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    Monday, 21 May 2007

    'All that's required for evil to flourish': MPs go beyond the pale on FoI

    Were it not so depressingly predictable, last week's decision by MPs to exempt themselves from the application of the freedom of information regime would be amazing (1,2,3,4). The shift involves the passage of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill that removes the two Houses of Parliament from Schedule 1 which lists the public authorities subject to the 2000 Act. As noted in the Observer, "backers of the amendment say they are protecting communications between MPs and their constituents. Letters sent in confidence, they say, should not be made public. That is true. But as a justification for changing the law, it is spurious. MPs could have sought clarification from the information commissioner that their private correspondence is covered by data protection law, which would make it safe from disclosure".

    Descriptions of the move include the following: 'squalid', 'betrayal' and 'abuse of power', 'disgraceful', 'a symbol of MPs’ contempt for the public and for open democracy' and 'energis[ing] the image of politicians as worthy of paltry public trust' . I haven't been able to find positive adjectives anywhere.

    Indeed, listening to the voxpops and interviews over the weekend, it has been striking how few MP-commentators have agreed publicly with the move. Almost all such people of course were not present for the vote itself and so can now claim to be as dismayed as the rest of us (the amendment bill was passed by only 98 MPs). They, unlike us, however, have been in a position to prevent this outcome and their failure to do so leaves them at least partly culpable.

    There is still some hope - in what would be another instance of the unelected House standing up for accountability, transparency and democracy in the face of a squalid 'other place' - that the House of Lords may reject the Bill (here). A mooted alternative, and to my mind one that would heap extra embarassment on the Commons, would be for the Lords to amend the Bill so as to leave itself (but not the Commons) subject to the Act (here).

    1 comment:

    Andrew Scott said...

    The Times has reported today that Gordon Brown has intervened to insist that MPs will be legally obliged to expose their expenses, notwithstanding the removal of the Commons and Lords from the listing of public authorities. Is that the ruffle of a rug being pulled?... of course not: obscuring information regarding the expenditure of public funds was never the intention behind the Private Member's Bill brought by the MP who was criticised for spending £3,300 on a quad bike to get around his constituency.

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