then leader of the Labour party, Neil, now Lord, Kinnock and, subsequently, the passionate support of the next leader of the Labour party, John Smith.
Labour was committed to introducing freedom of information legislation in the event of its forming a Government. I was thrilled when we became a Government and the Prime Minister said that we would go ahead. He set up a Cabinet Sub-Committee, of which I was honoured to be member, to examine how we would change the good thinking in the Right to Know Bill and all the work that had been done around the world into a White Paper, in preparation for an Act of Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman will probably recall that the draft Bill did not originally include the Houses of Parliament and that it was only following the recommendation of the Public Administration Committee that the Commons and the Lords were included. Is he aware of whether or not that Committee has changed its views since its initial recommendations?
I do not think that it has, but I am sure that the hon. Lady will make these points in more detail later—I look forward to hearing them.
I am trying to establish that this Bill, by my calculation, has had fewer than four hours' of debate and scrutiny in reaching this point of concluding its Third Reading. It has had four hours' debate, during which time the promoter spoke in its favour for the first time in the past half hour. Those four hours will overturn and undermine years of thought, expertise and agonising in respect of the quality of the freedom of information legislation that we should have in this country.
May I point out to my hon. Friend that if he cared to read the proceedings of the Public Bill Committee, he would know that David Maclean spoke at length in support of his Bill and answered some of the points that have been raised? Today is not the first time that the right hon. Gentleman has done so.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. Of course I have read the Committee's proceedings. They make my point that this country has had 15 years of expert thinking about freedom of information legislation, whereas I believe that the Committee sat for exactly one hour—one hour's consideration was given.
The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border praises the Committee, but he knows perfectly well that the membership of a Committee that considers a Private Member's Bill is rightly chosen by the promoter of the Bill. Such a Committee is not balanced in the way that ordinary Public Bill Committees are; this was a Committee of his supporters from both sides of the House.
Nobody is saying that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border does not have support from all corners of the House, because he does. He demonstrated that in his selection of the members of that Committee. I am not criticising him for that, because it was perfectly proper, but the idea that this was serious scrutiny in Committee, as in an ordinary Public Bill Committee, is a complete fiction. He knows perfectly well that it is not true; he chose the members of the Committee.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that amendments that substantially rewrote the Bill were moved, so the Bill received careful scrutiny in Committee? The Committee was unanimous in supporting the changes in the Bill.
I have always liked the right hon. Gentleman, but I have never seen him as a comedian. The idea that one hour's debate can seriously address the 15 years' consideration that this country has given on this legislation is laughable. If he thinks that a few minutes in Committee represents serious amendment and debate that can undermine everything that people who care about this legislation have been working towards for 15 or 20 years, he is a comedian.
Would the hon. Gentleman care to tell me how much debate took place before the 2000 Act was passed on the addition of the House of Commons to it?
I posed the question because the answer is none. Not one minute in Standing Committee, not one minute on Report and not one minute on Second Reading was devoted to including the House of Commons in that Bill. The provision was added without any debate, so it did not receive 15 years' consideration. The Freedom of Information Act generally did, but including the House of Commons in it received no consideration—it was added by mistake.
May I just respond to the point, because it think that it would be courteous to the right hon. Gentleman to do so? I am sure that the Minister will confirm that the present Leader of House, the then Home Secretary, thought about this very carefully indeed. As he says himself, he was in two minds and wondered whether or not to include Parliament. He reached the conclusion that Parliament should be included—it was his Bill. He was the Cabinet Minister who saw that Bill through, so he had given plenty of careful consideration to exactly the point raised by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border. Of his own volition, the present Leader of the House admits that the decision was not easy and that he was in two minds at certain times.
I am not sure how familiar with such legislation throughout the world the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border is. However, he makes the wider point that Parliaments handle freedom of information in different ways. Some freedom of information legislation covers parliamentarians, while some does not. It is a matter for each Parliament to decide. However, we have found another way. All the exemptions that worry the right hon. Gentleman are covered by the Data Protection Act 1998. The way in which the two Acts of Parliament lock together like a jigsaw ensures that the sorts of problems that the right hon. Gentleman is worried about are not real.
Freedom of information applies to public bodies. However, many hon. Members want disclosure in other contexts. For example, many of our hon. Friends want greater disclosure on private equity companies. How can we properly and honourably raise such points, which are being made by many of our great trade unions, if we shut the door on information about ourselves?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border is addressing the sensitivities and shyness of parliamentarians about their correspondence, expenses and information. I do not know how much he has studied such legislation throughout the world, but I do not think he understands what an enormously dramatic thing he is doing and how completely he is undermining existing legislation. As my hon. Friend Jim Cousins suggests, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 goes wider than the issue that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border is addressing, yet much of it must go through the conduit of parliamentarians. If we are exempt, the whole Act, to the extent to which it comes through parliamentarians, is affected. Ultimately, whom else should it come through? We are the ultimate democratic body, and it is through us that people should test, argue about and explore matters of public policy and concern.
I hope that I am not misrepresenting the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, but I do not think that he understands what a devastating Bill this is. As he said in his few remarks, these are difficult areas. The way in which the legislation is applied to public bodies is inconsistent. The Act has been in force for only two and a half years and people are uncertain about its application. The problems that he has brought to the attention of the House arise through the ignorance of individual officials and a lack of understanding. He is right to say that those problems have to be addressed, but not by changing the law. If we change the law and exempt ourselves, we are saying to all the other bodies that we have no confidence in the law. Those bodies will ask why on earth they should trouble themselves with freedom of information legislation if Parliament, which passed the Act in the first place, does not take it seriously. Trade unions, health trusts and chief constables will ask why they should bother when Parliament does not think that it is worth reporting these things.
But chief constables, health authorities and other public bodies are not. Why should they struggle to try to work out what is left of the Freedom of Information Act if we are exempting ourselves?
We have been told that the House gave no consideration to whether it should be covered as a public body by the 2000 Act. Pre-legislative scrutiny was carried out by this House's Public Administration Committee and the House of Lords. That point was considered, and it was on the basis of those considerations that the then Home Secretary included such a measure in the Bill. We had a full opportunity, albeit with some guillotines, to pursue the issue on the Floor of the House. There were many days' debate, yet no one tabled an amendment on the matter. I would call that Act a well processed piece of legislation.
I agree. This House in its wisdom decided to go around the sort of problems that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border has identified in a different way—to lock together the data protection legislation and the freedom of information legislation and so deal with sensitive and difficult areas of confidentiality and related issues. We could have chosen to make a blanket exemption for Parliament, as some other countries have done for their parliamentary bodies, or to adopt the route that we took—both are perfectly comprehensible and in many ways effective. We chose one way, but now, with this Bill—29 lines of legislation—the right hon. Gentleman is throwing away all our consideration over some 20 years.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way and I appreciate it. Does he agree that the Bill throws into question the entire relationship between the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act? I have correspondence from many constituents who have sought information under the Freedom of Information Act and been denied it because of the provisions of the Data Protection Act. The primacy of data protection has always been the essential element in public bodies' responses to their requests. Today, are we not throwing into question the protection that the Data Protection Act provides and putting in the minds of other public authorities the notion that perhaps they should be handing out information—that the Data Protection Act does not provide such restrictions? Will not many people in many circumstances now be exposed to genuine risk?
I say to the promoter of the Bill that I do not doubt the sincerity of his belief that there is a problem. However, he is acting on anecdotal evidence. He says that much evidence has been brought to the House of Commons Commission—I am not sure whether it is to be published—but it seems to me that almost all the evidence on which his enthusiasm for the Bill is based is anecdotal. When he is asked whether there is a public problem—whether the Information Commissioner—
Let me finish the point. All of us on both sides of the House agree that one of the best appointments to a public body that the Government have made has been that of Mr. Richard Thomas as Information Commissioner. He has gained plaudits from everybody. He has integrity, he is tough and he is extremely knowledgeable, yet his office has received none of the complaints or queries that the right hon. Gentleman claims his Bill will address. That seems strange.
If there is an outrage such that the right hon. Gentleman wants to tackle it through the Bill, one would have thought that one problem might have been brought to the attention of the Information Commissioner. The right hon. Gentleman says that the House of Commons Library cannot be all-knowing, but most Members' experience of the Library is that most of its staff are brilliant—very much cleverer and more qualified than we are—and give this House superb service. They have stated categorically that they are aware of no problems of the sort that he has identified—no such problem has been brought to their attention.
The Bill seems to be addressing a problem that does not exist, except in the eyes and mind of the right hon. Gentleman and the few Members who have spoken to him privately and anecdotally, saying, "We're very worried. I have a particularly nasty constituency case here." I am sure that they have and that such cases exist, but that is because the Freedom of Information Act is new legislation—only two and a half years old—and the people in local authorities and other public bodies who are applying it have not yet learned how it works. Of course mistakes are made, but when that happens the answer is not to change the law completely and so radically.
My esteemed neighbour, David Maclean, commented in the—hand-picked—Committee scrutinising his Bill:
"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. However, inadvertently, someone may release it." ——[Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee,
In other words, it is not new legislation that is needed but proper interpretation of the current Act.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am only too aware that many people want to speak; your colleague Madam Deputy Speaker brought that fact to our attention. I think that it was very wrong that today on Report there were only two speeches. No one on the Labour Back Benches was invited to speak, although earlier in the week the Speaker had ruled, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend Mr. Winnick, that voices from all parts of the House would be heard. Nor, indeed, was a single Opposition Back Bencher called to speak.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is starting to stray away from the Third Reading of the Bill. How the House divides up its time is largely a matter for the Members in the Chamber at the time.
I will not argue the toss with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I would not dream of it—but the Members who wished to speak were in the Chamber all the time. They were trying to catch Madam Deputy Speaker's eye, but were not fortunate enough to do so. It is simply not the case that the Bill has had major scrutiny and consideration. Debate has been hugely curtailed today. I am trying to emphasise the point that we are giving a Third Reading to a devastating piece of legislation that will bring huge discredit to the House. The supporters of the Bill do not seem to understand that simple point.
It may have escaped the attention of the Members who have voted for the Bill so far that the reputation of Parliament is not very great. Membership of political parties is going down, and the number of people who vote in general elections is going down. We should do all that we can to convince the electorate that we have integrity and objectivity, that we are fearless in pursuing matters on their behalf, and that we wish our actions to be open and transparent. The Bill yet again shoves under the carpet everything to do with freedom of information in this House.
I do not think that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border understands, from his viewpoint in Penrith, that people will be aghast. When the public understand what is being done under the Bill, they will be amazed, horrified and totally contemptuous of the way in which we Members of Parliament are seeking to place ourselves above the law. It is no different from us saying, "We passed taxation legislation, but we will exempt Members of Parliament. They have such an onerous and important job; why should they be troubled with paying taxes?"
Order. The hon. Gentleman has complained about the time allowed for debate today, but he is repeating himself. He might consider bringing his remarks to a conclusion.
I am trying to do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am just trying to emphasise the point that the Bill will subject the House to derision, and bring it into contempt and discredit. We should take that very seriously. In my 24 years in this place I do not think that I have ever criticised the Chair before, but—
Order. I respectfully suggest to the hon. Gentleman that now is not the time to start, and I mean that. He should probably bring his remarks to a close.
Right. Well, I did not realise that what I was about to say was out of order in any way, but if I am not allowed to make the point that I was about to make about the way in which we have conducted the affairs of Parliament this morning, I will find other avenues in which to pursue those concerns and anxieties. Those concerns are a different but added way in which the Bill, and the manner in which it has been handled, will bring Parliament into complete disrepute and discredit. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves today, and anybody who votes for the Bill ought to be ashamed of themselves. Once again, we will have to throw ourselves on the mercy of the other place and hope that it has the good sense to throw out this discreditable and squalid little Bill.
I shall speak against the Bill and argue that the House should reject it on Third Reading. I have no complaint against David Maclean, or the fact that he introduced the Bill. I have been in the House marginally longer than he has, although we may both feel that we have been here almost exactly the same time. I understand why he introduced the Bill, but both major parts of it are fundamentally misguided and unjustified. I shall seek to deal with the points that he made in his two brief contributions, and the points that were made in the one hour in Committee.
I believe that the Bill was prompted by two things. First, there was a concern among the authorities of the House and some colleagues that questions about matters such as expenses and allowances were too frequent and intrusive. Some colleagues were nervous about that. There were cases that challenged the decisions of the House authorities to be restrictive. The Speaker, the House of Commons Commission and others eventually decided that there would be internal rules requiring us to disclose our travel expenses and so on. That was all to the good, but it was a response to public pressure. Even today—my hon. Friends from Scotland will correct me if I am wrong—we are not subject to nearly as rigorous a discipline as are colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, for example, who legislated two years after we did. We legislated in 2000 and they in 2002.
The freedom of information legislation in Scotland is seen as an exemplar both in the time allowed—information must be disclosed far more promptly—and in the level of scrutiny. Some Members of the House might be uncomfortable with the level of scrutiny that Members of the Scottish Parliament undertake. Every expense receipt is published online within a month of being submitted. That has led to an increased feeling among people in Scotland that they can see what their parliamentarians are doing, and that can only help to build trust in politics. Unfortunately, this Bill will help to diminish trust in politics.
I share that view. It was realised that there were proper limits to what people should be entitled to know. An example, now much quoted, given by my hon. Friend Nick Harvey in Committee, was that people should not be entitled to know, just because we are MPs, how many bedrooms we have in our houses, who sleeps in which bedroom, or how much we spent on the kitchen extension in our private residence. There are proper limits, but it is not proper to bar people from knowing how much public money we claim to travel between the House and our constituencies, and similar information.
The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border agrees with that. The difficulty with his case, which he understands, is that by proposing that the Commons and the Lords be taken out of the scope of the legislation, the Bill would make the disclosure of such information entirely voluntary in both Houses. We alone would decide what we disclosed, and be subject to no external monitoring.
There are places in the world where that position is taken. There is a debate going on in New Zealand about that very issue. It is strongly argued that the New Zealand Parliament should do as we are doing by keeping the present position and not changing it to exempt Parliament from that arrangement. There is no doubt about the fact that there would be a regime in place, but the difficulty with the argument put by the right hon. Gentleman and those who support the Bill is that it is impossible to say that we should be trusted to look after ourselves, but that councils, the Welsh Assembly, the armed services and all other public agencies cannot be trusted.
Like other hon. Members, I look regularly at the Ipsos MORI surveys. I am proud that the company is based in my constituency. This House and Parliament do not come at the top of the league table of trusted institutions, and by and large are far less well trusted than many other bodies. That is the right hon. Gentleman's difficulty. He says that because we are Parliament, we should be subject to a different regime. The good words of Parliament will not persuade the public, and reversing, on the basis of no serious consideration, a step that we took only two and a half years ago will in no way enhance our credibility.
I want to pick up a point made by Mark Fisher. It is right to say, as the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border argued, that when the Bill first came to Parliament it was not intended that the Commons and the Lords should be included, but one of our Select Committees came strongly to the view that we should be included. It recommended that to the Labour Government of the day, and the then Home Secretary, who is now Leader of the House, accepted it. The reason why the proposal was not significantly debated was that it commanded support across the Committee, after due scrutiny, and from the Government, after due consideration.
The Government now say that they are neutral. There are reports in the press that there are strong divergences of view in the Government. It is suggested that the Lord Chancellor, the head of the Ministry of Justice, has one view, and that other people have another; I know not. There has been no scrutiny and no chance for either House to consider these issues in a Committee. There is a case for doing so. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon and others, who have said that there is a debate to be had.
Had those of us who were here spotted the Bill on the day that it was first listed on the Order Paper, and had we thought that it would not be opposed by the Government Whips, who usually oppose Back-Bench Bills almost without exception, particularly those that are not introduced by members of their party, we would of course have objected to it at that stage. However, the fact that we did not have that opportunity for debate does not make up for the fact that no Committee has been looking at it—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House, and he knows that Third Reading is for debating the Bill's contents, not its history.
May I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to an amendment moved in Committee by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, which would put the exemption in the context of section 34 of the 2000 Act, which refers to parliamentary privilege? Does he think that the exercise of the public interest override, which will continue to exist, would be severely inhibited by the co-location of the exemption with the concept of parliamentary privilege?
I am concerned about that. The substance of the Bill, although simple in its two propositions, touches on some complex legislation. Everybody accepts that the interrelationship of the Data Protection Act 1998 and the 2000 Act is not entirely straightforward. We therefore need careful responses rather than draconian and simplistic ones.
The Bill says that from now on we should have a voluntary regime, while everybody else should have a compulsory regime. That is not justified, given that there has been no serious consideration. There has been no opportunity for colleagues to give evidence. There has been no attempt by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border or others to collect people's views. Different views were expressed in the Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon made it clear that he recognised the concerns about the Bill, but he did not endorse or oppose it, and expressly stated that he was not speaking for the Front Bench. We should deliberate about those concerns in an intelligent and considered way.
People can still find it difficult to get information about non-controversial matters, even under the current legislation. I had an e-mail from somebody at a university in the United Kingdom saying that they were finding it difficult to get information about the public and ceremonial role and activities of Speakers for their academic research. If that difficulty exists, we need to examine the problem and ascertain the reason for such difficulty in obtaining information that should not be controversial. That includes not only information about expenses and travel, but anything to do with this place. If we exempt the Commons and the Lords, that means everything to do with our work here. It means the business of all the House Committees, all the functions of the staff and all the things that might be more controversial, such as how we spend public money on the buildings, various improvements and IT systems. All that would suddenly become subject only to voluntary disclosure. That is a serious problem.
My next point is important for the outside listeners, viewers and followers of our debates. Members of Parliament are not subject to freedom of information legislation. Our correspondence is secret. If people come to see us as Members of Parliament, we are not public bodies but individual representatives. There is no risk of our releasing that information. We all have on our correspondence something that states that we are acting for people confidentially, and that we hope they will agree that the information occasionally has to be shared with staff and perhaps others in order to help them. People are asked to let us know if there is any difficulty with that. I always offer people the chance to understand. We are not at risk of having information forced out of our offices. The problem is whether information is at risk of falling out of a public authority's offices, because the current law does not cover that.
I therefore want to deal with the proper concerns that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border expressed—I also heard Mrs. Cryer on the radio this morning—but according to everything that I have heard and seen, they are not based on evidence of a genuine problem. There is theoretically a problem, but no evidence that problems have arisen.
Most of the examples of data being wrongly released that have been given involve breaking the law. The fundamental question that the promoter has failed to answer is why he believes that passing more legislation will prevent people from breaking the law.
That is the other inconsistency in the argument of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border. If the present law is being broken, changing it does not mean that the law will suddenly be obeyed.
I do not suggest that the law has been broken in all cases, but that an officer of one of 2,000 public authorities makes a judgment. He may believe that a judgment is legitimate and defensible, but it still may release MPs' correspondence. We do not make that judgment; he does. In some cases, one could argue that he is breaking the law; in others, his judgment may or may not be right.
I understand and accept the distinction, and the right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am happy to meet him and see any examples that he or other colleagues want to show me. I have not seen any examples of a problem in the two and a half years since the Act has been in force. Moreover, there are many examples of decisions whereby section 40(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, which covers exemption of personal information, applies. That is relevant to the material examples with which the right hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friends and I deal every day of every week in constituency cases.
Let me give some examples. The names of people who signed a petition to a local authority about an allegedly undesirable tenant were not allowed to be released under the current regime. The name of an informant who notified a local authority of a potential breach of planning requirements in somebody else's property was not allowed to be released. Those are rulings; I am not inventing them. The cases have been tested and the information has been found to be exempt.
Information relating to a Home Office decision to grant indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom to a named individual was not allowed to be released—and it is right that personal circumstances are not disclosed. This morning, the hon. Member for Keighley said that she would not want information that she shared about forced marriages to be revealed. That is right—and it would not be revealed under current legislation. I understand her fear, but she is safe. Unless somebody incorrectly judges the law or acts illegally, all her constituents about whom she corresponds on that issue are safe.
Information about the age, length of service and pay scale position of council employees who take voluntary retirement, which, even though the individuals are not named, could allow their identities to be deduced, was not allowed to be released. Then there is information about a pupil referred to in minutes concerning a disciplinary hearing against a teacher—again, not allowed, even though the teacher had been willing for their name to be revealed. The names of members of the public responding to a public consultation exercise about a right of way—again, not allowed. All the evidence of where the law has been tested comes down on the other side of the argument about whether we need change.
When I was in my office last night, I picked up my casework letters that had been opened, and I also had some letters ready to sign. Some of them would not cause anybody a problem. I received a reply from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on behalf of constituents about someone who had been detained in Africa. That is a potentially public document in the sense that it involves a public campaign to help to release someone who is not being looked after properly by a foreign Government. I received a letter from the Secretary of State for Health in reply to a letter I wrote about the future of the 24-hour emergency clinic at the Maudsley hospital. That is, quite rightly, regarded as in the public domain. I wrote to ask the Secretary of State to defer the closure and she replied with her reasons why she would not. That should not be a secret. I had some correspondence with the Minister who is currently in her place on the Front Bench, about boundary changes in my constituency. Again, that is properly a public matter. I want it to be public, and she would not have any difficulty with that.
Other categories of correspondence involve agencies that, as it happens, are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act because they are private institutions. We would want to keep that category secret. I wrote to many schools asking them to let in for the coming year someone who has not got in under round one. I asked what the procedure was. I wrote to UKvisas about securing visas for people coming into the country. I had a letter from the Metropolitan police replying to my inquiry about allegations of improper behaviour. All those are protected.
I hope that the House can be very clear that the fears of some colleagues are not borne out by the evidence and the facts. All the fears expressed in Committee, on Report and now on Third Reading are, as I understand them, fears that there might be a problem rather than evidence that there is a problem.
Is not the ultimate conclusion from what my hon. Friend has said that what the Bill protects, in terms of correspondence exempted from freedom of information provisions, is precisely and only those communications between MPs and public authorities that are on matters of public policy? And are not those precisely what freedom of information should apply to, on the grounds that our constituents are entitled to know what we think about public policy?
Absolutely. There is all the difference in the world between public policy correspondence and private representations on personal matters to do with somebody's health, for example—which my hon. Friend Dr. Harris mentioned earlier—or their immigration status, their educational background or housing, about which I get hundreds of letters. Those are entirely different. Everyone here would defend to the utmost the right of the public to know what we say about public policy. The arguments that we put on public policy and the replies that we get from the Government about them are perfectly proper matters for the public to know about. However, we would also defend the current legislative arrangements, under which inquiries connected with people's personal circumstances are not public property.
Is not one of the strange things about the Bill the fact that the exemption is to apply only to MPs? If this problem exists and the Bill provides the way of tackling it, why then should not councillors' representations about domestic violence or doctors' letters to public authorities on housing waiting list matters be covered, too? If this is a problem—I do not believe that it is, as it is already covered by the Data Protection Act 1998—I cannot understand why MPs are being singled out. Might that not cause even more problems for other people, because the civil servants taking these decisions might well say that because the exemption applied only to MPs, there was effectively carte blanche? It could make the matter worse.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and my hon. Friend Mr. Heath made the same point earlier. Furthermore, Hywel Williams also argued earlier that it would be entirely anomalous to have one regime for Members of the Welsh Assembly, county councillors, borough, district and unitary councillors, parish councillors and community councillors, but a different regime for MPs. Some people are both councillors and MPs. Some have been Welsh Assembly Members for a while as well as MPs, and some are currently Members of the Scottish Parliament and MPs. I have had letters written to me—I suspect others may have had the same experience—starting, "Dear Councillor Hughes", on the basis that all elected people must be councillors.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a demand in Wales and Scotland for greater powers for the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, that was one of the points made by Mr. Salmond in his acceptance speech. He said that there was an appetite for such change across the parties in the Scottish Parliament. Hon. Members who do not share my view of the value of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament should take care when playing fast and loose with the good name of this place.
That is a concern. There are some other good examples of why we should not change the system. The Irish legislated in 1997; they now have very good freedom of information and data protection legislation that works extremely well. This Bill would mean a move back from such standards. The South Africans have a very open regime under their new constitution. The Indians too have a very open regime. The New Zealanders are debating at the moment whether to move in the direction of our present legislation, rather than away from it. I have not detected a debate anywhere else that proposes to reduce access.
There are things that we can do to reassure the public regarding matters of extreme delicacy or sensitivity. For example, if I thought that my local police commander was corrupt—that has never applied in my borough; I have never had that problem—I might ask to see their senior officer about the matter personally. MPs can always have oral communication, which does not carry the same risks as written communication. If I think that there is a risk of someone's identity being disclosed, I regularly decide not to attribute a name to the person in my correspondence. I also ensure that the reference does not give away their identity. I will use the issue as the subject title, rather than the person's name. There are ways of anonymising the correspondence that we deal with.
That is the point that I am making. Why should Members of Parliament have to pull their punches, anonymise and cover up in that way when we write to the chief constable, because we think that there is risk that the information will be released? Surely we have a right, and a duty, to set out the facts as we see them when we write to the chief constable, without fear that someone might release that correspondence by mistake.
There is no disagreement between us. I have just written to my local authority's chief executive with a complaint about a local authority employee who I think has been behaving improperly. Obviously, I had to name the employee in the correspondence. I did not pull my punches. A constituent came to see me and made the complaint, I passed it on, and it has been taken seriously. I understand that the person has been suspended and that investigations are being pursued. I did not pull any punches, but I chose to do it that way.
I am making the point that there are alternatives if we choose to use them. They are not compulsory; we do not have to use them. I am sure that I have been direct with authorities about incompetent junior officials or inadequate responses as often as the right hon. Gentleman has. I am just saying that there is a range of outcomes and a range of ways in which we can do these things.
Colleagues here who represent Wales and Scotland understand that we are in danger of further confusing the interconnection of our representative responsibilities. My hon. Friend Jo Swinson made the extremely good point earlier that she might have to decide whether to write to a UK Government agency based in Scotland or one based in England, because the legislation in Scotland would be different from that in England. That would clearly be nonsense. There would also be different rules covering institutions abroad to which we might write. If we were dealing with agricultural payments, for example, and writing not only to the UK Government but to the Commission in Brussels, different rules might apply in each case.
I now want to deal with what I hope the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border and colleagues will accept is the most substantive reason why we do not have to go down this road, and why it would not only discredit this place but be unnecessary, wrong and foolish to do so. I have checked carefully with all the authorities, and since 1998 a huge amount of guidance, and a huge number of documents and regulations, have been produced to assist everybody to behave better in this matter.
Although we passed the Freedom of Information Act in 2000, it took five years to come into force, and in 1998 we passed the Data Protection Act. To put it simplistically, the Data Protection Act deals with how we access our own information, and the Freedom of Information Act deals with how we access information about others. Clause 2 of the Data Protection Act defines sensitive personal data as,
"the racial or ethnic origin of the data subject...his political opinions...his religious beliefs or other beliefs...whether he is a member of a trade union...physical or mental health or condition...sexual life... commission or alleged commission by him of any offence, or...proceedings for any offence".
Therefore, some things were made sacrosanct from the beginning.
As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend Norman Baker— this also relates to the point made by Jim Cousins about parliamentary privilege—sections 21 to 44 of the Freedom of Information Act provide exemptions anyway, some qualified and some not. Those are provided for all sorts of reasons: law enforcement; investigations and proceedings conducted by public authorities; prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs; health and safety; personal information; commercial interests; and, expressly, information provided in confidence. Some Members pushed for wider freedom of information, but, ultimately, there were lots of exemptions.
As my hon. Friend Dr. Cable reminded the House, we also passed the Data Protection (Processing Of Sensitive Personal Data) (Elected Representatives) Order 2002, under which Members of Parliament who write to authorities do not have to have express consent, because the implication is that people who come to see us and ask for help give their consent in doing so. That has made life easier.
Therefore, only five years ago we moved in the direction of providing more security to the protected route. Since then, we have had the Information Commissioner's guidelines in 2004, the Department for Constitutional Affairs code of practice in November 2004, advice for Members' offices in this place in April 2005, a House of Commons standard note on freedom of information requests in June 2005, a House of Commons freedom of information note in November 2005, the Information Commissioner's Office's "Freedom of Information Awareness Guidance"—Nos. 1, 2 and 13—in 2006 and 2007, and a further note from the House of Commons. So much guidance has been given to authorities.
To deal with the concerns of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, any authority or organisation can find guidance as to what they need to do on the Information Commissioner's Office website. There are also two sanctions. First, if judgment is incorrectly exercised, it can be challenged—although of course, that is not as good as its not having been incorrectly exercised. Secondly, if people break the law they can be prosecuted, and the Information Commissioner will do that.
I want to make a suggestion that I hope that the House will regard as constructive and sensible. We should say no to the Bill, because it is an overreaction to a set of issues that have either not been addressed or not been evidenced. If the House of Commons Commission has continuing concerns, it should ask an appropriate cross-party Committee to consider the matter, and a deliberative exercise should take place in which the Information Commissioner is asked to give evidence, colleagues can give evidence and the public can give evidence too.
It would be really stupid and foolish, however, for us to legislate to take the Parliament of the United Kingdom out of freedom of information legislation on the basis that it will protect our relationship with our constituents, which in almost every case has worked exceptionally well, with no evidence of any significant failure to date. I hope that the House will be clear about that.
I understand why the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border introduced the Bill. However, I hope that, having heard so little argument that justifies its support, the House will say no to it—and that if this House does not do that, the House of Lords will do what it often has to do, and stand up for the citizen against Parliament rather than standing up for Parliament against the citizen.
This has been a fascinating debate, although I doubt that many minds have been changed today—or, indeed, in our last debate on the Floor of the House some weeks ago, or in Committee.
The Government introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to create a more open relationship between the citizen and the state. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs hailed the Act as a significant success. We can see for ourselves that freedom of information requests have resulted in the release of information of real value to the public on such topics as operation success rates, the results of restaurant hygiene inspections, the living conditions of animals in zoos, and even the recipients of common agricultural policy payments. That increase in the flow of information from public authorities should, I believe, be seen as one of the most important reforms introduced by the Government, and a fundamental change in the culture of the country.
Information that is currently released by the Houses of Parliament under their publication schemes will continue to be released even if the Bill is enacted. In Committee, David Maclean passed on an assurance to that effect from Mr. Speaker. The Government welcome the commitment to the changes brought about by the freedom of information legislation, and I personally thank Mr. Speaker for offering that assurance to the right hon. Gentleman.
I apologise for the terrible cliché, but if it ain't broke, why fix it? If the system is supposed to guarantee what is already released—if that is already in legislation—why do we need a paper guarantee?
I am not sure that that question should be directed at me. I am simply saying that a Labour Government introduced the Freedom of Information Act, after many years of work by my hon. Friend Mr. Winnick and others.
When my party was in opposition I was a member of what was then the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, chaired by Jim Pawsey, a Conservative Member at the time. I believe that you too were a member of the Committee, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We visited Australia and New Zealand, and looked at arrangements relating to freedom of information there. I think that ours was the first Committee of the House to suggest that the Government consider a Freedom of Information Act, so I feel I have some history when it comes to this subject.
When the House debated the Bill that became the Freedom of Information Act, Members on both sides argued for a strong Act that would give real force to freedom of information requests. That was entirely in keeping with the purpose of the Act. However, the Act was designed to enable open government to be balanced against the need for effective government. It was designed to help the public, not to disrupt the valuable work that Members of Parliament undertake on the public's behalf.
"I should just say that I was the Minister who had the unenviable task of taking the Freedom of Information Bill through its stages in the House, and we were asked by hon. Members on all sides to go further, rather than to provide what I thought were sensible protections, on requests for information, including requests from Parliament. However, the only people who supported those sensible restrictions were my hon. Friend Mr. Olner, and myself, on the Treasury Bench."—[ Hansard, 26 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1682.]
My right hon. Friend now feels that perhaps this is an appropriate time to reflect on the Act. If the Act is interfering with hon. Members' ability to serve their constituents, they should invite the House to look again at the protections that it offers.
It is clear there is increasing concern among Members about disclosure of their correspondence. Several Members have raised their concerns, both in the House and in correspondence with the Government.
The Minister opened by saying that she doubts whether any Members' views have been changed by the debate. I attended it perfectly prepared to hear evidence of the need for the Bill—to hear examples of the danger, which the Minister has just referred to, in respect of the relationship between Members and their constituents. However, as we have heard no such evidence, does the Minister not accept that in the absence of that—despite the considerable number of Members who have attended the debate and the considerable volume of correspondence that they must have had with, and about, their constituents—we must now be convinced that the Bill is not about the matter that it is claimed to be about but that there are ulterior motives in that there are other matters that Members wish to protect from proper public scrutiny?
I cannot accept that on the following basis: it is not for me to instruct, encourage or advise Members on the contents of their speeches on this Bill. I have tried to make it clear in this debate and on previous occasions that the Government are neutral on this Bill. It is entirely up to individual Members to decide which side of the fence they are on. If my hon. Friend feels that a convincing argument has not been made by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border and others, he should vote accordingly. I am not prepared to say or do anything to influence him on that.
Have the Government had representations from any quarter—from the data protection authorities, the Information Commissioner, or anyone else—that there has been any abuse of the public interest override on personal data? Has the Minister received evidence of that from any source?
I can say to my hon. Friend that Members have raised concerns about that on a number of occasions, both in parliamentary questions to me and in points raised on the Floor of the House with the Leader of the House. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has commented that as this Bill is before the House, our debates on it would be an appropriate occasion for Members to debate such issues.
The Minister has explained that the Government are neutral, and I do not doubt her own sincerity—she has not voted on the Bill. Are the Government neutral because they are neutral as to whether the Freedom of Information Act 2000 needs to be amended or are they neutral only as to whether it requires amendment in respect of correspondence being released—or are they neutral only because MPs are affected and therefore it is for the House to decide? In other words, if a Bill were introduced that said that councillors' correspondence should be exempt or all health service correspondence should be exempt, would the Government also be neutral?
The Government are neutral on this particular Bill and its contents. We keep all such matters under scrutiny, and if it were proposed to us that there should be further scrutiny of the 2000 Act we would certainly consider that.
An MP should be able to offer their constituents an assurance that if that Member writes to a public body on their behalf their private affairs will remain confidential. The personal details of constituents and the issues they raise should remain private and there should be no danger of that information being released to the media or in any other form.
I have dealt with a sensitive immigration case involving freedom of information and, in the end, the papers were not released, so some would claim that the legislation worked well. However, I will support the Bill because I want there to be the avoidance of doubt, so that people no longer go through the anguished waiting that the family involved in that case had to endure.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and similar examples have been referred to earlier. It is for Members to decide whether the Bill would give the certainty that my hon. Friend is looking for, or if there are sufficient obstacles in the current legislation to prevent information from being released. That is a decision that Parliament must make. It is entirely up to individual Members of this House to decide, on balance, which of those two things would improve the Act and their ability to represent their constituents. The Government obviously recognise the right to privacy that constituents deserve. I suppose that those advocating this Bill would say that it is about protecting not Members of Parliament but their constituents. If information is exempt from release under the Act, it should not be released; there are already exemptions to protect such information.
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will she concede that the Bill is not confined solely to correspondence? It goes much wider than that and is not solely about protecting correspondence or the identity of our constituents—assuming that that is the right way to go about doing so, instead of using the Data Protection Act 1998. The Bill covers all sorts of correspondence and does not address the particular point that was raised. I am sure that she will confirm that, given her knowledge of the Bill.
My hon. Friend is right, but of course, the exemption in the Bill is a qualified one. The Bill does cover other areas, including expenses, although I have no huge problem with that. I am not party to those expenses, so it does not affect me; however, that is a personal issue.
Where it would be unfair to release personal data, they are exempt; where information is provided in confidence, it is exempt. However, those are legal tests. The exemption in proposed new section 34A would cover MPs' correspondence as a class of information—the point that my hon. Friend Mark Fisher made a moment ago. It is therefore entirely right for Parliament to discuss whether the current protections are enough and whether the proposed exemption is necessary.
It is a real concern in itself that Members fear that information that should properly be withheld might be released. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 should not inhibit the flow of the information that is so valuable in our modern society, and I would not want our constituents to feel that they cannot ask their elected representatives for help. The Government recognise, however, that this issue is clearly of concern to many Members—hence so many being here on a Friday—so it is right that the House debate it and those concerns be addressed. It is up to Members of this House to decide whether the Bill progresses to another place.
"on Friday everyone will get a voice in this Chamber."—[ Hansard, 16 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 625.]
Will you give an assurance that, in line with that guidance, you will use your discretion not to allow a closure motion while Members are still rising to speak on behalf of their constituents?
The closure motion must be entirely a matter for the Chair, having taken into consideration the way that the debate has been conducted. The hon. Lady has raised a point of order and if she looks back through Hansard and sees how much time has been taken up by points of order today, she may perhaps revise her views.
This has been a very interesting debate and let me say at the outset that the Conservative party remains neutral on this Bill. As many Members have pointed out, a balance clearly needs to be struck between ensuring that freedom of information requests can be made to maintain accountability, and between the right of elected Members to carry out their business and represent their constituents' interests without excessive intrusion.
I hear the opposition to this Bill as expressed sincerely by the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) and for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes)—they made their points well—and the belief that, the law apart, this will appear to be a retreat from the advance of freedom of information, and that it looks bad because MPs are treating themselves as being different. If the Bill is passed, the intention of the Bill will need to be carefully explained to the public. It could also be pointed out, however, that should the Bill fail, MPs will not have the right to stop FOI requests made against public bodies when MPs have written to local authorities on their constituents' behalf. Ultimately it will still be the public authority and not the MP who would in law have the right to decide whether the information was released. There is no guarantee built into the law, only guidelines, to ensure that the public authority would inform the MP.
On the subject of guidelines, has my hon. Friend seen the four pages of detailed guidelines relating to the handling of MPs' correspondence? They are so woolly that it is as if they were written by 10 QCs on different sides of the argument. On the one hand, one may do this or that, this may be released, that may be secret, one may consult or one may not consult. It is almost impossible to follow the guidelines and that is why we need a simple Act of Parliament stating that in all circumstances our correspondence is protected.
I take the point that my right hon. Friend makes. I have read those guidelines and they are woolly. Whatever happens to the Bill, the guidelines need reviewing.
The lack of a guarantee may have the unintended consequence of preventing MPs from pressing their constituents' issues as openly as they have been able to do until now, for fear that what they say may be more likely to embarrass the constituent at a later stage. I do not think that the information tribunal's decision on
There has been an exchange about the need for regulation and how the area is woolly. Surely the key problem is that if there is a lack of awareness, it is important that enforcement action is taken when breaches of FOI legislation take place, rather than simply more regulation to confuse the matter even more.
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady to the extent that if problems have arisen, they should be highlighted so that they do not happen again. She makes a fair point.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is strong potential for a deterrent effect on constituents, who may be reluctant—to my personal regret and, I am sure, that of other hon. Members—to approach their MP because they fear that their case may later be rehearsed in public?
As the Minister said, when one weighs up how one intends to vote today, the point that my hon. Friend makes will be foremost in many hon. Members' minds.
No, I intend to conclude my remarks as so many hon. Members wish to speak.
My party's position on this issue was set out by my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham on
I find it difficult to believe that the occupants of the Front Benches are neutral. I can only come to the obvious conclusion that they support the measure. Nor should there be any doubt about those hon. Members who have come in to support the Bill. There has been a campaign—in line with parliamentary tradition, I suppose—to get Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Ministers into the Chamber. Some have come in, and others have refused or have other duties; otherwise there would not have been 100 voting for the closure motion.
David Maclean has said that the amendments are wrecking amendments. All that I would say about the amendments is that, if the Bill is to become law, it would be better were the amendments carried. They would make the Bill less obnoxious. I am totally opposed to what the right hon. Gentleman seeks to do. It is wrong and it is against the interests of Parliament. We are in danger of bringing ourselves into disrepute.
Nor do I for one moment accept the justification made repeatedly that the measure is about confidentiality. Let me make it clear: when constituents write to me, as they have done over all the years that I have been a Member, they do so on the basis that their letters are confidential, and when I write on their behalf to officialdom—which, like other Members, I do day in, day out—I work on the assumption that the information, some of which is extremely personal, is confidential. If there is a problem, the Data Protection Act could be used.
The parliamentary Labour party received a letter telling us about the advantages of the Bill in preserving confidentiality. The Library was asked to comment and noted that in Committee
"Members who spoke did not cite cases where correspondence had actually been released. There was more concern about the threat of release."
My hon. Friend Sir Peter Soulsby pointed out that he was neutral, although in cases of breaches of confidentiality there could be an argument for the measure, but I do not believe that there is any such necessity or justification.
It has been said that information about expenses could be requested that was completely unjustified, because it related not to us but to our staff. In fact, an application was made in respect of Members' staff, but no one would justify that—not that I would call it expenses; I pay my secretary a salary, not expenses. A certificate was issued by the Speaker under section 36(6) of the Freedom of Information Act to stop the information being given. The Speaker has the necessary authority and has used it to issue five certificates. In my view, his authority is justified and in the case of essential protections there is sufficient leeway in the existing law.
It has been said that if the Bill becomes law, information about our expenses will be published. I have no doubt that the Speaker's letter reflects what will happen, but there are some interesting points. Publication would be optional; it will not be part of the law. What a future House of Commons will do is a different matter—the process is entirely optional. Any local authority could make the same argument. Local councils could say that they did not need the law because they had given assurances that the necessary information about councillors' expenses would be published. Would we really be satisfied with that? If not, why should people be satisfied with what is being proposed in the Bill—that publication would be optional? Why should we be different?
The House of Commons should give a lead. We should set an example to the country of honesty and integrity, not find squalid ways to get round the law.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a question not just of the expenses of individual MPs, but of the administration of the House of Commons? We would not, for example, be able to find out—as we did last year—that renovation in the House was being undertaken using unsustainable sources. That shows how freedom of information legislation allows such information to enter the public domain and ensures that the best standards are upheld.
I completely agree. I take the view that as Labour Members we should be proud to support a Labour Government who introduced the Freedom of Information Act, which all our predecessors, and certainly the last Conservative Government, refused to do. Mr. Shepherd—if I may have his attention for a moment—introduced a private Member's Bill that was rejected by the previous Government, so if there is to be any party political propaganda, all I shall say at the moment is that I am pleased we brought the Act into being. Finding squalid reasons to exempt ourselves from it would be wrong.
It was not my intention to make a long speech. I know that other hon. Members rightly want to speak, so I conclude by saying that even if we work on the assumption that we have nothing to hide, the public will inevitably come to the opposite conclusion. They will not conclude that this is about confidentiality, because no evidence exists for that. In answer to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, I should say that no constituent of mine has ever complained that information that they have given me as the Member of Parliament has gone into the public domain. The public will reach only one conclusion: that we have something to hide. That is why we are doing ourselves a disservice. Even if we do not have anything to hide, that will be the view that so many of the public will take.
What is intended today may well be carried, because, as I said, enough people have been enlisted. If the Bill is enacted, the danger is that we will do ourselves a grave disservice. We will be bringing into law an Act that puts a question mark over our integrity and our honesty, and that is all the more reason why I hope that, either today or in another place, the Bill is defeated.
I apologise to Mr. Winnick; at that very moment, I was berating my Front-Bench spokesman. I echo what has been almost the universal theme of this House: this is a dreadful Bill. It arose out of the Commission losing a case—that is what this is about. It lost a case not on the correspondence of Members of Parliament, but on their expenses.
Let us consider this Bill and its construction. What does it seek to do? It seeks to remove the House of Commons as a public authority. That is the first point that should be made. If it were just about the correspondence of Members of Parliament, one could have approached the matter in a number of ways. But it is not, and the catch-all—the whole purpose of this—is to remove this place as an accountable body within the terms of the statute. The illusory even-handedness of the Minister and others in this House is just that: illusory.
Should we stand back from a measure that received pre-legislative scrutiny from the Public Administration Committee and, similarly, from the House of Lords? Following representations from a great number of people, distinguished jurists and so on, and the consideration of international experience, a conclusion was reached: why should Parliament be excluded?
The Government, on reflection, decided that Parliament should not be excluded, but they recognised, in the creation of the Freedom of Information Act, that it would need a long lead-in time—five years—so that public authorities could prepare themselves for publication. The legislation has been in force for only 30 months, and, as yet, the Government have done no review of its workings and they have not identified any weaknesses in it.
We come on to the purported reason that is given for this Bill: that we are vulnerable in the correspondence that we, as Members of Parliament, have with public authorities. It has been laid before this House more than adequately—that is certainly not what happened in the processes that took us to this Third Reading—whereby the arguments could be examined and tested, and proper evidence adduced. However, none has been. We have had relayed conversations and we have seen a wafted, redacted page in front of us. Who redacted what? Was it the public authority removing the personal details of an individual? Or did Members of Parliament fear that coming into the Chamber they might drop something and someone else would have knowledge of a constituent? I am trying to argue that the fear is not reasonable.
The Bill will be perceived as the House of Commons—and, stuck in with us, the House of Lords—looking to its personal interests. What are its personal interests? They are, no less, the administration of the House of Commons, and its expenses and costs. The point has been well made that that is public expenditure. The Bill will also cover our proper personal claims. Those are public moneys raised through taxation. I argue that no citizen in this country is not entitled to know those sums being paid by the people. That is a matter of principle, not just an argument of politics. The House is misjudging the situation if it thinks that the political judgment of excluding itself from the Freedom of Information Act is clever. The press will itemise and examine Members of Parliament.
In a curious way, the adventure of my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border returns us to the 18th century. In truth, many Members of Parliament fear the revelation not of the personal details of an individual constituent—we have seen no evidence to suggest that that is a legitimate fear—but of the comments that they themselves make in a document. A Member might say, "I know that there is a road coming through my constituency and I think that it is a good idea, but my constituents might not think that. I want my personal opinion on this matter to be weighed, but not available to those whom we represent and whom elect us." In the 18th century, it was ghastly to think that the mere vulgar public beyond the House of Commons should know the arguments of Parliament and the reasons behind its deliberations. The House sat in secret and it was a criminal offence to publish its deliberations.
This extraordinary Bill seeks something that is wholly and absolutely inappropriate. The House should reject it, and do so cheerily, although as I look at the dour faces surrounding me, I have no confidence that that will be the outcome. We have been driven to a point at which a few—a band of stalwarts unsupported by Front Benchers—ar