Lords must defend Freedom of Information
04 Jun 2007

The Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill introduced into the House of Commons as a private members bill by Conservative MP David Maclean, would, under normal circumstances, have been killed immediately. Very few private members bills ever get beyond second reading. Even uncontroversial worthy bills struggle. So how is it that this highly controversial piece of legislation has made it through the Commons? It would seem that the Bill has the tacit support of the government, and despite some heroic attempts to talk it out, notably by Norman Baker and David Heath it survived.

The Bill, as introduced, aimed to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to exempt the House of Commons, House of Lords and correspondence between MPs and public authorities.

The bill would remove parliament from the public bodies that the FoI applies to.

Maclean said: “If someone approached me and asked for a letter sent to the police or a council about a constituent, I would tell them to go away. But there have been cases where the other body can be approached and things slip through the net.

‘I want to make sure this cannot happen.

‘The move would protect constituents and MPs. If an MP writes to their chief constable trying to get off a driving ban – that is totally different. I am flagging up the issue but I expect nothing will happen.’

Opponents say that the Data Protection Act already protects correspondence and that the attempt by Maclean to block public knowledge of MPs claims for expenses is quite disgraceful.

Various amendments were introduced in the Commons

a)to limit its effect so that after 30 years protected communications would be available, in common with public records procedure under the FoI

b)the Bill also now makes clear that the effect would not be retrospective, so that requests which predate enactment would be complied with by both Houses.

c) the Bill as amended now makes clear that only communications from members of the Commons are included.

However, these minor amendments, made to make it seem more reasonable and make it harder for Peers to object to, do nothing to address the rot at the heart of the Bill.

After its passage through the Commons David Heath, Shadow Leader of the House Lib Dem) said ‘This was a black day for Parliament. Firstly, because a bad bill, that will damage both Freedom of Information and the reputation of Parliament, was passed.

‘Secondly, because Parliamentary procedure meant that many MPs could not make their voices heard.

’And thirdly, because the Government has been able to claim that it was neutral on the Bill while cynically doing everything it could to mobilise support for the former Conservative Chief Whip.’

The bill has had its first reading, a formality, in the House of Lords. For some time it could not find any peer to sponsor it but now Lord Trefgarne, a Conservative, has taken it on. However, in a House concerned with the probity and the need for as open a Parliament as possible it is likely to fall.

Liberal Democrats believe that the tacit government support for the bill will make little impression on Labour backbench campaigners like Helena Kennedy and Frank Judd. Conservatives may want to support their old friend Lord Trefgarne, but the bill sits ill with David Cameron’s declared wish for an open style of government so some Conservatives may think twice. It is unlikely the Lords will really want to give the Bill a Second Reading (due at the end of June 21st or 28th) and all those Peers who believe in open government will rally to defeat it then.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer is a Liberal Democrat peer

Padraig Reidy

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