18 May 2007

Sir Humpty and Hacker triumph

Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby would be proud of the MPs’ move to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act, as The Times reports:

"A move to exempt Parliament from freedom of information law has been approved by MPs after attempts to block it in the Commons failed.

MPs brushed aside accusations that they were creating one law for themselves and another for those they govern as they voted through the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill.

It is now passed to the House of Lords, where peers opposed to the plan will begin another attempt to stop it from becoming law.

The MP behind the Bill, the former Conservative chief whip David Maclean, maintained that the provision was needed to guarantee that information given to MPs by people seeking their help would stay confidential.

Otherwise public bodies such as councils, police authorities or health trusts might release letters from MPs about such cases in response to freedom of information requests, he argued.

“I am aware of the growing problem of correspondence being released,” he told MPs. “Theoretically it could be protected under data protection but it has not been. That is damaging. That is why my Bill is necessary to give an absolute guarantee that the correspondence of MPs on behalf of our constituents or others to a public authority remains confidential.”

But opponents fear a hidden agenda to block further embarrassing details about MPs’ expenses and other information about how the Commons is run from becoming public.

Mr Maclean, a member of the House of Commons Commission, the governing body of the Commons, cited an assurance from the Speaker, Michael Martin, that MPs’ expenses would continue to be published, but critics said such a voluntary offer did not have the force of law.

Unusually for a Private Members Bill, the measure was given a second chance by the Government which brought it back for debate after it was “talked out” by MPs who opposed the move in April.

Bridget Prentice, the Ministry of Justice minister, who spoke in the Bill, claimed that the Government was taking a neutral position on the Bill and would leave it for Parliament to decide.

But a large number of Labour MPs, who would normally be in their constituencies on the Friday, turned up at the Commons to force the legislation through in a series of votes designed to stop objectors from blocking its progress. The Conservative front bench also gave it tacit support.

Around 30 MPs, most from the Liberal Democrats but including both Labour and Conservative backbenchers, mounted a show of resistance but were defeated by the superior numbers of its supporters and their ruthless use of parliamentary procedures.

Mark Fisher, a Labour MP, protested, saying: “This Bill shuffles everything to do with freedom of information under the carpet. People will be aghast and horrified and totally contemptuous of Parliament that we could place ourselves above the law in this country. We are going to bring this House into derision, contempt and discredit with this Bill.”

And Simon Hughes, for the Liberal Democrats, said: “I think we should say no to this Bill because it is an absolutely over-reactive Bill to a set of issues that have not been either addressed or evidenced.”

To be honest, we all knew it was going to happen that way didn't we?

Despite protestations to the contrary and calls for "greater freedom and more open government", it was always on the cards that when they could, members of Parliament and the Government,would block public access via the Freedom of Information Act

It is entirely predictable, and MPs wonder why they have such a bad reputation?

Arise Baron Humphrey of Subterfuge

No comments: