Clause 1

Part of Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:15 pm on 7th February 2007.

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Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 11:15 pm, 7th February 2007

The hon. Gentleman is quite right and makes his point effectively. The response from other members of the Committee clearly suggests that we can all see the problem.

One or two hon. Members have touched on the other issue with which we have found ourselves grappling: the release of information about MPs’ expenses. Of course, it is entirely right that such information should be put in the public domain: it is public money, and we are working on behalf of the public. 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. Shortly, the information will go a little further than it does now. I believe that we have got the balance about right. That is not to say that it is perfect or that it could not be improved on, but broadly it is about right.

The problem, however, is that requests under the Freedom of Information Act are becoming increasingly intrusive, particularly on issues such as the additional costs allowance. In that respect, they are getting into very personal realms—they are going behind the front door and into Members’ homes. I have found myself having to defend Members on the radio against the proposition that the public have the right to know exactly what is spent in each bedroom of their homes if the money is claimed under the additional costs allowance. That is too intrusive and is going too far.

Again, that is perhaps a wider deficiency in the legislation, beyond the way in which it applies to Parliament. However, I should tell those who press and press such issues that, sooner or later, the allowances will be rolled into our salary, handed out without any claim mechanism or dealt with under some other device, because it is intolerable that this intrusion into Members’ private lives should have to be endured or should be permitted, and something will happen to prevent it from going too far. We can see what will happen: local news reporters and local political opponents will start trying to air these issues in public, which will be demeaning, as well as reducing the stature of Parliament and damaging our democracy. It cannot be right that things should reach such lengths.

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 can imagine that some of my colleagues, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (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.