Attempt to remove Parliament from the FOI Act

On 18 December 2006, Conservative MP David Maclean, introduced a Private Member’s Bill to remove Parliament from the scope of the FOI Act and create a new exemption for MPs’ correspondence with public authorities.

The Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill was justified as a measure to protect MPs’ correspondence on behalf of individual constituents. This was misleading. Correspondence about a constituent’s personal circumstances was already exempt under the Act. The real effect of the Bill’would have been to (a) prevent the disclosure of detailed information about MPs’ expenses claims and Parliament’s spending and (b) allow MPs to lobby public authorities in secret, in the knowledge that what they write could not be disclosed under the Act.

The Bill received backing from the Parliamentary Labour Party’s committee, which urged Labour backbenchers to support it. Conservative frontbench spokesman, John Bellingham, also associated his party with the Bill.

The Bill’s supporters did not attempted to explain why MPs, and MPs alone, should be excluded from legislation which they themselves had applied to the whole public sector. They continued to insist, against all the evidence, that the measure was needed to protect constituents’ privacy.

The Campaign was concerned not only about the removal of existing rights to information about Parliament and MPs. The Bill’s wider message was even more damaging. By seeking to repeal those parts of the FOI Act which applied to them, the Bill’s supporters were suggesting that they regarded the FOI Act as an unnecessary nuisance.

The Bill was passed by the House of Commons on 18 May 2007, despite attempts by an all-party group of MPs to try and block it, but failed to progress in the Lords where it did not have a sponsor. A report by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution published on 20 June 2007 said the Bill “does not meet the requirements of caution and proportionality in enacting legislation of constitutional importance.” In its report the Constitutional Affairs Committee in the Commons said “we have been sent no evidence indicating a need for such an exemption or that existing protections for constituents’ correspondence were inadequate.”

‘The Governance of Britain’ Green Paper on constitutional renewal, published in July 2007 when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, finally ended speculation over the government’s position, saying “It is right that Parliament should be covered by the Act”.

On this page you can read:

What the Campaign said about the Bill

Press coverage

What others said about the Bill

Parliamentary debates

 


 

What the Campaign has said

 

Press comment

 

Regional press

 

 

What others have said

 

Parliamentary debates and publications

 

“The Bill…will do immense damage to the reputation of Parliament, will make MPs in the public eye appear hypocritical, will undermine the gains made in freedom of information, and will cause the spread once again of a culture of secrecy”
Norman Baker MP (Lib Dem)


“It would be disastrous — I can put it in no other way — if the Bill became law. The House of Commons would be saying that the Freedom of Information Act was all right for everyone else…but we the House of Commons, having passed the Act, wanted to be exempt.”
David Winnick MP (Lab)


“To try to change a law that we enacted so that the public’s right of access to the whole public sector does not apply to what we ourselves do, would be a staggering misjudgment.”
Richard Shepherd MP (Con)


“it would be extremely bad politics, as well as extremely bad law, for us to seek at this stage, when Parliament is hardly the most well-regarded institution in the land, to exempt the House of Commons…from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act”
Simon Hughes MP (Lib Dem)


“an attempt, through a private Member’s Bill to remove the House of Commons and Members of Parliament from the orbit of the Act that they themselves passed. You couldn’t make it up.”
Tony Wright MP (Lab)


“the failure of the Government to oppose this Bill, which emanates from a former Conservative Chief Whip, undermines their own legislation and simply persuades people outside here that Parliament has something to hide”
Sir Menzies Campbell MP (Lib Dem)


“The Government is using the Maclean Bill as a Trojan horse to bring down the city it built but no longer likes. If MPs vote to support it on Friday, they will undermine years of effort to end the instinctive secrecy of the British political culture.”
Philip Johnston, Daily Telegraph


“This maggot of a bill has crept on to the floor of the chamber while the front benches have looked the other way.”
Henry Porter, The Observer


“The silence is almost deafening. Why won’t the Government say whether it supports or opposes a law that would exempt MPs from the scrutiny of this country’s newly passed freedom of information regime?”
Robert Verkaik, Independent


“This extraordinary self-serving measure would mean MPs and peers alone among public bodies would be above the law and not be required – like every other public servant – to declare how much money taxpayers give them”
David Hencke, Guardian


“a squalid and self-serving measure, backed by the Government and yet more regrettably by David Cameron’s Tories”
Peter Oborne, Daily Mail

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