Conservative Whip campaigns for more secrecy
[hat-tip: the Ministry of Truth]
A bill to exempt MPs from inquiries made under the Freedom of Information Act was sneaked through the Commons last Friday without any debate.
On the day Westminster was convulsed by the revelations surrounding the dawn arrest of Ruth Turner, the senior Downing Street aide, in the cash-for-honours investigation, MPs approved on the nod the second reading of a bill to exclude parliament from the Freedom of Information Act.
David Maclean, the former Tory chief whip, introduced the measure in a private member’s bill. Mr Maclean said yesterday the main reason for his bill was to prevent MPs’ letters on behalf of constituents being released to the press and public.
Of course the scope is much wider than that:
He acknowledged the effect of the bill would be to exempt parliament from the act at a time when the parliamentary authorities have lost a case at an information tribunal after trying to block more detailed disclosure of MPs’ expenses.
When it was put to him that he had chosen the very end of a busy parliamentary day to get a second reading, he said: “I am showing some of the younger hands how you can get a bill through parliament after long experience as a whip in both getting and blocking bills through parliament.”
He added: “This bill will now go to a committee where all the issues can be debated.” But because the measure is in a private member’s bill, Mr Maclean is able to choose who sits on the committee.
A bit sneaky?
Mr Maclean, who is also a member of the House of Commons commission, the body responsible for the running of parliament, said his main reason for introducing the legislation was the complicated guidance about to be issued to more than 100,000 public authorities on whether they should release MPs’ letters. He said the guidance would make it clear that these letters should be kept confidential in all circumstances, as opposed to the present situation where some were released and others withheld.
The two-clause bill however effectively removes both the Commons and House of Lords as public authorities obliged to release information under the act. It also protects all MPs’ correspondence from release and stops authorities even being able to confirm or deny whether they have received a letter from an MP.
Mr Maclean said he had already discussed the bill with the Speaker, Michael Martin, who had assured him that parliament would still publish general details of MPs’ expenses and allowances as now, even though they would not be obliged under his amendment. The bill would also prevent challenges to the information commissioner or to an information tribunal if a member of the public wanted an MP to provide more information.
Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, who last month won a decision at the information tribunal forcing the disclosure of more details of MPs’ travel expenses, said last night: ” This proposal is outrageous. What particularly amazes me is that everyone knows government whips can easily object to a private member’s bill and stop it going anywhere. In this case the government whips were silent, which I can only assume means they are secretly sympathetic to this proposal as it fits in with their plans to curb the Freedom of Information Act.”
Last month’s ruling won by Mr Baker would allow details for the first time of how much each MP and peer spends on taxis, buses, trains and air travel, putting Westminster more in line with the Scottish parliament where such details are disclosed.