Freedom of Information (Parliament and National Assembly for Wales) Order 2008

– in the House of Lords at 11:48 am on 22nd July 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office)

My Lords, I have worked closely with my right honourable friend the Leader of another place to ensure that proposals for another place also cover your Lordships' House. I have consulted with usual channels colleagues and with the House Committee about the introduction of this order and I am grateful for their support.

It is my strong contention that to carry out our duties in your Lordships' House properly, we have to be able to speak freely without fear or favour. We must be able to say what we believe to be true about difficult or controversial issues and we must be able to do so without feeling that we could be putting ourselves or our families at risk. Section 7 of the Freedom of Information Act allows for the Act to be amended in the light of developing circumstances such as these. The section permits the Secretary of State to make an order limiting the scope of the Act's application to specific information held by a particular body. The order amends Schedule 1, which covers which bodies are subject to the Act. The order will exclude four categories of information, if held by either House or the National Assembly for Wales, from the scope of the Act. This will mean that the response to any request for information falling into these categories will be that the House does not hold such information for the purposes of the Act.

The four categories of information are, first, residential addresses of any Member. This means that information relating to any residential address held by either House, regardless of whether a claim has been made in respect of it or not, will no longer be covered by the Act. "Residential address" includes a Member's main or alternative place of residence, including any temporary accommodation such as a hotel, a holiday home or any grace-and-favour residences—that is, those that come from a job. Members will know that, unlike another place, the House of Lords authorities do not hold addresses in relation to claims for expenses except in relation to travel. However, any information the House holds on addresses will now be outside the scope of the Act.

The second category is information as to regular or forthcoming travel arrangements for any Member. "Forthcoming travel arrangements" means any travel that, at the date of a relevant freedom of information request, has not yet taken place. Disclosure of this information might endanger the Member or Members undertaking that journey. "Regular travel" covers any journey between two points using any mode of transport that happens at broadly the same time—for example, each day, week or month—knowledge of which could put a Member's personal safety at risk. Information on the amount spent by Members on regular travel during any calendar month will remain subject to the Act. However, any further breakdown of expenditure—for example by week or day—will not be, as it could enable the identification of a regular travel pattern.

The third category is information that would enable the identification of any person who has delivered goods or provided services to a Member at any residence of the Member. This provision is of more relevance to Members of another place, who are entitled to make claims for goods and services received in relation to homes they maintain in order to fulfil their parliamentary or constituency responsibility. This House's Members' reimbursement allowance scheme contains no analogous provision.

The fourth category is that of information relating to expenditure by a Member on security arrangements. Again, this issue is relevant to Members of another place, who are entitled to make claims for expenditure in relation to security arrangements at their addresses. All the provisions I have outlined also apply to the National Assembly for Wales. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 15 July be approved. 26th report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for bringing this matter to the attention of the House and proposing that the order be agreed. It brings to an end, I hope, the most unsatisfactory and unedifying spectacle of a deep disagreement between the authorities of another place and the Information Commissioner on the publication of private addresses of Members of another place and, I suppose by extension, those of your Lordships. From that point of view, the order is very much to be welcomed for the reasons that the noble Baroness has outlined, particularly in view of many of the security aspects affecting Members of both Houses.

Will the noble Baroness confirm that the order extends equally to all Members of this House as well as to those of another place? The noble Baroness has said that it extends to Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. For information, will the noble Baroness tell us the position for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament? They are clearly excluded from these provisions. Do they have their own arrangements or are they planning on doing something else? There is no need for the noble Baroness to give me an answer today, but perhaps she could write to me and let me know.

Finally, this order has raised the fact that issues in the Freedom of Information Act need clarifying. It is not that anybody is trying to hide information from greater public scrutiny, but this has raised all sorts of questions about the nature of the information requested, by whom it is requested and the use to which it is put. Have the Government plans to review the working of the Freedom of Information Act to see whether any changes should be made in the foreseeable future?

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Deputy Chief Whip, Spokesperson in the Lords (Sport), Culture, Media & Sport, Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence

My Lords, we on these Benches have absolutely no objection to making these changes to the Freedom of Information Act. I am not sure that I can entirely agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, but certainly there should be reasonable limits on the information that can safely be given out so that it does not endanger those engaged in certain activities. This measure is a bold first step in attempting to set those reasonable limits. One could argue about what are appropriate requests for information and what are vexatious, and whether the Act gives some journalists a licence to become voyeuristic about other people's lives, but I shall not go too far down that route today. The order constitutes a reasonable compromise that safeguards national and personal security. As I say, we have no objection to it.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for introducing the order. I would have difficulty continuing to cover defence and security issues without it.

Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench

My Lords, from the security point of view this is an extremely sensible measure. Therefore, I hope that the Government will provide the Information Commissioner with sufficient powers to ensure that these data are protected, wherever they are located. As we well know from past reports of the Information Commissioner, there is, unfortunately, a propensity to try to purchase this information. Therefore, I hope that these data are held in a suitably secure, probably encrypted form, to ensure that there is no inadvertent access to them and they do not accidentally end up on a stick or a laptop somewhere.

Photo of Lord Clark of Windermere Lord Clark of Windermere Labour

My Lords, I do not wish to detain the House for more than a few minutes. It will not surprise noble Lords to hear me say that I keep a paternal eye on orders that affect the Freedom of Information Act, and that I try to assess the effect of any orders on the original Act. I remind the House that the whole purpose of the Act is to empower the citizen to challenge the apparatus of the state, particularly that of the Executive, and to extend their own freedom.

As regards an observation made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I should point out that when we drew up the first semblances of the Act in the original Bill, we excluded Parliament. We felt that if Parliament were included it would be so easy for the press to have a go at MPs and Members of this House and neglect where the real power lies in Great Britain; namely, in the Executive. That is exactly what has happened. I am not saying that it was wrong to include it, but that was the judgment that we made at the time.

The security of Members of this House and the other place is paramount. We should not forget that only 25 years ago, or even less, we all went through a heavy security curtain. I clearly remember the days when the police gave briefings on security for our constituency homes. We also had to search underneath our cars every time we went out in them. We forget those things now but they were very real at the time. We all hope that those days never come again, but it would be foolish to forget them.

My last point is very important. The families of Members in both Houses of Parliament usually make a great sacrifice so that we can be here to try to serve the nation. Particularly in the other House, where Members may traditionally have had younger families, there is real pressure, real fear and real tension. Members from provincial seats come down to London on a Sunday night or Monday morning and return on a Thursday or Friday, but their families are left up there, often on their own. I can well recall my wife being frightened—I would almost say to death—during a period in the 1980s when, literally at 4 am, there was a braying at the door. She went to the upstairs window, and a policeman was outside saying, "Under no account must you open any parcel that might be delivered to your house". Of course that was a helpful intervention—the police were delivering a warning—but you can imagine the fear of a woman living on her own with a young family in that situation.

It is therefore right and proper to insist that a certain amount of privacy should be given to Members of Parliament of both Houses. This order is a correct procedure and I welcome it as a step in the right direction.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office)

My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome that has been given to the order. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that we have not had discussions with Northern Ireland, but we are very happy to do so. Such discussions may well take place. As Scotland has a separate Act, it is for them to deal with these issues themselves.

My noble friend Lord Clark eloquently reminded us of the history, and noble Lords who were in another place will remember only too well the difficulties and the dangers. However, we have also had recent examples: noble Lords will recall that my right honourable friend has twice had visitors on her roof from the organisation that calls itself Fathers for Justice. So there are real issues of concern in any event. We are confident that we have protected every Member of your Lordships' House through this move. I am informed by the Clerk who looks after this information that it is kept secure, so the noble Earl, Lord Errol, need not worry about that. We will ensure that any requests are dealt with appropriately.

We do not have plans to review the Act more formally. As noble Lords may recall, I was the Minister responsible for freedom of information. The Act was brought in not to support journalistic enquiries into issues about your Lordships' House or another place, important though those are, but to enable ordinary citizens to find out information from public bodies in their locality, whether that is their health service, their local schools or another body. I think that we all recognise the importance and value of that. However, as with any piece of information, context is everything. We must continually strive to ensure that when information is released, people understand the context of what that information actually explains to the person who requested it, rather than, as we have occasionally seen, simply seeing the stark fact without realising its relevance.

There are continuous discussions to ensure that the Information Commissioner has the necessary relevant powers. For now, however, we are confident that this is an important move. It has already passed through another place, and I hope it will pass through your Lordships' House today.

On Question, Motion agreed to.