A controversial bill seeking to exempt members of parliament from the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act will be heard again this Friday. The proposal was the subject of a five-hour filibuster in Parliament last week.
Proposed by Conservative MP and former whip David Maclean, the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill is at the top of the list of private members' bills to be read this Friday in one of 13 five hour windows in the Parliamentary calendar.
The bill had a reading last Friday at which a handful of MPs who opposed it "talked out" the proposal by speaking on it for the full five hours, preventing it from proceeding to the next stage.
But according to a spokesman for Parliament, because the bill has passed the committee stage and is the furthest progressed of all the bills in the queue for time, it will move to the top of the queue and is likely to be the first bill to be read this Friday.
There is another private member's bill which could progress past the committee stage and would thus leap ahead of Maclean's, because his has already had a reading in the House of Commons.
The bill had its second reading on 19th January and was unopposed. Time had run out on previous bills, and in this case the remaining bills are called out. Any MP who objects at that point shouts "object" and the bill cannot proceed to the next stage on that day.
No MP objected at the second reading of the Bill, so it was taken as read without debate and it proceeded to committee stage.
The Public Bill Committee heard the bill and amended it on 7 February. At that hearing Maclean defended his controversial bill.
"I take the view that when we write on behalf of constituents or when a constituent comes to us we must be able to look them in the eye and say that in all circumstances, what they tell us will not get out – it is like a relationship with a priest," he told the committee. "We will write to an authority with their problem but we guarantee that that information will not be leaked by us or get into the public domain.
"I would not be able to function properly in fighting for my constituents if I could not give them a guarantee that when I write to the tax credit people or the Child Support Agency on their behalf, no one else will see what they have said. Of course we must have the right to do that," he said.
Critics of the bill say it makes a mockery of the FOI Act by putting the very people who created the law out of its reach.
One of the opponents of the bill, Simon Hughes of the Liberal Democrats, said last week: "It would be extremely bad politics and extremely bad law for us at this stage - when parliament is hardly the most well regarded institution in the land – to seek to exempt the Commons and the Lords from the FOI Act. The public want to know what we are doing and in particular they want to know how we spend money on their behalf. It would be regarded as beyond acceptable if we said you can't know some or all of the information about what we do."
Maclean said in Feburary that his proposal was not a blanket ban on FOI requests. "This does not apply to us as Members of Parliament writing to a local authority complaining about our own community charge or a personal matter. It does not apply to Members of Parliament writing as Ministers in their ministerial capacity. It relates purely to us as Members of Parliament in our official capacity dealing with public authorities."
But Maclean conceded that the kind of constituent information whose protection he sought was, in fact, already covered by an exemption in the FOI Act. "Theoretically there are provisions in the current Act which may protect that correspondence, but we are not the final arbiter on that. That decision may be made by someone else who decides that it is safe to release our correspondence."
Conservative MP Peter Luff challenged Maclean at the February Committee hearing, pointing out that section 40(2) already protects the personal information of identifiable constituents. Maclean admitted that the protection was already there but said there could be problems with third party authorities not complying with the Act.
"Clearly if one writes to a public authority and gives the personal details of a constituent, such as their CSA [Child Support Agency] claim, information relating to their children and so on, that information should be protected. It should quite clearly be protected under the current Act. However, inadvertently, someone may release it," he said.
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