The Hon. Member for Penrith and The Border has had a rough time over his FOI amendment but he may have soothed some critics by making it absolutely clear yesterday that MPs’ expenses will continue to be published. Even so, it looks unlikely to get through the Lords now because of declared (albeit belated) opposition from David Cameron and Ed Balls, and the difficulty he is apparently having in finding a Peer to sponsor it.
David has sent us a copy of a memo sent to fellow MPs a few days ago, explaining his motives:
I am writing to brief you on my bill because you may have some constituents who have been misled by the distorted media comments on it which has not given the full picture of the safeguards we have decided on to ensure that information on Members expenses is published in the normal way. Let me try to set the record straight.
First of all I did not wake up one morning and, on a whim, decide to make this amendment. I am honoured to serve on the House of Commons Commission, chaired by Mr Speaker and other members on it are Jack Straw, Sir Stuart Bell, Theresa May and Nick Harvey. I have seen at first hand and in detail the operation of the FOI Act and been made aware by colleagues of the new problem which has arisen of third parties attempting, and in some cases succeeding in obtaining confidential letters written my MPs on behalf of constituents to public authorities.
aTheoretically, at present, when a third party attempts to access a file containing a letter from a Member of Parliament to a public authority on behalf of a constituent, an officer of the public authority should study the file, consult the Member of Parliament and then should make a decision on whether it should be released. If it contains personal information, the officer of the authority should invoke the Data Protection Act 1998 and should not release it. There are a lot of “shoulds”—there are a lot of things that should happen—but unfortunately we now have examples when they have not happened and sensitive information has been released.
At Committee Stage and at Report stage on the floor of the House of Commons Members quoted instances of confidential information relating to constituents being released or attempts being made to obtain it. We have to be able to look constituents in the eye when they come to us about housing or immigration problems, Child Support Agency cases or their dealings with the police or the council. We must be able to say to them, “I will take up that matter and pass on your letter or write on your behalf and I guarantee that that will not be made public.” We cannot now give that guarantee. The current procedures in place allow others to decide to release our letters about our constituents. If they get it wrong then it damages the special relationship we have with out constituents. Members of the public may have a low opinion of politicians for various reasons but they have never in the past ever accused us of breaching their confidence. That has been and must remain sacrosanct.
Turning now to expenses or, more accurately, the refund of the costs we have incurred employing staff and running an office etc. I am sorry that the media refuse to report the guarantee given by Mr Speaker that the usual October publication of expenses will continue.
Mr Speaker’s letters is recorded in Hansard and he gives the assurance that even if my Bill is passed the House of Commons will publish the totals refunded to each MP for the cost of train, car, and plane, travel, employing secretaries and staff, having to have an additional home and money spent on surgeries, envelopes stationery etc which would be in our Incidental Expenses Provision. In due course the House will publish the totals spent on the Communications Allowance also. It is therefore outrageous to suggest, as some have, that there will be a cover up of expenses or that the decision of Mr Speaker cannot be trusted. The House will continue to publish the same details as before – no more, no less.
Finally let me deal with the ludicrous suggestion that my bill got through due to some trick of Parliamentary procedure. The bill passed because it was supported by the vast majority of MPs. It got an unopposed 2nd Reading. It was debated in the Standing Committee and received unanimous support from every MP serving on the Committee, Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and DUP. The Lib Dem member on the Committee, Nick Harvey, who also serves on the Commission and knows the problems, supported my Bill. I can only conclude that the u-turn by Ming Campbell and some Lib Dems is pure political opportunism.
The bill has had 11 hours of debate and got a 3rd Reading majority of 71 which is greater than the Governments majority. It is opposed by only a handful of Members. Quite rightly the Government and Official Opposition remained neutral since this is a matter for the House of Commons collectively and not the political parties. I hope now that the House of Lords will pay attention the views of the Commons and not the media commentators. The problem of release of confidential constituents’ documents affects largely the Commons. The Commons has spoken with a large majority. Our view should prevail.
Related link: Kudos to David for having a "Not So Nice Things Others Say About Me" section of his website!