Lords Comittee concerns over Order to exempt MPs’ expenses

The House of Lords Merits of Statutory Instrument drew to the Lords’ attention concerns over the the draft Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009. The Committee’s report, dated 20 January, states:

This Order is drawn to the special attention of the House on the ground that it may imperfectly achieve its policy objectives…

4. The supporting material is deficient: no justification is given in the EM why these additional measures are required over and above the previous SI, rushed through in July 2008[1], which was intended to deal in particular with MPs’ concerns about their personal security. The EM states the purpose of the Order is to change the scope of the application of the Act but does not set out the policy objective this change is designed to implement. This absence of clarity makes it impossible for the Committee to make a judgement whether the Order actually achieves its policy objectives. When the Order is debated Members will wish to seek an explanation from the Government why the Order is necessary and what its objective is.

5. The Committee also records its dissatisfaction with the accelerated timetable imposed[2], which has prevented us from seeking any evidence on the Order, and limits our ability to make a considered report to the House. We would have wished to seek views from interested parties such as the Committee on Standards in Public Life, whose Chairman was reported in the press as saying “MPs above all should be subject to the Freedom of Information law since they are the ones who made it. I do not think that anyone has really made the case for this change.” Similarly Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, is reported as commenting on the disparity this instrument would introduce, saying “Chief Constables, local authority chief executives and others have to release individual expenses claims” and arguing that MPs should be treated the same as other public figures. Members may well therefore also wish to seek an explanation for the haste which has limited the normal scrutiny process.

The proposals were raised at the Downing Street press briefing yesterday morning (21 January), before the Government announced the statutory instrument had been withdrawn from the Order Paper.

Put that the vote broke the spirit of the convention that MP’s had a free vote on such matters, the PMS replied that there were a number of votes tomorrow. The votes on the proposals to enhance transparency were matters for the House and were free votes. There was one vote that was on Government business and as people knew, normally Government business was whipped. But to be clear on this, we had sought to operate on a cross-party basis.

At every stage, there had been consultation with the main opposition party, on what the best way to proceed was…

Asked if the Government would still have done it if it had disagreed with what the MP’s had wanted, the PMS said that there were free votes on the substantive proposals. There was one proposal that required a change in legislation and there had been consultation across Parliament on that. It had been discussed with the Members Estimates Committee and it was the Government’s responsibility to take forward legislation to enact the will of the House.

And if you didn’t see it, and Unlock Democracy had this full-page ad in The Times yesterday.

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