|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The matter that has been most in the public domain is the expenditure that individual Members of Parliament incur. I hope that everybody realises that the declaration and publication of expenditure has put pressure on all of us to consider whether we can justify it. Scotland has a far better and more open freedom of information systemmuch more information in the Scottish Parliament is open to the public. The Scottish Parliament is governed by separate legislation and
has a different regime, which is possibly one of the best in the world. Evidence from the Information Commissioner in Scotland shows downward pressure on expenses. That is on the public record. Such pressure is a good thing. Evidence in a note that the Campaign for Freedom of Information supplied about expenses divulged, for example, by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, other police commissioners or authorities and other agencies, shows that, once people have to declare how much they spend on taxi fares, meals, entertaining, travelling by bicycle, car, plane or train, it leads to a proper public debate. We are all trying to be more environmentally responsible and it is good that information about our air travelits cost and frequencyand about train travel as an alternative is in the public domain. It is therefore not sufficient to say that we want to keep only expenses exempt, even if that was the intention of the promoter and of the hon. Member for Hendon.
It is not only the expenditure of Members of the House of Commons that is of interest. Proposed new subsection (2A) in the amendment relates to the House of Lords. It proposes guaranteeing that the expenditure of individual Members of the House of Lords in the execution of their public duties remained subject to the Freedom of Information Act, even if other matters were not.
Until recently, I did not realise that expenditure of Members of the House of Lords in the execution of their duties has so far been subject to much less scrutiny than that of Members of the House of Commons. I do not say that to take sides against colleagues in the Lords who have debated the matter. We have hundreds of colleagues at the other end of the Corridor, and the proposal for reform of the House of Lords would increase that number in the short term even if it reduced it in the long term.
Members of the House of Lords do not receive a salary plus expenses as we do, but an allowance for attendance and other allowances that follow from that. They are ticked in, as it were, if they turn up on a specific day, and there is a maximum allowance that they can claim. They can then claim maximum allowances for travel, overnight stays, food, secretarial expenses per day and so on. I recently discovered that all those allowances are tax free. I do not know whether that is widely known by the public. Our salaries are taxable but, because Members of the House of Lords do not get salaries, their allowances are not taxable but are instead regarded as expenses for attendance.
The number of Members of the House of Lords who claim the maximum allowance on every occasion is not publicly known. It is not known how many claim the maximum daily attendance allowance if they stay for a minute, an hour or the whole day or how many claim the maximum amount for accommodation if they stay for only a day. That is of significant public interest. They are legislators. We can debate how they get to be legislators; some of us believe that we need to reform the House of Lords into a predominantly or wholly elected second Chamber, and we voted accordingly the other day. However, it is vital that the public have the same access to information about individual expenses incurred by Members of both Houses. It is therefore proper to include the House of Lords.
When we consider the second group of amendmentslater today, next week, next month or later in the yearwe will discuss the changes that the Bill introduces to communication with Members of Parliament. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border is now trying to limit the proposal to the House of Commons. Amendment No. 9 would deal with the expenses of both Houses. I hope that all colleagues will agree that information about the expenses of all Members in the execution of their duties should remain available to the public and accessible as of right, not of discretion. That must be the principle.
Norman Baker: There is a further point to make. The Information Commissioner has ruled, after careful consideration, and the information tribunal has supported him, that information about Members expenses should be released in its current form. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we moved back from that position and exempted Members, as the Bill suggests, it would fatally undermine peoples confidence in the Information Commissioner and the tribunal process?
Simon Hughes: I agree. In some ways, it would be worse. My hon. Friend, with The Sunday Times, applied to ensure that information on expenses was made availablea similar application was made in Scotland, by newspaper representatives by and large. It would be unacceptable if, in the year that we received the tribunals judgmentindeed, in the few weeks following the decisionthat such information must be publicly available, Parliament said, You fought the battle, O House of Commons Commission, and lost, and youve taken it to the highest tribunal you can, but now were immediately going to change the decision. It would undermine all the arguments that we are trying to present that local councils, Government agencies, quangos and Departments should have to provide information. Having set up a process that provides for an adjudication system, undermining it would be bad news. One of the great merits of the system is that it has an Information Commissioner halfway up the tree, who is the watchdog on behalf of the public.
Elsewhere, we are having a debate about the Governments attempt to increase fees and reduce peoples ability to make repeat applications. That is another potential threat to peoples ability to access information from public authorities. In the same year, there would be a move from Government, and, at the same time, from Parliament to reduce peoples ability to access information.
Mr. Winnick: I do not in any way question the good faith of Members, let alone officials, who took the case to the information tribunal. I have the ruling here with me. Would I not be right, however, in reaching the conclusion that the House itself did not discuss the matter, so that no decision was reached by the House in debate? That led to the case going forward to the tribunal. Had there been a debate on the subject, perhaps the House would have taken the view that there was no justification for withholding the information about Members travelling expenses.
Simon Hughes: I stand to be corrected by any hon. Member present, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the decision was taken by the House of Commons Commission, which is chaired by Mr. Speaker and includes representatives of at least three of the political parties. I do not think that any debate was brought to the Chamber by the Commission: it took the view that it did and instructed Officers of the House to do its bidding. They did so and the case was defended. I do not yet know the costs to the publicit is not us who pay for it out of our pockets; it comes out of public provisionof fighting all those battles, though perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes does. As well as Clerks, we employ parliamentary counsel and others who are paid, perfectly properly, out of the public purse. If we employ external barristers, solicitors and others, they, too, will be paid out of the public purse. There will be costs, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the matter did not come to us for deliberation. That is not to say that every decision that the House of Commons Commission takes should come to us. Indeed, we set up the Commission precisely to do much of the work on our behalf.
Amendment No. 1 is a more whole-blooded amendment than amendment No. 9. Amendment No. 1 would prevent the removal of the House of Commons and the House of Lords from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. It is my preferred position and we support that amendment. I believe that, when the time comes, the House should be able to express a view on this amendment, as well as on amendment No. 9, which deals with a separate issue. It is a more limited provision, but guarantees that expenses and other financial matters relating to Members of the Commons and the Lords can be protected and allowed to remain in the public domain.
Amendment No. 3 provides a variation on the theme. When we drafted these amendments, I had no idea what the Houses view would be. I took the view that it was important separately to consider whether the Commons and the Lords should be exempt from the application of the Freedom of Information Act. Amendment No. 3 would remove only the House of Commons from that Act, leaving the Lords within its scope. It would then be for the House of Lords to decide whether it wished to amend the Bill further to provide for its own exclusion. This is a private Members Bill, which has not got through its stages in this House. If it were to get through those stages, in whatever form, it would go to the House of Lords, which could then add or take away as it saw fit.
As it happens, I take the view that, as Members of the elected House, we are entitled to reach and express our view about freedom of information rules even as they apply to the House of Lords. It should not be left to the other place. I take the view that the Lords should be as open by law to public inquiry as we are. It is a legislature and we have the right to say that. Even if
their lordships were to take a different view, I would hold to my view. I do not know that they would take a different view: we have not tested it and when it went through in the first place, there was no opposition to the proposition that the House of Lords should, like the House of Commons, be subject to freedom of information legislation. Amendment No. 3 would allow us to consider the House of Commons and House of Lords separately. Colleagues may wish to support the amendment, if that is their view.
Simon Hughes: It was indeed. Let me remind the House how the position that we are now in came about. It was not accidental. The original draft Bill produced by the Labour Government did not include Parliament in the provisions for freedom of information. We were not included. As the hon. Gentleman rightly reminds us, Committees of this House along with others addressed the question even before pre-legislative scrutiny.
I have with me the three volumes of the third report of the Select Committee on Public Administration for the 1997-98 Session. It is entitled Your Right to Know: The Governments Proposals for a Freedom of Information Act, and it lists the members of the Committee as: Mr. Peter Bradley, Mr. Ronnie Campbell, Dr. Lynda Clark, Mr. Mike Hancock, Miss Melanie Johnson, Mr. Fraser Kemp, Fiona Mactaggart, Mr. Rhodri Morgan, Mr. David Ruffley, Mr. Richard Shepherd and Mr. Andrew Tyrie. Mr. Rhodri Morgan, now the First Minister in Wales was elected Chairman of that Committee. There was a change half way through, as the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) left and
Simon Hughes: I am detailing the membership because some of the hon. Members in their places today signed up to a point of view expressed in the report. I want to say what that view was. It is important because this Select Committee was most influential in changing the view of Parliament about what should happen.
The Public Administration Committee looked into issues concerning the exclusion of Parliament from freedom of information legislation. I want to read paragraph 37 and its conclusion into the record. That is what changed the direction of travel, as it were, of this aspect of the legislation. The report was published on 19 May 1998. Paragraph 37 of the first volume states:
We have not taken evidence on the exclusion of Parliament, which we expect to be the province of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. We have, though, been somewhat surprised that it should be excluded. To the extent that Parliaments proceedings already take place in public, of course, the exclusion does not matter. The Governments background
paper explains that inclusion might be taken to be an implied repeal of the Bill of Rights which declares that the freedom of speech from debates or proceedings of Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament. Proceedings of many Committees take place in private, and the privacy of these would need to be respected. However, the proposed exemption for the integrity of decision-making is likely to protect these discussions. The papers held by individual Members, parties and their Committees do not relate to Parliaments public functions and would therefore not, presumably, be covered by the Act, just as the political and constituency papers of government Ministers held in government departments will not be disclosable. Papers sent by Members to Ministers and departments may well, however, be covered by the Act in any case. But there are many administrative functions carried out within Parliament which, it seems to us, do not need to be protected, any more than do those of the police
The justification for the exclusion of Parliament has not been made out. The exclusion may well convey the wrong impression to the general public, given the purpose of this legislation. We hope that the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege will review this question, and we recommend that the Government re-examine the exclusion of Parliament in the light of its Report.
I am pleased to say that the Government responded to it. The present Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), then Home Secretary, introduced proposals in the Bill that included Parliament within its termsand they were not controversial. There was no significant debate about it, either in this House or in the House of Lords. So I have to draw the conclusion that, having thought about the issue as we prepared for the legislation, it would have surfaced as a concern if anyone had thought that it was the wrong approach to adopt.
There is a further reason why it is bizarre to suggest that we should return to this question in 2007. Although the legislation was passed in 2000, it did not come into force until 2005. It had a five-year gestation period, which is an unusually long time. The Liberal Democrats kept asking the Government when it would come into force, and the Government told us that they needed a lot of time to put it into operation. I understand that, but no protests were made at that time. Nobody said that Parliament should be exempt. I take the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Walsall, North. If, at any point before the implementation date in 2005 any Member of Parliament had said, This is a bad thing. We should have discretion to decide if and when we will release information, it would have given a very bad impression. The point is, however, that no one did that.
leave out paragraphs 2 and 3 and insert paragraph 3.
That would mean leaving out the references to the House of Commons and the House of Lords and replacing them with a reference to the House of Lords. That would ensure that communications by a Member of Parliament with a public authority would not be exempt. This takes us into a whole new set of territories. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border has argued that his communications with his constituents would be liable to be put in the public domain unless we amended the legislation.
I want to deal with the points raised on this issue in the Public Bill Committee on 7 February. Although this concern has been raised, I have read, re-read and read a third time every part of that relatively short Committee stage, and nowhere have I found evidence to suggest that that concern has been justified in fact. There is no evidence that publication of such information has occurred as a result of misuse of the system. This relates specifically to amendment No. 5. In Committee, the right hon. Gentleman said:
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.
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 dooralbeit legitimatelyand asking for copies of files relating to individuals. [ Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee, 7 February 2007; c. 6.]
Theoretically, if that public authority carries out all the procedure
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying into the second group of amendments. The second group deals with communication with Members of the House of Commons. The group that we are now debating deals with the exemption of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
Simon Hughes: I will of course follow your direction, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am aware that the second group has that as its principal theme. The reason that I have raised the matter here is that amendment No. 5, which would replace the references to the Commons and the Lords with a reference only to the House of Lords, would mean that we would no longer have an exemption as a public authority. May I suggest, therefore, that there is an overlap between the two groups? I understand that we must try to separate the two debates, but I was trying to do justice to the fact that this amendment would mean that we were no longer a public authority for any purposes, which would change the status of the relationship. I wanted to honour the point that the right hon. Gentleman made about there being a double concern. I shall be happy to make more substantive points about that second issue when we debate the second group of amendments.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|