Since the Bill received its Second Reading on the Floor of the House I have taken further legal advice on drafting technicalities, knowing that we would be coming to Committee. The amendments that I have tabled keep the Bill in substantially the same format but make technical, sensible drafting changes which I commend to hon. Members.
Proposed new subsection (2) in amendment No. 1 is a drafting change, deleting the references to the House of Commons in my first draft and using slightly different legal, parliamentary language. Proposed new subsection (3) would make a few sensible changes. First, it would insert a new section on MPs’ correspondence after section 34 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I originally placed it after section 37, but this position is more sensible. Secondly, it would change the word “correspondence” in my Bill to “communication”, to include e-mail and other forms of communication. Again, that is sensible.
Thirdly, proposed new subsection (3) makes it clear that the provision applies to a Member of the House of Commons, whereas originally I used the term “Member of Parliament”, which would include the House of Lords. If those in the other place consider that there is a problem with their correspondence of the same magnitude as we have discovered with ours, I leave it to them to amend the clause. I recommend to the Committee that we change the wording to
“member of the House of Commons”,
because the main problem with correspondence has related to MPs.
Fourthly, the proposed new subsection would add the phrase
“acting in his capacity as such” to make it clear that the Bill refers to MPs’ correspondence when we write in our official capacity to a public authority, not in a private or ministerial capacity, which are covered in other parts of the2000 Act.
Proposed new subsection (4) would sensibly add the 30-year rule, which I neglected to put in my first draft. It means that even protected communications will be available after 30 years. Proposed new subsection (5) is simply consequential and would remove references to MPs, the House of Commons and Mr. Speaker from other parts of the 2000 Act, as those references will no longer be necessary if the Bill becomes an Act.
As we are also considering clause stand part, I shall say a few words on the principles behind the Bill. I hope that colleagues will wish to address those rather than the technicalities of the amendments. Membersof the Committee are quite experienced. I calculate that between us we have 272 years’ parliamentary experience and 76 years’ ministerial experience. I make that point because if I can persuade colleagues of all parties that the Bill is sensible, it will carry a lot of weight when we take it back to the Floor of theHouse on Report and when it goes to the other place. This is not a Committee of brand new Members of Parliament touching on the matter for the firsttime. We have considerable experience, and I shallgive particular weight to the comments made by experienced colleagues of all parties.
I hope that the Minister and the Government will stay neutral on the Bill. Having been a Minister I understand that when a Government introduce an Act, as this Government did with the 2000 Act, they feel an ownership of it and do not like people interfering with it. However, the Bill does not touch on any other aspect of government or public authorities; it deals with the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
Perhaps there is a case for saying that we should not have been included in the first place and that the matter should have been left to the internal regulations and procedures of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, but we were included, and I hope that the Minister will take the view that the matter is for those in Parliament to determine individually without there being a Government view. The same applies to other parties: I stress to my hon. Friends that the matter is not one for the Conservative leadership and Whips to get involved in, nor for the Government Whips. Let us leave it to the House.