Freedom from Scrutiny Bill thwarted… for now
Opponents have effectively scuppered a bill which would exempt MPs from Freedom of Information Act inquiries.
A bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act (previously discussed on this blog), its proponent claimed that the main reason (I don’t recall seeing his non-main reasons) was to prevent MPs correspondence on behalf of their constituents from being released to the public.
Of course the original bill went much further than that!
1 Exemption of House of Commons and House of Lords
(1) The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (c. 36) is amended as follows.
(2) In Schedule 1, Part 1 (Public Authorities), delete paragraphs 2 and 3.
Meaning both Houses would be wholly exempt from the Act.
I’m not sure whether or not it’s worth reading the entire debate, which begins with a motion from Andrew Dismore for the Commons to sit in private – I admit to not understanding the reason for that, though I can see a certain irony in it – but there are some key points, such as the claim that even though the bill would exempt MPs allowances from being released, the House would release them anyway.
I’m not entirely sure what they take us for. Do they think that people with an interest in such matters are likely to have forgotten Norman Baker MP’s two year (yes, two year) battle to ensure the Commons is obliged to release detailed breakdowns of MPs expenses, which finally ended up at the Information Tribunal because ‘the Commons’ was unwilling to release that information?
But no, we are supposed to take such assurances on trust.
It’s not just about travel expenses, as Simon Hughes pointed out,
we should be willing to divulge, for example, the cost of running the place, the cost of improvements that we make to the place, information about the number of visitors and the amount of revenue that visitors bring in, the amount that we pay generically—information about individual pay is protected under data protection legislation—to our catering staff.
Other examples are regulations that guarantee minimum wages, any plans for reform of the institutions, information about how many more staff we might consider employing, whether we considered buying new computer equipment and whether we had any problems with our computers.
There is a long list of things that might be of significant interest to the public and are not simply to do with the expenditure of individual Members of Parliament.
All pretty reasonable, I think, for the public to know – particularly as we pay for it all. And there are probably many other types of information than cost that the public might be interested in.
I intensely dislike this contribution from Henry Bellingham, who claimed “a huge amount of information is already made public”, and after listing some examples, said
The argument that there is not enough information, and that there should be ways in which the public can get more and more of it, does not stack up.
Can anyone say, “straw man”?
What I want is for our politicians to be accountable to the public – and it seems to me that an excellent method for ensuring accountability is to have access to information on what they get up to.
Really this all begs the question,
Why shouldn’t we have access to this information?
Why are we even talking about whether or not MPs should be “willing to divulge”?
It seems to me we should have an automatic right to see pretty much whatever we want, provided it doesn’t harm national security – and you’ll forgive me but no matter how hard I try I can’t imagine how revealing the average wage of Commons catering staff is going to result in a dirty bomb exploding in London.
By the way, the BBC reported that the bill was scuppered because of filibustering – in other words, delaying or preventing the vote by time-consuming talk.
Look out for the Chair’s call for “Order” if you read the debate – pretty much every time she does this is in response to a ramble. It’s a shame such a tactic was deemed necessary.