Friday, June 15, 2007

Maclean Bill fails to progress in Lords

David Maclean MP's Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill has so far not found a sponsor in the House of Lords and cannot now be introduced before the summer recess. If a sponsor is found, it is possible that the Bill could still be introduced in October. However, time is running out and the government would probably have to make time available for it, if it were to stand any chance of making progress. It seems unlikely that this would happen while the bill is in its current form. But it is conceivable that someone might still seek to take the bill forward in a highly truncated form (eg by proposing to restrict it to deal solely with MPs' correspondence on behalf of individual constituents).

During Business Questions on Thursday the Leader of the House Jack Straw announced that detailed guidance would be issued to public authorities on requests involving MPs' constituency correspondence. This seems to suggest that the government recognises that the Bill will not reach the statute book.

Business Questions:
"Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): How does the Leader of the House intend to ensure that correspondence from MPs on behalf of their constituents is not subject to public disclosure if the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill fails to make progress in the other place?

Mr. Straw: We are taking every step, in consultation with the Ministry of Justice and with a great deal of consideration by the House of Commons Commission and the Department of Finance and Administration in this place to ensure that it is made absolutely clear to public authorities that where they receive requests for the disclosure of correspondence that involves Members of Parliament, first, in every case the Member of Parliament must be consulted and, secondly, it is probable that in almost every case such correspondence is covered either by the exemptions, which are absolute in respect of confidentiality, or by data protection or by many of the other qualified exemptions within the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Detailed guidance has been drafted. I went through it again last night. Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen are also being consulted. It should lead to a better situation than we faced before. I underline that Members of Parliament, for very good reasons, are not public authorities and therefore are not subject to freedom of information legislation. That was agreed without argument eight years ago.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): That guidance will be very welcome in explaining the position to authorities that do not understand the existing law.


Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): If indeed the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill is dead and, I hope, buried for ever, my right hon. Friend should be aware that if there is a genuine problem over the disclosure of MPs’ correspondence, I should support a measure that will deal with it. It is a pity that the problem was not dealt with at the beginning, rather than trying to exempt Parliament from freedom of information provisions. Perhaps the Data Protection Act 1998 should be considered with regard to MPs’ correspondence.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his conciliatory words. As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) knows, as soon as the issue was raised with me—by two Opposition Members who represent Kent constituencies—I took it up. I held meetings with them and the Information Commissioner, which involved the other parties, too, to try to sort through things. However, the difficulty that had arisen—not caused by the House or the then Department for Constitutional Affairs—was that public authorities were getting ready to issue correspondence without so much as a by your leave from Members of Parliament, still less any consideration of the exemptions that might apply. As there was not a word of argument about the fact that Members of Parliament, as Members of Parliament, should not be classified as public authorities for the purpose of the Act, such an action would have been very serious indeed and would have destroyed the relationship between Members and their constituents, which is fundamental to the way in which we operate on their behalf. That is the issue. If we can arrive by other means at the end that everybody sought, we shall all celebrate."

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