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After a question has been proposed a Member rising in his place may claim to move, That the question be now put, and, unless it shall appear to the chair that such motion is an abuse of the rules of the House, or an infringement of the rights of the minority, the question that the question be now put, shall be put forthwith.
I accept the genuine opinions of Members in all parts of the House who take a serious view of the Freedom of Information Act, support the Act, and oppose the Bill on principle. But I must tell some Members that I do not think they have helped their cause by supporting the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who has made clear in the press on countless occasions that his intention on the past few Fridays has been not to amend the Bill or make it work
better, but to prevent it from passing to the House of Lords today. He has stated:
This will do nothing to enhance the reputation of MPs and I and others
I and others will attempt to stop the bill.
That has obviously coloured my view of the hon. Gentlemans amendments. I believe that moving the closure motion after two hours and 40 minutes was perfectly legitimate, given that all the amendments were designed not to improve the Bill but to wreck it. I think it right that the House has made legitimate progress.
As I said earlier, I am honoured and privileged to serve on the House of Commons Commission, along with other Members who are infinitely more distinguished than I. It was because of my work on the Commission
It was because of problems that I saw arising through my work on the Commission that I decided to table the Bill. Of course, the House of Commons Library might not have details of some of the problems that Members have experienced, but I am aware of many of them and I referred to one today. I have also been informed by other Members of problems that they have encountered when correspondence that they have written in confidence on behalf of a constituent to a public authority has been released on the say-so of someone else. Theoretically, if the law is to work properly, when a third party attempts to access a file containing a letter from a Member of Parliament to a public authority, an officer of the public authority should consult the Member and should look at the file, and then should make a decision on whether it should be released. If it contains personal information, the officer of the authority should invoke the Data Protection Act 1998 and should not release it. There are an awful lot of shouldsthere are a lot of things that should happenbut unfortunately I have come across cases when they have not happened.
If the word gets out more widely that some of the information Members of Parliament receive in confidence when talking to our constituents will get into the public domainperhaps inadvertently, by accident or by negligencethat will be damaging to the relationship that we have with our constituents. It is not good enough to say, Well, if the current law is not working, how will this one improve it? If my Bill is scrutinised in the other place and is enacted, I hope that we will be able to circulate the news to all public authorities that correspondence with a Member of Parliament relating to a constituency matter is now sacrosanct. Therefore, if Members wish to release correspondence, we make that decision. I am perfectly content for Members of Parliament to decide to press
release their letters to constituents if they wishI am content for them to release anything they wish. However, the decision on whether letters relating to our constituents are released should not be made on the whim of a chief constable or in the judgment of a junior clerk in one of 2,000 public authorities who will now have the right to determine these matters.
David Maclean: Let me conclude this point. Such concerns were stated in Committee, not by me or other Conservatives but by Labour Members and also by the Liberal Democrat Committee member. Let me say this about that Member: he is a very honourable Member and he is also a member of the House of Commons Commission. As the Liberal Democrat Member who served on the Committeewhich was unanimous in its opinion on the Billis also a member of the House of Commons Commission, I say to his Liberal Democrat colleagues that it is clear that he has information that most Members of this House are not party to. I consider his opinions and views on the matter under discussion to be decisive.
We must make decisions about the sanctity of our correspondence on behalf of constituents with public authorities. We have to be able to look constituents in the eye when they come to us about tax credit cases, Child Support Agency cases or their dealings with the police or the council. We must be able to say to them, I will take up that case on your behalf and pass on your letter or write on your behalf and I guarantee that that will not be released. We cannot at present give that guarantee. The procedures in place allow someone else to make that judgment. If they make an erroneous judgment, that damages us. I shall now give way to the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).
Fiona Mactaggart: The point I wished to intervene on was that the right hon. Gentleman referred to the number of amendments that had been tabled and said that that was part of a movement to oppose the entire Bill. Does he accept that one of the reasons for that is his failure to justify his Bill? He has not spoken in favour of it until now.
Also, the point that the right hon. Gentleman is now making would have been covered by an amendment which he has voted against. The issue on which he is depending is that the Bill is required in order to protect correspondence about individual constituents, but he voted against an amendment which narrowed the protection precisely to that point, and which stopped the protection in his Bill in respect of much wider areas of correspondence. Will he use the opportunity of this Third Reading speech to justify that?
David Maclean: We all know that Third Reading debates are narrowly curtailed, and I cannot return to amendments that were dealt with hours ago. I point out to the hon. Lady that I spoke at length in Committeeprobably for longer than 15 minutesand dealt with the various issues. The Bill was on the Order Paper for weeks. I suspect that there are some colleagues in the House today with a guilty conscience who are trying to pad out the Bill because they were negligent in not opposing it on Second Reading. It could easily have been stopped on Second Reading if any Member had wanted to do so, but it got an unopposed Second Reading and unanimous support in Committee upstairs. I explained and justified it then.
I heard hon. Membersnot of my partymake some very telling points. They said that they were dealing with a complex immigration case, and that there were demands from some third parties, whom they thought were representatives of the British National party, to access the files. We cannot have a situation where such information could get into the public domain.
Mr. Kevan Jones: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he agree that it is a bit hypocritical of the Liberal Democrats to have changed their mind? The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who represented the Liberal Democrats in Committee, raised no objections and tabled no amendments. In fact, he said:
I commend the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border on giving us the opportunity to have this useful debate. Whatever position Parliament takes, I am perfectly clear that some real problems have been identified and that solutions need to be found. [Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee, 7 February 2007; c. 16.]
We are all honourable Members in this House, but the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), a Liberal Democrat, serves on the House of Commons Commission. He is a very senior Member of Parliament serving on that body. His comments in Committee are based on his experience in serving on the governing body of this Parliament, through which he has come across the problems that my Bill addresses. We are aware of those problems. The Leader of the House has been criticised for commenting on the Bill, and some said that he has been too supportive. Well, he has not been voting on my side today; I wish he had. He, too, is a very senior member of the Commission and I suspect that any comments that he made on my Bill are based on his experience in serving on the Commission.
The Commission never leaks information. I must tell the Houseand I will tell the Housethat on the agenda for its next meeting is the routine publication of all our expenses. Mr. Speaker, writing on behalf of the Members Estimate Committee, which is the House of Commons Commission by a different name, has made it absolutely clear in a letter to meit is on the record
in Hansardthat if my Bill becomes an Act, because it would legally exempt the House of Commons and the House of Lords, theoretically and in law, we would not have to publish expenses. However, Mr. Speaker has made it absolutely clear that we will continue to publish in October or September
David Maclean: Not yet. Please let me finish my sentence, because this is a very important point. The main, ill-informed criticism that I have received from outside, including from the mediaegged on by some hon. Membershas been about expenses. Mr. Speaker, as Chairman of the Members Estimate Committee, has made it crystal clear that we will continue to publish in October or thereabouts the totals for modes of transport such as bicycles, cars, planes and trains; that we will continue to publish the totals for the incidental expenses allowance, the new communications allowance, allowances for secretarial matters and administration, and the additional costs allowance. I do not wish to cast aspersions on the hon. Member for Lewes once again, but I think that he suggested in a debate on the previous group of amendments that this was a passing fancy and that, of course, Mr. Speaker could change his mind. I find that absolutely deplorable.
David Maclean: This House could go back to dragging people before the Bar of the House; we could send them to the Tower of London. However, I do not think that likely. The House of Commons will continue to publish those expenses, and my Bill will not change that. I now give way to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher).
Mark Fisher: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He is a very experienced parliamentarian and he understands the significance of the Pepper v. Hart judgment. He knows that there is a total difference between this House volunteering, out of its own good will and courtesy to the public, to publish these expenses, and what is in a Bill. Through his Bill, he would be changing the Freedom of Information Act 2000 so that we are exempt and do not in law have to publish such things. The fact that we have an assurance from the current Speaker that he will continue with publication is irrelevant. It is not right that we should set ourselves above the law, saying that out of courtesy we publish such things, but the law does not require us to do so. The right hon. Gentleman understands what Pepper v. Hart is all about. What is said in this House and in correspondence to him by the Speaker does not have the force of law. We are exempting ourselves from the obligation to publish
None of our Standing Orders has the force of law. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should cast aside Erskine May and our Standing Orders and pass an Act to regulate ourselves? All of our procedures in this House are governed by our own internal Standing Orders, by the rulings of Mr. Speaker and you, Madam Deputy Speaker. If we cannot be trusted, and if we cannot trust the word of the Speaker
of the United Kingdom Parliament, to publish our expenses, God help us! I happen to trust the word of Mr. Speaker and I also trust that no future Speaker would ever be able to reverse that.
We could, theoretically, go back to dragging people before the Bar of the House and sending them to the Tower of London for contempt. We do not do such things anymore. The openness about the publication of expenses will continue. I trust the word of Mr. Speaker on that and Parliament will not renege on it. We can therefore tie down the bogus argument that if my Bill is enacted we will somehow go back to the dark ages and nothing will ever be published again. We will not go back to the dark ages and we will continue to publish that information as we have done every October for the past few years.
In fact, I anticipate that this October we will publish more, when we publish the details [ Interruption. ] I mean in October next year, when we publish the details of the new communications allowance.
Mr. Shepherd: My right hon. Friend mentioned the Standing Orders of the House. The Bill would amend a statute. He will know that what he is proposing is discretionary. I do not detract from the statement by Mr. Speaker, the current Speaker of this House, but who is to say what conclusion a future Speaker may draw? The assurance the public have is that this is by statute required.
David Maclean: I take my hon. Friends point. I was trying to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, who suggested that unless publication was covered by statute it would be wrong and the House of Commons would not be seen in the right light. I was suggesting that many of the vital things that Parliament does, which are of huge importance to the nation, are dictated not by statute but by our own rules and procedures. They are covered by our conventions and by the fact that we would not dream of going back to the dark ages of another way of operating.
Indeed, we have a comprehensive publication scheme, which puts into the public domain exactly what MPs expenses are for, the rules that pertain to those expenses and how much each Member has claimed against each expense each year...I believe that we have got the balance about right?
[Official Report, Freedom of Information (Amendment) Public Bill Committee, 7 February 2007; c. 16.]
David Maclean: Once again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out what the Liberal Democrat representative, who is a man of absolute integrity [ Interruption. ] I am not suggesting that other hon. Members do not have his integrity
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. It is entirely up to the Member on their feet whether they choose to give way to an intervention. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border has given way during his speech, but at the moment he wishes to complete his sentence.
David Maclean: The Liberal Democrats clearly intend to talk at length today. I intend to sit down in a moment and give them more opportunity to justify their position. If the whole Liberal Democrat party is opposed to this Bill, as its new leader is, it is a little late in the day making its opposition known. The Liberal Democrats were not here on Second Reading to oppose it. The Liberal Democrat representative in Committee servesI say again to the House, which may be sick of hearing iton the House of Commons Commission, which is the governing body of this House. He knows what is going on and he understands the problems. He was in favour of my Bill, which was unanimously supported in Committee.
David Maclean: Madam Deputy Speaker, you are wise and right. I was conscious of the fact that I was beginning to repeat myself, because I was getting the same silly intervention. I will take no more silly interventions, so I shall not repeat myself and become tedious.
I made my points about the Bill in Committee. A Committee of Members from all parties, including the Liberal Democrats, heard the detail. The Committee was absolutely unanimous. The amendments today were decisively defeatedby at least three to one. I believe that the mood of the House is that the Bill should proceed to Third Reading and be tested in the other place. I want the Bill to receive a Third Reading and I commend it to the House.
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