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The hon. Gentleman has been a veteran in standing up for liberties, and he has done so not in a party political way, but from a general political perspective. He has stood up for liberties regardless of which party was in government and who the Ministers were. He made two points that were not made previously and which I want to associate myself with. First, he said that Members are now judged in terms of our
responses in respect of openness and accountability. We are being called to be more accountable, and as we are now under more scrutiny it would be a particularly bad time to seek to close that down. However clever or generous we might want to be in our arrangements, that would be an inexplicable route to go down.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman made the point that as far as he was aware there had been no consultation with his colleagues, and that there had been no formal proposition to test the mood of the House. Many matters of House business are brought before us merely in order to take a viewto take a sounding and find out the mood of the House. I have not heard any formal proposition, other than by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border and in other speeches today in the Chamber
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is going way beyond the scope of the amendment, on which, I remind him, he is now speaking for the second time. He understands the Standing Order about repetition so I hope that I do not have to invoke it.
I shall end by referring to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes and his comments on the tribunal judgment. The tribunal has just adjudicated and the law has now made it clear that certain things ought to be made public, although in theory that clarification could go to the High Court. However, the ruling is merely weeks old so I make this point to the public outside, as well as to the House. If we set up systems such as information tribunals and commissioners and are willing to abide by them and give their judgments credibility by respecting what they say, it is entirely inconsistent for us not to support the amendments, because they follow the logic of what the tribunal decided in the recent freedom of information case. I hope the House will make it clear that we support retaining the freedom of information provisions on public authorities that govern the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and that we can make sure that everything that we do financially is as accountable as in any other public body.
, except insofar as it relates to any representations which the member has made to the authority in connection with
(3) For the purposes of this section communication means a communication in writing, or by electronic means, made by a member to a public authority or by a public authority to a member but does not include a record of meeting, or of a conversation, between a member and a person or persons acting on behalf of the public authority..
(1A) Information contained in a historical record cannot be exempt information by virtue of section 34A except insofar as it consists of personal data information relating to the personal affairs of a living individual who can be identified from that record or from that record and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the public authority..
Norman Baker: The amendments deal with Members of Parliaments communications with constituents and public bodies. The wider question whether the House of Commons and House of Lords should be exempted from the legislation was dealt with in the debate on the first group of amendments. The second group relates to the ostensible reason the Bill has been introducedI hope that I do not misrepresent the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) by saying that. My understanding is that his Bill arose from concern about the security of MPs correspondence. In general, MPs correspondence falls into one of two categories. The first is MPs communications with public authorities in our official rolesas constituency MPs in particular, but in some cases as spokesmen for our parties if we have Front-Bench or shadow ministerial responsibilities. The second is communications with individual constituents, who may write to us.
There would indeed be grave concern if a letter sent to an MP by a constituent subsequently appeared in the public domain. That would be an intolerable breach of the trust that Members of Parliament quite properly expect to exercise on behalf of constituents who write to them. As we all know, correspondence sent to us by constituents can be of an extremely personal and sensitive nature. We all do our best to deal with their concerns in the most effective way possible, which frequently involves writing to public authorities. It would be intolerable if some of the correspondence that crosses my deskand yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in your capacity as a constituency MPwere to become public.
The reality, however, is that that has not happened and would not happen. A change to legislation is not required to ensure that it does not happen. There are several reasons for that. First, we have the Data Protection Act. To assess the impact of any of the changes proposed in the Bill, it is important that the suggested alterations to the Freedom of Information Act relating to MPs communications with public authorities and individual constituents be read across to the Data Protection Act. Unless that is done, it is impossible to understand how the system works. The system can be quite subtle, but it seems to be effective in the delivery of what we want, and I suggest that what we want is a system that holds Members of Parliament accountable for actions that they take on the publics behalf, and particularly on behalf of constituents, whether they be approached about personal matters, or matters raised by groups, voluntary organisations or others operating in the constituency. Of course, that is a slightly different matter from the Freedom of Information Act requirements on Members of Parliament to be accountable, open and responsive.
I hope that all of us in the House want an appropriate balance to be struck, so that we are held accountable when we need to be held accountable, namely for the discharge of public money and for the way in which we exercise our duties, both in the constituency and in the House. However, we have a separate role as Members of Parliamenta second job, as it werewhich some would say involves acting as a one-person citizens advice bureau in our constituency. We receive large numbers of letters, e-mails, telephone calls, faxes and visits to surgeries from members of the public who have problems, which are often of a highly sensitive and personal nature, and which require the greatest discretion when they are brought to and handled by MPs.
Of course, it would be inappropriate to discuss those cases today in any way, shape or form, other than to say that the subject matter can range widely. Thinking back to my casework from the past couple of weeks, it has involved the need for a housing transfer for particular medical reasons, issues to do with child abuse, and allegations against the police. There is almost no end to the variety of casework that comes our way, and which we have to deal with in a sensitive manner. That much is common to all Members of the House.
The first question that needs to be asked of the Members who introduced the Bill is whether there are faults and deficiencies in the present arrangements that have in any way justified the proposal to change existing legislation. Also, we need to ask whether there are any reasons why the amendments should not be accepted. As was the case with the amendments in the previous group, by and large, the amendments that we are discussing essentially seek to support the status quo and the Governments existing legislation. I am trying my best to support the Government, but they did not seem very grateful for it this morning.
The issue is whether we want to support the status quo, which seems to be working, or whether there is a reason to change. I suggest that it is up to the Members who wish to make the case that the present arrangements are not working to demonstrate in what way a problem has arisen. I went through the Hansard report of Committee proceedings recently. Let us face it: we had no Second Reading debate, and we only had an hour in Committee. We had a bit of discussion this morning, but obviously not on the group of amendments before us, as we were dealing with another matter then. I have yet to hear of any example, from any Member, of any deficiency in the present arrangements that justifies change to legislation.
Simon Hughes: I want to know my hon. Friends view on a matter; I have a clear opinion myself, but I have not yet asked him for his. Has he any example from his constituency experience, or had an example reported to him by any colleague, of a case in which there has been an improper disclosure of information relating to a constituent in a communication with a public authority?
I have not, and I hope that you will believe me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when I say that I write lots of letters on behalf of my constituents. I have not come across any example of a case in which there has
been a problem. Indeed, the only problem that I have come across, if it is a problemI do not regard it as suchrelates to cases where a public authority is reluctant to release information to a Member of Parliament who is acting on behalf of a constituent. That has been dealt with by an amendment to the Data Protection Act 1998 and should no longer happen, but the public authorities with which I deal are scrupulous in the way in which they deal with individual data protection issues.
I have not come across any examples of information being released inappropriately by a public authority, whether or not an MP is involved. Data protection is an issue that is well understood by public authorities, which comprehend their duties, so the Bills proposals are not justified. Consequently, the amendments that I tabled with my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) and others should be accepted, because they retain the status quo.
Mr. Winnick: If public bodies released information about Members correspondence and there was widespread disclosure, that would be a constant issue at Question Time, for instance, and Members would take every opportunity to raise points of order and to protest. There are no such examples, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, so that is simply a flimsy excuse for the measure.
Norman Baker: I fear that that is a correct interpretation of events. The hon. Gentleman is quite right: if correspondence on a sensitive matter involving a constituent had been released, points of order would have been raised in the House and there would be a debate. It would be the subject of ministerial questions, and there would be stories in the newspapers. We would be under pressure to ask why it had happened because, in some ways, the kernel of our job is to look after our constituents and to inspire confidence. No Member of Parliament, however long he or she has served in the House, no matter what part of the country they represent, no matter what their political colour, wants to be party to an arrangement in which sensitive material about a constituent is released, as that would be extremely damaging to them. I believe that all of us, without exception, take very seriously indeed the need to be sensitive and discreet in our use of information with which we are provided. If anyone wishes to suggest otherwise, I challenge them to produce information to that effect.
Simon Hughes: I should be grateful if my hon. Friend amplified a point that he touched on. He said that his problem, if he has a problem at all in this area, is the reverse. Occasionally, he has run into difficulties when, with his constituents agreement, he has written on their behalf to seek information. Is that still the case occasionally, and are people more careful, rather than incautious, or was that historic commentary?
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