Clause 1

Part of Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 7th February 2007.

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Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 11:00 am, 7th February 2007

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border on giving Parliament the opportunity, through his Bill, to address the problems that we have heard about this morning. It gives us the chance to review for the first time how the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is working in relation to Parliament.

I agreed to serve on the Committee to provide some of the insight that I have gained through my work on the House of Commons Commission and the Members Estimate Committee. I am not here as a party spokesman; I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is a House matter on which Members must make their own judgments. I would not expect party Whips to seek to get involved in it.

The idea that Parliament might be excluded from freedom of information legislation could be expected to raise eyebrows. We are desperate to get into the public domain the vast majority of what goes on in Parliament—deliberations, the passing of law, the scrutiny of Government, the work of Select Committees. Much of our time on the House of Commons Commission is spent discussing investment in Parliament’s website, having more press officers, webcasting and all manner of devices to try to make the public more aware of what we are doing. The last thing that any of us would wish is that Parliament should or would want to shroud itself in secrecy and mystery.

However, in the past year or so we have grappled at opposite extremes with an issue that illustrates the difficulties with the legislation as it is now framed. At one extreme is the matter of correspondence. As hon. Members have said in the debate, MPs’ correspondence has a clear status. Correspondence about individual constituents should have the confidence of the confessional and should be protected under the Data Protection Act 1998. If local authorities, health authorities or other public bodies have been failing to implement that Act in certain cases, they need more help to do so and more pressure should be placed upon them.

At the other extreme are the big local issues in which MPs get involved—for example, the amalgamation of health trusts, matters concerning police authorities, the closure of hospital wards, and the reconfiguration of local services. We are then absolutely desperate for anything that we say on such a matter to have a good public airing and we go to every length to get it into the public domain.

However, between those two extremes is a grey area. We get involved in a variety of things in our constituencies and there is a lack of clarity about the status of the representations that we make. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire said that he had given information to the police that led to prosecution; I have done likewise as, I am sure, have other hon. Members. Similarly, I have often given the director of social services information that might be significant in family proceedings.

All sorts of information finds its way to an assiduous constituency Member of Parliament and we have to exercise judgment on that information. In our own way, we drop the right word in the right ear to try to ensure that something productive is done about the matter. Perhaps we should do that by telephone, but the head of the local police, the head of the local hospital trust, directors of the local authority and so on are busy people who are difficult to get hold of, as are Members of Parliament.

I find e-mail a particularly effective way of getting hold of those people and, in a discreet manner, with what I hope is a deftness of touch, giving them  information on an issue that they need to resolve. For example, I may have to tell a local authority chief executive that a unit or section in his organisation seems to be malfunctioning and that he needs to do something about it.

It will become increasingly the case that such representations are disclosable under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and that will seriously impinge on my ability to do my job as a constituency MP. I confessed that e-mail is one of my preferred methods; so is the yellow Post-it note stuck on to the letter, although I never know whether the Post-it note finds its way into the file at the receiving end. Suffice it to say that I am sometimes more candid on the Post-it note than I am in the typed letter.

It is worrying if all such representations will be disclosable under the Freedom of Information Act. Members of the Committee will have received a letter from the freedom of information campaign asking whether we really want MPs to have a special status that does not apply to the rest of the population, and I see what that campaign is getting at. Perhaps it is a fundamental flaw of the Freedom of Information Act that representations on sensitive matters, wherever they come from, need a categorisation that they do not have at present.