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1.33 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): This has been a very interesting debate and let me say at the outset that the Conservative party remains neutral on this Bill. As many Members have pointed out, a balance clearly needs to be struck between ensuring that freedom of information requests can be made to maintain accountability, and between the right of elected Members to carry out their business and represent their constituents’ interests without excessive intrusion.

I hear the opposition to this Bill as expressed sincerely by the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) and for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes)—they made their points well—and the belief that, the law apart, this will appear to be a retreat from the advance of freedom of information, and that it looks bad because MPs are treating themselves as being different. If the Bill is passed, the intention of the Bill will need to be carefully explained to the public. It could also be pointed out, however, that should the Bill fail, MPs will not have the right to stop FOI requests made against public bodies when MPs have written to local authorities on their constituents’ behalf. Ultimately it will still be the public authority and not the MP who would in law have the right to decide whether the information was released. There is no guarantee built into the law, only guidelines, to ensure that the public authority would inform the MP.

David Maclean: On the subject of guidelines, has my hon. Friend seen the four pages of detailed guidelines relating to the handling of MPs’ correspondence? They are so woolly that it is as if they were written by 10 QCs on different sides of the argument. On the one hand, one may do this or that, this may be released, that may be secret, one may consult or one may not consult. It is almost impossible to follow the guidelines and that is why we need a simple Act of Parliament stating that in all circumstances our correspondence is protected.

Mr. Djanogly: I take the point that my right hon. Friend makes. I have read those guidelines and they are woolly. Whatever happens to the Bill, the guidelines need reviewing.

The lack of a guarantee may have the unintended consequence of preventing MPs from pressing their constituents’ issues as openly as they have been able to do until now, for fear that what they say may be more likely to embarrass the constituent at a later stage. I do
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not think that the information tribunal’s decision on 16 January 2007, confined as it was to Members’ travel allowances, need prevent us from action here. It would, however, have been helpful if the Information Commissioner had gone further and expressed the interrelationship between freedom of information and data protection in wider terms than he did in his judgment, not least because it would have prevented much of the existing confusion about MPs’ staffing arrangements and data protection issues. In the meantime, the Information Commissioner seems to be waiting for the result of this Bill before issuing clearer guidelines.

Julia Goldsworthy: There has been an exchange about the need for regulation and how the area is woolly. Surely the key problem is that if there is a lack of awareness, it is important that enforcement action is taken when breaches of FOI legislation take place, rather than simply more regulation to confuse the matter even more.

Mr. Djanogly: I certainly agree with the hon. Lady to the extent that if problems have arisen, they should be highlighted so that they do not happen again. She makes a fair point.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is strong potential for a deterrent effect on constituents, who may be reluctant—to my personal regret and, I am sure, that of other hon. Members—to approach their MP because they fear that their case may later be rehearsed in public?

Mr. Djanogly: As the Minister said, when one weighs up how one intends to vote today, the point that my hon. Friend makes will be foremost in many hon. Members’ minds.

Tim Farron: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Djanogly: No, I intend to conclude my remarks as so many hon. Members wish to speak.

My party’s position on this issue was set out by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) on 20 April, and it is that we are neutral on this Bill and believe that it is for Parliament to take a view on a free vote on how best to proceed.

1.38 pm

Mr. Winnick: I find it difficult to believe that the occupants of the Front Benches are neutral. I can only come to the obvious conclusion that they support the measure. Nor should there be any doubt about those hon. Members who have come in to support the Bill. There has been a campaign—in line with parliamentary tradition, I suppose—to get Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Ministers into the Chamber. Some have come in, and others have refused or have other duties; otherwise there would not have been 100 voting for the closure motion.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) has said that the amendments are wrecking amendments. All that I would say about the amendments is that, if the Bill is to become law, it would be better were the amendments carried. They would make the Bill less obnoxious. I am totally
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opposed to what the right hon. Gentleman seeks to do. It is wrong and it is against the interests of Parliament. We are in danger of bringing ourselves into disrepute.

Nor do I for one moment accept the justification made repeatedly that the measure is about confidentiality. Let me make it clear: when constituents write to me, as they have done over all the years that I have been a Member, they do so on the basis that their letters are confidential, and when I write on their behalf to officialdom—which, like other Members, I do day in, day out—I work on the assumption that the information, some of which is extremely personal, is confidential. If there is a problem, the Data Protection Act could be used.

The parliamentary Labour party received a letter telling us about the advantages of the Bill in preserving confidentiality. The Library was asked to comment and noted that in Committee

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) pointed out that he was neutral, although in cases of breaches of confidentiality there could be an argument for the measure, but I do not believe that there is any such necessity or justification.

It has been said that information about expenses could be requested that was completely unjustified, because it related not to us but to our staff. In fact, an application was made in respect of Members’ staff, but no one would justify that—not that I would call it expenses; I pay my secretary a salary, not expenses. A certificate was issued by the Speaker under section 36(6) of the Freedom of Information Act to stop the information being given. The Speaker has the necessary authority and has used it to issue five certificates. In my view, his authority is justified and in the case of essential protections there is sufficient leeway in the existing law.

It has been said that if the Bill becomes law, information about our expenses will be published. I have no doubt that the Speaker’s letter reflects what will happen, but there are some interesting points. Publication would be optional; it will not be part of the law. What a future House of Commons will do is a different matter—the process is entirely optional. Any local authority could make the same argument. Local councils could say that they did not need the law because they had given assurances that the necessary information about councillors’ expenses would be published. Would we really be satisfied with that? If not, why should people be satisfied with what is being proposed in the Bill—that publication would be optional? Why should we be different?

The House of Commons should give a lead. We should set an example to the country of honesty and integrity, not find squalid ways to get round the law.

Julia Goldsworthy: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a question not just of the expenses of individual MPs, but of the administration of the House of Commons? We would not, for example, be able to find out—as we did last year—that renovation in the House was being undertaken using unsustainable sources. That shows how freedom of information legislation allows such information to enter the public domain and ensures that the best standards are upheld.

18 May 2007 : Column 940

Mr. Winnick: I completely agree. I take the view that as Labour Members we should be proud to support a Labour Government who introduced the Freedom of Information Act, which all our predecessors, and certainly the last Conservative Government, refused to do. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)—if I may have his attention for a moment—introduced a private Member’s Bill that was rejected by the previous Government, so if there is to be any party political propaganda, all I shall say at the moment is that I am pleased we brought the Act into being. Finding squalid reasons to exempt ourselves from it would be wrong.

It was not my intention to make a long speech. I know that other hon. Members rightly want to speak, so I conclude by saying that even if we work on the assumption that we have nothing to hide, the public will inevitably come to the opposite conclusion. They will not conclude that this is about confidentiality, because no evidence exists for that. In answer to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, I should say that no constituent of mine has ever complained that information that they have given me as the Member of Parliament has gone into the public domain. The public will reach only one conclusion: that we have something to hide. That is why we are doing ourselves a disservice. Even if we do not have anything to hide, that will be the view that so many of the public will take.

What is intended today may well be carried, because, as I said, enough people have been enlisted. If the Bill is enacted, the danger is that we will do ourselves a grave disservice. We will be bringing into law an Act that puts a question mark over our integrity and our honesty, and that is all the more reason why I hope that, either today or in another place, the Bill is defeated.

1.46 pm

Mr. Shepherd: I apologise to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick); at that very moment, I was berating my Front-Bench spokesman. I echo what has been almost the universal theme of this House: this is a dreadful Bill. It arose out of the Commission losing a case—that is what this is about. It lost a case not on the correspondence of Members of Parliament, but on their expenses.

Let us consider this Bill and its construction. What does it seek to do? It seeks to remove the House of Commons as a public authority. That is the first point that should be made. If it were just about the correspondence of Members of Parliament, one could have approached the matter in a number of ways. But it is not, and the catch-all—the whole purpose of this—is to remove this place as an accountable body within the terms of the statute. The illusory even-handedness of the Minister and others in this House is just that: illusory.

Should we stand back from a measure that received pre-legislative scrutiny from the Public Administration Committee and, similarly, from the House of Lords? Following representations from a great number of people, distinguished jurists and so on, and the consideration of international experience, a conclusion was reached: why should Parliament be excluded?

18 May 2007 : Column 941

The Government, on reflection, decided that Parliament should not be excluded, but they recognised, in the creation of the Freedom of Information Act, that it would need a long lead-in time—five years—so that public authorities could prepare themselves for publication. The legislation has been in force for only 30 months, and, as yet, the Government have done no review of its workings and they have not identified any weaknesses in it.

We come on to the purported reason that is given for this Bill: that we are vulnerable in the correspondence that we, as Members of Parliament, have with public authorities. It has been laid before this House more than adequately—that is certainly not what happened in the processes that took us to this Third Reading—whereby the arguments could be examined and tested, and proper evidence adduced. However, none has been. We have had relayed conversations and we have seen a wafted, redacted page in front of us. Who redacted what? Was it the public authority removing the personal details of an individual? Or did Members of Parliament fear that coming into the Chamber they might drop something and someone else would have knowledge of a constituent? I am trying to argue that the fear is not reasonable.

The Bill will be perceived as the House of Commons—and, stuck in with us, the House of Lords—looking to its personal interests. What are its personal interests? They are, no less, the administration of the House of Commons, and its expenses and costs. The point has been well made that that is public expenditure. The Bill will also cover our proper personal claims. Those are public moneys raised through taxation. I argue that no citizen in this country is not entitled to know those sums being paid by the people. That is a matter of principle, not just an argument of politics. The House is misjudging the situation if it thinks that the political judgment of excluding itself from the Freedom of Information Act is clever. The press will itemise and examine Members of Parliament.

In a curious way, the adventure of my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border returns us to the 18th century. In truth, many Members of Parliament fear the revelation not of the personal details of an individual constituent—we have seen no evidence to suggest that that is a legitimate fear—but of the comments that they themselves make in a document. A Member might say, “I know that there is a road coming through my constituency and I think that it is a good idea, but my constituents might not think that. I want my personal opinion on this matter to be weighed, but not available to those whom we represent and whom elect us.” In the 18th century, it was ghastly to think that the mere vulgar public beyond the House of Commons should know the arguments of Parliament and the reasons behind its deliberations. The House sat in secret and it was a criminal offence to publish its deliberations.

This extraordinary Bill seeks something that is wholly and absolutely inappropriate. The House should reject it, and do so cheerily, although as I look at the dour faces surrounding me, I have no confidence that that will be the outcome. We have been driven to a
18 May 2007 : Column 942
point at which a few—a band of stalwarts unsupported by Front Benchers—are trying to oppose a measure that is motivated and driven by something else. As the hon. Members for Walsall, North and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) pointed out, this is so particular that it smells like bad fish. How will it allow us to reassure people and give them confidence?

The Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), is in the Chamber. He, twice, has moved that the House sit in private. He might have had a legitimate reason—we know the reasons why he did so—but on the face of it, it looks as though the Chairman of the Joint Committee wants the House to sit in private.

Mr. Dismore rose—

Mr. Shepherd: I have not quite finished. It is the hon. Gentleman—this friend of Whips; this currier of favour —[ Interruption. ] I must rephrase that; this friend of Labour Whips. The hon. Gentleman has promoted a Bill, which is listed on the Order Paper, that would extend the definition of a public authority so that it would encompass private bodies. The fact that a man charged with such responsibility now wants us to limit the very nature of public authorities strikes at the heart of the purposes of this place. This has been a very clever affair.

Mr. Dismore: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Shepherd: As I have referred to the hon. Gentleman, I can hardly do otherwise.

Mr. Dismore: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on the Bill. On the procedural motions that I moved, I simply say that he knows full well that that is the only way to test the quorum of the House. It is a device—no more, no less.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We are discussing the contents of the Bill now.

Mr. Shepherd: I believe that I was discussing the contents of the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I was talking about public authorities and the manner in which we define public authorities.

What my argument stands on, too, is the fact that the process has been wrong. I emphasised that at the beginning and I re-emphasise it now. We know—our history tells us, other Members tell us, authorities say it—that a parliamentary majority is not just X divided by two plus one; it is the process by which we arrive at it. I do not believe that anyone outside this place looking at the way in which Members who tabled amendments were unable to speak to them because there was not time would understand. I have to accept that—it is the ruling of the Chair—but do we not want the public whom we represent and whose servants we are to be confident in the way in which we arrive at our decisions?

The first clause of the Bill—the removal of Parliament as a public authority—is enough to damn it. The second clause is so particular that it gives the lie to the greater aspirations. That is why I oppose it, too. I simply cannot imagine how the world will look upon
18 May 2007 : Column 943
us who say, “My expenses are a private matter. My opinions as put in letters that have been redacted are a private matter. I alone shall be the judge of whether these are released or not. I alone.” What is so special about I alone? Is there not a member of a public authority who would not very much like their letters also to have such privilege, and publication of their expenses also to be at their discretion? The particularisation is explicit in the Bill.

No Conservative could support this Bill. No Conservative party could support it. We stand for prudence and for something wider: liberty and the representation of the people who send us to represent them here. I know that that is true for many Members of Parliament on both sides of the House. I regret that they may not be here today to demonstrate that this Bill is wrong.

David Maclean: rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the Question be now put:—

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I ask the Sergeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

The House having divided: Ayes 117, Noes 22.
Division No. 122]
[1.57 pm


Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Allen, Mr. Graham
Anderson, Janet
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Balls, Ed
Bell, Sir Stuart
Betts, Mr. Clive
Blackman, Liz
Brown, rh Mr. Nicholas
Burgon, Colin
Burns, Mr. Simon
Butterfill, Sir John
Cairns, David
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Chope, Mr. Christopher
Clark, Paul
Clelland, Mr. David
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Cohen, Harry
David, Mr. Wayne
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H.
Doran, Mr. Frank
Dowd, Jim
Duddridge, James
Eagle, Angela
Eagle, Maria
Efford, Clive
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flint, Caroline
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Gardiner, Barry
Godsiff, Mr. Roger
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hammond, Stephen
Harris, Mr. Tom
Henderson, Mr. Doug
Heppell, Mr. John
Hill, rh Keith
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Hurd, Mr. Nick
Irranca-Davies, Huw
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Jones, Mr. Martyn
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Knight, rh Mr. Greg
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Lammy, Mr. David
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Levitt, Tom
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Lewis, Dr. Julian
Lloyd, Tony
Maclean, rh David
Mahmood, Mr. Khalid
Maples, Mr. John
Marshall, Mr. David
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCabe, Steve
McCartney, rh Mr. Ian
McFall, rh John
McIsaac, Shona
McNulty, Mr. Tony
Merron, Gillian
Michael, rh Alun
Moffatt, Laura
Morley, rh Mr. Elliot
Mudie, Mr. George
Munn, Meg
Murphy, Mr. Denis
Neill, Robert

Norris, Dan
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Plaskitt, Mr. James
Pound, Stephen
Prentice, Bridget
Pritchard, Mark
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Randall, Mr. John
Robertson, John
Roy, Mr. Frank
Ruddock, Joan
Ruffley, Mr. David
Ryan, Joan
Salter, Martin
Shaw, Jonathan
Sheerman, Mr. Barry
Sheridan, Jim
Simon, Mr. Siôn
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Smith, rh Jacqui
Snelgrove, Anne
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Stewart, Ian
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Tami, Mark
Taylor, Ms Dari
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Tredinnick, David
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Vara, Mr. Shailesh
Ward, Claire
Watson, Mr. Tom
Watts, Mr. Dave
Wicks, Malcolm
Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Winterton, Ann
Winterton, Sir Nicholas
Woolas, Mr. Phil
Wright, David
Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Tim Boswell and
Mr. Andrew Dismore

Baker, Norman
Burt, Lorely
Clappison, Mr. James
Corbyn, Jeremy
Cousins, Jim
Farron, Tim
Field, rh Mr. Frank
Fisher, Mark
Galloway, Mr. George
Gerrard, Mr. Neil
Gidley, Sandra
Goldsworthy, Julia
Harris, Dr. Evan
Hoey, Kate
Howarth, David
Hughes, Simon
Kramer, Susan
Redwood, rh Mr. John
Shepherd, Mr. Richard
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Williams, Hywel
Winnick, Mr. David
Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Alan Reid and
Jo Swinson
Question accordingly agreed to.
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