Clause 1

Part of Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 7th February 2007.

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Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East 10:45 am, 7th February 2007

I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border on the Bill and on the admirably clear way in which he presented it this morning. He made it absolutely clear where he is coming from, as well as giving some indication of the circumstances that make it necessary. I want to cover three issues of which I have experience, as they are relevant and point up the need for such legislation. They demonstrate why limits on freedom of information are needed in communications with constituents.

First, every Member of the House will have had experience of media intrusion, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested. As a Member of Parliament, I can think of a number of occasions when somebody has come to me to talk about problems in confidence as far as I was concerned. One case is now a matter of public record, so I will refer to it. One of my constituents inherited money from her late father and was the executor of his will. She shared the money out among members of her family, but it emerged that her father had been involved in social security fraud. She came to see me and gave me all the details honestly and clearly. She felt that it was slightly unfair that the information about how the money had been obtained did not come to light until after she had distributed the funds among the members of her family. The case  subsequently became a matter of public record, and the media came to me at one point in the proceedings and asked me for information about what I had done and to whom I had referred the case. I refused, on the grounds that my constituent had not wanted me to give all that personal information to the media. She came to me, as I understood it, safe in the knowledge that the information would remain between us and would be passed on only to those to with whom I chose to communicate on her behalf. In such circumstances constituents would reasonably assume that, unless otherwise stated, the information would be a confidential matter for them and their Member of Parliament.

Secondly, people sometimes seek medical procedures or treatments that are not readily available on the national health service. They offer all sorts of arguments and reasons why their particular condition should entitle them to treatment, so that their Member of Parliament can make a case to the primary care trust that covers their constituency. The media may learn about such cases, and journalists have occasionally asked me to discuss somebody’s personal medical details, not as an expert on medical matters but as a politician involved in the case. I refuse to do so, because it would be improper to discuss such details without the consent of the constituent involved. It is for them to discuss their personal details, not a third party, even if that third party is their Member of Parliament.

Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman delicately referred to the important question of nuance. Constituents will occasionally come to us with a particular grievance to which we are entirely sympathetic, and we make that clear in our correspondence. However, although constituents are entitled to contact their Member of Parliament and expect their concerns to be passed on to the relevant authority, they are not entitled to assume that we will automatically think that they are right. This is quite a complex area. Unless someone makes a completely bizarre request—from time to time, we all receive such requests, but we would probably stray outside the scope of the Bill if we discussed our stranger experiences as constituency MPs—people who contact their MPs have the right to expect us to pass their concern on to the relevant authority.

It all depends on the way in which the letter is phrased. Members who have served as Ministers will be aware that a letter from an MP that says, “I would be grateful for your observations on this matter” does not necessarily imply that Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so is correct in their assumption, merely that an explanation of the policy behind a decision is sought. When matters of justice or fairness are at stake, we may decide that the policy behind the decision is wrong, and we wish to draw attention to it. If such correspondence became routinely available—I am a great admirer of the British media, but some reporting standards fall rather low—the media, to put it bluntly, might selectively report a piece of correspondence rather than explain its overall meaning. That would be unfair to the constituent, and it would give Members of Parliament a little less scope in their communication with authorities. That would be detrimental for our constituents, because we would have to make a judgment in every case about whether they were right  or wrong before communicating with the relevant authorities. That would not be fair to our constituents, as we would be asking them to accept our personal judgment instead of carrying out the representational role that they expect us to perform.

To return to a point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire, if a constituent comes to me and says, for example, “The family at No. 60 are drug dealing,” I make it a practice—and I am sure that I am not unique in this—to say, “I will pass that information on to the local police inspector, and I will not give your name or address, or mention the fact that we have had this conversation.” That is important but, equally, drug dealers and individuals involved in low-level organised crime have the capacity to put two and two together. If they had access to privileged correspondence sent to a senior police officer, they could work out by a process of elimination who was in the frame. In one incident in my constituency—I have referred to this on the Floor of the House—a family was hounded out of their home by local gangsters on mischief night because they were thought to be grasses, although there was no evidence that they were. In other words, local gangsters involved in drug dealing thought that they were passing information on to the police.