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20 Apr 2007 : Column 594

I shall not go into the detail of the amendments—I know the game. Colleagues have attempted to stop the Bill. I think that they are misguided and I hope that the House will vote against the amendment. On the basis that I am content to be assured by Mr. Speaker’s letter and the letter from the Members Estimate Committee, I hope that the House will reject the amendments, well meant though they may be, and stick with the content of my Bill.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) for speaking to his Bill. I want to deal with his points first. He made both a broad point and a slightly narrower point. On the broad point, there are, of course, some hon. Members who are opposed to the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman has been a Member of this House as long as I have, so he knows that we have two ways of making arguments: on Second and Third Reading, we argue about a Bill as a whole; and in Committee and on Report, we try to make a Bill as least problematic and least offensive as possible, by improving it. The amendments in this particular case are designed to restrict the scope of this part of the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman rightly and kindly acknowledged that: I am grateful to him and would expect no less.

On the narrower point that the right hon. Gentleman made, he followed up the question put to him by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I cannot believe that the right hon. Gentleman believes it credible, however good our practice as a result of our own choice led by Mr. Speaker—who absolutely represents the views of Members on the House of Commons Commission as well as his own views—to say that we should be able to make our own choices while everyone else has to follow laws that we impose on them. That is the issue.

Every public Government Department must do what we tell it. We say that the Welsh Assembly must do what we tell it. We say that the Northern Ireland Assembly must do what we tell it. We say that the armed forces of the Crown—with the exception of the special forces, which have to act to protect national security—must do what we tell them. Yet the Bill is effectively saying that we must not be governed by the same law, which some of us find unacceptable.

However good our practice—this point relates to what the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said—it is Members of Parliament who are driving what information is available. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, we can question the Leader of the House. We can also question the person who speaks for the House of Commons Commission—currently my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). We can question orally and in writing. We can read the reports that the Commission produces. Other bodies such as the Members Estimate Committee are also relevant. All those matters are driven by Members of Parliament and I have listed things that we can do. However, as it happens, the tribunal case was brought by my hon. Friend the
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Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), but also by someone who was not an MP. The question is about whether people other than MPs can ask the difficult questions. For very obvious reasons, there may be people other than MPs who are prepared to ask questions that we are not willing to ask.

It is no great secret that the person responsible for Members’ standards in the House who was in post before the current occupant was regarded by some colleagues as over-zealous. Her contract was not renewed. I do not know whether she wanted it to be renewed, but there was common talk about not renewing it for her. The reality is that she was an external watchdog. The law is an external watchdog. The right hon. Gentleman, however, suggests that it is sufficient for us to drive our own agenda and that we should achieve by our own deliberations what the amendments are designed to achieve through legislative provision.

I do not accept that that is sufficient. I do not question the motives of colleagues. I do not doubt that we will diligently seek to be more and more open. I hope that that is the case, but as we always say about Government legislation—the right hon. Gentleman says it as much as I do—the reason we want provisions built directly into Bills is that we cannot guarantee that the next Government, the next Minister or the next Secretary of State will be as diligent, assiduous or open-minded as the present one. I do not think that the guarantee suggested by the right hon. Gentleman will work.

Mr. Winnick: In reply to my earlier intervention, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) said that he believed that the House of Commons should regulate itself. Was that not the argument—it was certainly not a compelling argument—put forward at the time by those who strongly opposed having a Register of Members’ Interests? They said that it was totally unnecessary. They said that we were all honourable, so we should be able to regulate our own affairs. We all know what happened about that, do we not?

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. I have the latest copy of the Register of Members’ Interests with me. It is now regarded as hugely important and failure to comply with it is regarded as very serious, because the public expect to know the financial considerations that might occupy our thoughts and labours. That is absolutely right. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that the argument goes further than that. This has been the argument for all sorts of organisations for a long time. I have recently finished serving on a Committee dealing with compensation claims, in which the Minister’s Department was involved. We were investigating claims farmers who go round putting a note through people’s doors saying “We are willing to take up your compensation claim.” Why were we legislating on that? We were doing so because the Government, supported by colleagues on all sides, took the view that self-regulation would not achieve the right outcome.

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I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been as critical as I have over the years, but I have had serious cause for concern about the way in which complaints against solicitors were dealt with. Solicitors were self-regulating. Yes, they are a private body, and we are a public body. A Bill is coming down to us from the other end of the building that deals with regulation. These amendments are not about the regulation of private bodies; they deal with the regulation of a public body. Amendments Nos. 1 and 9 would ensure that the House of Commons—a public authority—was governed by regulation, like all the other public authorities.

I made the point in an intervention on the hon. Member for Sheffield Brownhills—

Mr. Shepherd: Aldridge-Brownhills.

Simon Hughes: I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon. I do not usually make that mistake.

I have made the point that the Commons and the Lords are the second and third bodies listed, but there are a huge number of other public authorities on which we place these requirements. There are six that are regarded as very important, of which we are one. There are also 28 local government authorities on which we place these requirements. We are seeking, through amendments Nos. 1 and 9, to ensure that the House of Commons is subject to the same requirements. There is one Northern Ireland local government organisation, and we are seeking to ensure that we have the same obligations as it has. There are nine NHS public authorities in England and Wales, and we are seeking, through amendments Nos. 1 and 9, to ensure that we are subject to the same requirements as they are. There are six Northern Ireland health and social services authorities—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that the concession of a wind-up speech is that it winds up the debate. He addressed the House for almost an hour earlier on, and I think that he would be trespassing on the House’s good will if he were to make an extended speech at this point. He is meant to be summing up the amendments that he has proposed.

Simon Hughes: Let me then summarise the points in regard to the relative consequence of the amendments for the legislation as a whole. I have not added up the total number of bodies involved, but there are two education authorities in England and Wales, and three in Northern Ireland. There are three police authorities in England and Wales, two in Northern Ireland, and three others. There are 371 other public authorities in England and Wales and 85 in Northern Ireland. The point that the hon. Member for Walsall, North made earlier was that it would be totally indefensible if we said to the public, “All those hundreds of other bodies must be governed by this law, but we will not be.”

David Howarth: The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) said that the argument that voluntary disclosure is enough—the amount of voluntary disclosure in this House is quite
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considerable—could be used by any of the other public authorities. Are we not trying to give ourselves an exemption that we are not willing to give to other bodies?

Simon Hughes: And—as was pointed out by the hon. Members for Walsall, North and for Aldridge-Brownhills—if we did that for local government, we would be seen as undoing progressive legislation that makes local government more accountable. As the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, the salary of that chief executive in the west midlands is of public interest, as it should be. We cannot have one standard for one body and a different standard for another body.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, by means of an example, amplified what had been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes. One of the benefits of the exposure of expenditure that we incur here—apart from revealing whether we are using “green” travel—is that people can know whether we, like most other members of the public including us when we are spending our own money, are taking advantage of cheaper fares by, for instance, taking a train after 9.30 am. The only way in which to guarantee such benefits of exposure, and to guarantee that the public have access to the information when they want it, is to support the amendments and, ideally, to reject the Bill even as amended.

I accept that there is no Whip on the Conservatives’ vote, as there is none on ours. Nevertheless, I was surprised that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk took the line that the Conservative Front Bench support the Bill. That was not said in Committee; it is a new revelation. I am not sure whether it has been cleared with the party leadership, but it is certainly not consistent with the new cuddly, friendly, open-government, we’re-on-your-side Tory party that the party leader is seeking to sell to the country over the next couple of weeks and beyond.

The Freedom of Information Act was not entirely accepted by all members of the Conservative party—they resisted it, and a Labour Government introduced it—but in the end there was a broad consensus. I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the view he has now adopted goes further than saying that this is a matter for colleagues alone, and that he would be ill advised to align himself and his party formally with the argument for exempting the House of Commons rather than supporting amendments Nos. 1 and 9. If that is his position, I should be intrigued to hear him defend it against the critique—already clear and voluble—that has been delivered not just by the well-regarded and respected Campaign for Freedom of Information but by the press, not least in the past couple of days.

The Minister adopted a neutral position, saying that it was a House of Commons matter, but failed to answer two of the major questions of the debate. First, how is it possible to be neutral about an Act which the Government introduced, which came into force only two years ago, and which the Government regarded as flagship legislation? The Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is the lead Department, has regularly and consistently made the point that it introduced freedom of information legislation. I have never heard it say that, having introduced the legislation, it now supports the idea—or is neutral or
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relaxed about the idea—that it may not apply to the House of Commons, the House of Lords or both.

The Minister expressly did not respond to the point made earlier in the debate about the view of her senior ministerial colleague. Perhaps I can tempt her to do so now. In any event, I remind her of the very specific report that appeared in The Guardian on 31 January. The paper’s Westminster correspondent wrote:

—the Minister’s boss—

Apparently—I know no more than the report tells me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but this relates directly to amendments Nos. 1 and 9—

I quote the next passage specifically because it relates to the Minister’s Department.

If the Minister is today saying that she and the Government are neutral, when between two and three months ago the Secretary of State was arguing that the Government should not be seen to be supporting the Bill and should be opposing the measure, something strange has happened in the Department. The public would find it troubling that the Government, who expressly, as we know, took the proposal from the Select Committee and put it in the legislation to ensure that the House of Lords and House of Commons were included, are now going back on that and not being consistent.

12.45 pm

Mr. Winnick: My intervention, as always I hope, is political; it is in no way personal. I have listened to the Front-Bench speeches. Does not all the evidence demonstrate that the three parties—I emphasise the three parties—are collaborating through the usual channels in order to get the Bill on the statute book?

Simon Hughes rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) will not be tempted down that line. It is extraneous to the amendments under discussion, and I remind him that he is winding up.

Simon Hughes: I am seeking to deal with the speeches that have been made. I can only speak for myself on the specific point. The amendments were tabled by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes with colleagues in other parties. They have not been opposed by my parliamentary colleagues; I am not aware of any of them opposing them. I made clear earlier the view expressed in Committee by my hon.
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Friend the Member for North Devon, who is a member of the House of Commons Commission. He has understood the issue but, if I can paraphrase the point that he made to me, he does not think that the Bill is the right solution to any problems that there are. I hope that that is clear.

Norman Baker: I am grateful to have the opportunity to make a point at this stage. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is impossible for the Government to be neutral on the issue? They are either for their legislation as it currently exists, or they want to abandon it. Would it not be helpful on such a serious matter if the Minister made it plain whether she was in favour of her legislation or against it?

Simon Hughes: I have been surprised that there has been such a lack of clarity. I can understand the Government taking a view that they were content to let the Bill be debated on Second Reading, and to see what the mood of the House was and whether there was any basis for change, but no one here in the debate so far has argued that there is evidence that people outside the Chamber have expressed support for the Bill to MPs. All the argument that has been put to me and others is in support of the sort of amendments that we have tabled. They may not be perfectly drafted, but amendments Nos. 9, 1 and others seek to ensure that we do not today or later exempt the House of Commons or the House of Lords from the provision.

In a little exchange earlier, the question was asked, if the House of Commons and House of Lords are taken out of the Bill and they are not public authorities, what are they? We are clearly public authorities. The paradox is that we would be taken out of the Bill and not treated as public authorities. Therefore, we would be the two unique exceptions in the list of hundreds of other public authorities, which would be bizarre.

Norman Baker: The proposition that has been put forward is that the House of Commons and House of Lords should be exempt from the legislation. As my hon. Friend says, no reason has been given. All that we have been told is that there is a letter that guarantees that the present situation will continue. If the intention is to continue the present situation, why change the law?

Simon Hughes: That is a question that we might have had an answer to, but we have not.

The support of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills is, as always, welcome. As he knows, his view on these matters is hugely respected. He has been here a considerable time seeking to win the battle for the advance of freedom of information legislation. He remembers how hard he and others had to fight for freedom of information. He remembers how it was seen to be central to bringing trust into government. He has argued many times that Members work hard as individual MPs to try to serve their constituents and to stand up for freedoms, and that it is often difficult to persuade Governments in respect of that subject because Governments naturally get nervous about it. However, the battle was won—effectively on an all-party basis. It was won less than 10 years ago, and
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we had the five-year implementation period. Today is a Friday just before the Scottish, Welsh and local elections so fewer colleagues than usual might be present, but on any day of any year after having fought that battle and having only recently reached the place that America, Australia and other countries have reached before, suddenly to row back from that place by saying that the Commons and the Lords should not be exempted from the Bill would be a most bizarre, strange, inconsistent and discordant note for the House of Commons to strike.

The other point that the hon. Gentleman made was that nowadays we are judged not only by our constituents but by the press, and that external comparisons are made. Let us look across the water to Ireland. It has an extremely progressive regime. Has there been any attempt to row back? No, there has not. People accept that there should be a more accountable and open structure. I hope that colleagues heed the hon. Gentleman’s reminder about having fought so hard. The point I am making is relevant to our recent debate on slavery and to debates on women’s suffrage and Select Committees, although the issues involved are different; great battles have been fought, and the idea that we should go backwards after only a few years is almost inconceivable.

Mr. Winnick: If the Bill unfortunately becomes law, that will make all the more necessary the amendments that the hon. Gentleman has tabled and I and many other Members support—it will be all the more important that the Bill is amended along the lines that the hon. Gentleman urges.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful for that intervention. I have tried to make sure that we do not have a debate in which we suddenly discover what has happened. Having missed an opportunity on Second Reading for whatever reason and having had a Committee stage in which, of course, only a handful of Members participated, I wanted to make sure that the House did not miss the opportunity of making a judgment on the following questions. Should we include the Commons at all? If we include the Commons as an exempt organisation, should we include the Lords, which is what another amendment in the group proposes? If we include the Commons and the Lords, should that be done generally or should we make sure that we retain the ability for people to inquire about expenses and finances?

The hon. Member for Walsall, North is right in what he says about the amendments. If they are passed, we at least say that although there might be a debate, which we will come on to later, about communication with MPs—constituency correspondence—we reject the central issue about information held in this House being exempted from the freedom of information legislation.

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