Thank you very much, Mr. Caton, and I welcome you to the Chair. I shall begin be congratulating the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border on getting his private Member’s Bill as far as the Committee. As has already been expressed, the Bill could have been blocked on Second Reading by a single Member of Parliament, so he has done extremely well to get it here.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is a significant success. It has resulted in the release of information of real interest to the public and, most importantly, it has increased the transparency of public authorities. The Bill does not in any way undermine those principles. As the hon. Member for North Devon pointed out, we have had a lot of open disclosure by the House already, and it has heavily used websites. There are positive effects of freedom of information, and the Government are committed to openness.
However, we have to strike a balance. Inevitably, after a little while in opposition, hon. Members reflect on whether an Act of Parliament is working, and whether it is working as well as intended. Clearly, I recognise the increasing concern of Members of Parliament about the disclosure of correspondence—some very serious examples have been given today. MPs must be free to write to public bodies on behalf of their constituents and be confident that the private affairs of their constituents will remain so. That must be unarguable. It is therefore essential that the 2000 Act has credibility among the people whom it is designed to benefit—our constituents. If they feel that they are being undermined, the 2000 Act itself is undermined.
We should not allow the 2000 Act to disrupt thevital relationship between an MP and his or her constituents, and the time has come to address the issue. Several hon. Members have registered objections to public authorities that are considering releasing their correspondence. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham gave an example of a public authority that will remain exempt even under the Bill. I am aware, also, that there have been several fishing expeditions that have no serious purpose beyond the scoring of points against Members. That is not in keeping with the spirit of the Act—freedom of information should not be used against the interests of Members and of their constituents and against the valuable work that Members undertake in their constituents’ names. All Members who have spoken today have spoken with passion about the way in which they want to deal with constituents’ issues, problems and concerns. That shows that MPs throughout the House value the relationships that they have built up with constituents. It would be tragic if we accidentally undermined that in any way.
Some information is already exempt. However, the Government take the same view as that expressed by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border in his opening remarks: the issue deserves discussion; it directly affects Parliament and is therefore a matter for Parliament to decide. I have listened carefully on behalf of the Government to the concerns that have been expressed today, but it is for the Committee and for Parliament to continue the debate and to decide howto proceed.