MPs have been debating Conservative MP David McLean’s amendment this afternoon, which in essence seeks to exempt them from the Freedom of Information Act. It passed its Third Reading by 96 to 25 two minutes ago, although almost all speeches in the chamber were in opposition to it.
The bill supposedly aims to protect the privacy of correspondence between MPs (but not assembly members, councillors, etc!) and their constituents but the Data Protection Act seems to cover that adequately as the Information Commissioner has never had a complaint about it.
Jonathan Djanogly, Shadow Solicitor General, spoke briefly to set out the party’s position on the issue: "Let me say from the outset that the Conservative Party remains neutral on this bill". Justice Minister Bridget Prentice effectively gave tacit support to the bill by her neutrality and periphrastic speech.
Labour’s Mark Fisher spoke powerfully, articulately and politely for some time against the bill that addresses "a problem that doesn’t exist except in the minds of the Hon Gentleman and a few people who he has spoken to in private". He criticised how debate at committee and in the third reading "had been hugely curtailed", referring to it as "29 lines of legislation throwing away 20 years of consideration over freedom of information". He went on to say that the MPs "ought to be ashamed of ourselves" and hope that the House of Lords would "throw this discreditable and squalid little bill out". Fisher is Chairman of Parliament First and outlined his opposition to the bill in yesterday’s Independent.
The unlikely duo of Richard Shephard and David Winnick also spoke passionately about how Members should be taking a lead in society rather than trying to remove the House of Commons as an accountable public authority.
This amendment is bound to exacerbate the public’s perceptions of MPs as aloof and corrupt. Some MPs questioned what the hidden motive behind it was, with Simon Hughes and others feeling that it was mainly because of discomfort about "intrusions" into expenses and allowances. Matthew Elliott (TPA), Norman Baker MP (LibDem), Douglas Carswell MP (Con), Mark Fisher MP (Lab) and Heather Brooke (Your Right to Know) put this point well in a letter to the Telegraph yesterday:
"Politicians and public bodies have grown accustomed to receiving freedom of information requests, but they increasingly dislike complying with them. Sometimes information may be politically embarrassing, but if Members of the House of Commons support this change of culture and the right of taxpayers to know how their money is being spent, then they must set an example and oppose this Bill. Otherwise, the charge of hypocrisy will cause public trust in politicians to erode even further than it already has."