Part of Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 7th February 2007.
That is a key point, which I am just about to come to. If my right hon. Friend can contain himself for a moment, I shall read out a letter that I have received on the matter from Mr. Speaker. First, though, I want to conclude my point about whether Parliament should have been included in the Act.
When the White Paper “Your Right to Know” was published in 1997, it stated that Parliament would not be included in the freedom of information legislation. It said,
“A very few public bodies, because of the nature of their role, will be completely excluded from the Act. Parliament, whose deliberations are already open and on the public record, will be excluded.”
However, when the Public Administration Committee considered the matter it thought that some aspects of Parliament could be included, and recommended that that happen. Responding to that, the Government said,
“The Government notes that in making this recommendation the Committee had particularly in mind information which relates to the various administrative functions carried out within Parliament. The Government has no objection in principle to including these functions within the scope of the Act and would be guided by the views of the House itself on the issue. If, as is suggested, the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege wishes to express a view, the Government will of course consider that Committee’s views carefully.”
So initially the Government were not mindedto include Parliament in the 2000 Act, the Public Administration Committee said that some aspects of Parliament should be included, and Parliament was then included. However, I do not think that the Act has operated in the way that we anticipated. In fact, according to the House of Commons Library, when the legislation was debated in the House, we never touched on schedule 1—in other words, we did not consider the matters relating to Parliament.
If this Bill becomes an Act, it will delete the House of Commons and the House of Lords from the 2000 Act. Theoretically, as my right hon. Friend suggests, that could result in less information relating to Members of Parliament being published. However, I am pleased to tell the Committee that last week I received a letter from Mr. Speaker, because I had asked him whether he had a view on the Bill. On 30 January he wrote:
Thank you for your letter of 26 January about your Private Member’s Bill.
As you will understand, neither I as Chairman, nor Members as Members of the Estimates Committee, have a view about the merits of the Bill.
What the Committee does have an interest in, is making sure that the public is duly informed about information relating to Parliament. In that respect, as you know, the House has issued a publication scheme which, I can confirm, the Committee has no intention of withdrawing whatever changes may occur in its formal obligations.”
Mr. Speaker has confirmed that even if the Bill becomes an Act, and even if technically or legally we will not have to publish information, the view of the House of Commons Members Estimate Committee and Mr. Speaker is that we should continue every October to publish the same information on travel, allowances, accommodation and secretarial costs that we have published in the past few years. That is right. I commend that view to the Committee and hope that it will be satisfied that it is the right thing to do.
The other main point of principle is the new vexed problem relating to our correspondence. I am sure that colleagues of all parties have become aware of it. In theory, our correspondence is protected. If somebody asks to see copies of letters that we have written to a public authority we can, if we wish, say no. However, some people are now going to the public authority by the back door—albeit legitimately—and asking for copies of files relating to individuals. Theoretically, if that public authority carries out all the procedure in the official advice and guidance issued by the Government—I have circulated copies so that hon. Members can see just how complex it is—and consults the Member of Parliament, who gives a view; and takes legal advice; and comes to the right decision; then it is possible that our confidential correspondence to the public authority will not be published. However, we are not in charge of that and there is no guarantee.
Put simply, that is my concern. I am not making a political point, but the new Bill on the probation service will permit many other organisations—perhaps small charities—to provide probation-type services. One person in that little organisation could be the arbiter of whether a confidential letter that one of us has written to the authority that used to be the probation service, but has been devolved to a charity, will be released into the public domain. If that person carries out all the procedures and gets it all correct, our correspondence, if we think it is confidential, might not be released, but we have no guarantee of that.
I take the view that when we write on behalf of constituents or when a constituent comes to us we must be able to look them in the eye and say that in all circumstances, what they tell us will not get out—it is like a relationship with a priest. We will write to an authority with their problem but we guarantee that that information will not be leaked by us or get into the public domain.
I would not be able to function properly in fighting for my constituents if I could not give them a guarantee that when I write to the tax credit people or the Child Support Agency on their behalf, no one else will see what they have said. Of course we must have the right to do that. Theoretically there are provisions in the current Act which may protect that correspondence, but we are not the final arbiter on that. That decision may be made by someone else who decides that it is safe to release our correspondence. We must have that absolute protection.
I have experience on the House of Commons Commission of more problems like that arising and colleagues complaining that they have to jump through enormous hoops to guarantee to their constituents that the letters that they write on their behalf are not released. This does not apply to us as Members of Parliament writing to a local authority complaining about our own community charge or a personal matter. It does not apply to Members of Parliament writing as Ministers in their ministerial capacity. It relates purely to us as Members of Parliament in our official capacity dealing with public authorities.