FOI exemption for Parliament backed by MPs

A proposed law that would exempt members of parliament (MPs) from freedom of information legislation has passed through the House of Commons.

The legislation will be debated by the House of Lords, despite fierce opposition that has seen the bill ‘talked out’ at two parliamentary sessions.

Former Tory whip David Maclean has introduced the bil, claiming that it was not intended to give MPs special treatment, but to protect the confidentiality of constituency correspondence. Opponents of the bill said that the confidentiality of constituency correspondence was protected under existing laws and was never under threat from FOI laws.

Maclean himself has accepted that correspondence is already protected. He said last month: “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”.

On two previous attempts to have the bill passed to the House of Lords opponents had ‘talked out’ the proposal, talking for the full five hours allocated to private members’ bills so that the legislation could never be voted on.

Those tactics did not work on this reading, though, and a vote on the bill gathered 96 votes in favour of it and 25 against.

Opponents fear that the move is intended to make it harder for the public to scrutinise MPs’ expenses, a claim refuted by Maclean. They also say that it will do little to bolster public confidence in Parliament if MPs exempt themselves from the scrutiny to which all other public bodies must submit.

“It is an effrontery for the House of Commons to make the deeply hypocritical move of exempting itself from a law that applies to every other public body in the country,” said Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, who opposed the move.

"It is also deeply undemocratic that MPs on both the Government and Conservative benches have clearly collaborated to ensure that those with a contrary view, fighting for open government, were silenced after barely any debate on amendments to the bill,” said Baker.

Freedom of Information legislation allows the public to request details about the running of the organisation from any public body. If passed, the legislation will exempt both the House of Commons and the House of Lords from the requirement to provide that information.