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 Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry 10:45 am, 7th February 2007

Now that the subject has been helpfully introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, I wish to offer the Committee two basic preconceptions, which I shall then challenge. First, I have a fairly strong sympathy for libertarian issues and an interest in civil and human rights. My hon. Friends have not always shared those characteristics, but I own up to them because I believe in them. Secondly, I have a fairly strong prejudice against what could be called “parliamentary exceptionalism”. We are human beings and citizens. Wherever possible and sensible, we should expect to conform to the same rules as everybody else, whether those rules are the laws that we make ourselves or otherwise. Having approached the debate with those prejudices, I have sought to reconcile them with the  present facts and the argument of my right hon. Friend’s Bill, and I find myself in sympathy with what he is trying to do.

Sometimes in Parliament, a remark is made out of the blue in a quiet debate that strikes a chord and goes into one’s mind and body of belief. When Bob Sheldon, now Lord Sheldon, was chairman of the Public Accounts Committee—that identifies the fact thatthe incident took place under the Conservative Government—he once said very quietly but memorably in an extremely dull debate on PAC reports, “The one thing about a constituent is that when they come through the door of your advice bureau or surgery, you are on their side.” That message will be accepted by every single Committee member and every Member of Parliament. We interpret it in different ways—we may do so well or badly—but that is what they expect of us and it is what we expect to be able to do for them.

One aspect of that trust has been well rehearsed. I shall not discuss it at length, but of course constituents entrust to us some very sensitive personal details and life histories. We have all had experiences such as the ones described by the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East. We have a duty of trust: we are expected to discharge that confidence—and generally we do so—by making further confidential inquiries on behalf of our constituents. In that respect—and I think that this is the point of Bob Sheldon’s remark—we have a rather special and different role from conventional public authorities.

For Ministers acting within legislation in a formal position and for officers or civil servants of a local authority, there are set procedures, policies, obligations and the law underlying them, and they dischargethem. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border has said already, the relationship between constituent and Member, whatever their politics—this has absolutely nothing to do with party politics—is more like that with a parish priest. Members seek to advance the interests of the individual.

I do not know how we should be judged, for good or ill—we will all do it in different ways. However, I support the Bill because I do not want us to be inhibited in our task. Let me dispose of the matterthat I touched on and then left: parliamentary exceptionalism. I would not be supporting the Bill if I thought that it was a charter for the removal of the reporting of our expenses in the form in which they are currently available. I declare an interest: I am a rather low-expense person, except in one regard, which I am prepared to defend and explain to anyone who asks me about it. Of course, that information should be open. That is my preconception.

The relationship between constituents, Members of Parliament and public authorities is a sensitive one, however, and it is important, therefore, that we put nothing in the way of it. The question is not simply about the formal legal position after one has gone through the interaction of the various caveats, safeguards, exemptions and other protections under the Freedom of Information Act. It is simple: a  constituent comes to see us, we listen to their caseand do something about it in our own way, usingall the nuances that we want and advising public authorities—it is our show, on their behalf! It is as simple as that. We want to maintain that relationship and our unique role. It is not always successful, but it is a traditional backstop for citizens that we are proud to discharge. That is why we should support my right hon. Friend’s Bill today.