No basis to FOI amendment, says campaign group

Constituency correspondence is not at risk from the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, according to an FOI pressure group. A privacy law expert also accused MPs today of failing to define what it is that they want to hide.

The confidentiality of MPs' constituency correspondence has been claimed as the main justification for a controversial amendment to the FOI Act which excludes Parliament from its powers.

The proposed amendment to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act that would exempt the Houses of Commons and Lords from the Act has been justified by its backer David Maclean with claims that it is essential to protect confidential constituency correspondence.

But the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) has listed the existing protections for that correspondence, and has said that the amendment is unnecessary for that purpose.

"The Bill removes the House of Commons and the House of Lords from the FOI Act," said the CFOI's statement. "But Parliament doesn’t hold MPs’ constituency correspondence. This is held by the MPs themselves. Removing Parliament from the Act cannot protect their privacy. But it would block requests for information about other matters such as breaches of security at Westminster, safety problems and excessive spending on contracts, buildings or other matters."

Conservative leader David Cameron has said that his party opposes the bill, which as a consequence faces defeat in the House of Lords. He said he supported the protection of correspondence, but there has been a public outcry about the possibility of MPs' expenses becoming secret.

Former Conservative Party whip David Maclean, who has proposed the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act, has changed his proposal in order to increase its chances of success in the House of Lords. He has introduced a change which orders the publishing of MPs' expenses each year.

CFOI, though, says that claims that constituency correspondence is under threat are untenable.

"MPs’ correspondence on behalf of individual constituents is already protected under at least two existing exemptions in the FOI Act, those for information whose disclosure would breach the Data Protection Act or be a breach of confidence at common law," its statement said. "These exemptions, and the legal sanctions which underpin them, are what the whole public sector relies on to protect the vast amount of personal data which it holds and which authorities communicate to each other or receive from all sources.

"This is what protects a psychiatrist’s letter to a GP, a police officer's note of an interview with the victim of serious crime, a prison service file about a dangerous prisoner or a neighbour's letter to social services about a neglected child. If these exemptions were deficient, the whole public sector would have been in outcry from the moment the FOI Act came into force," it said.

Dr Chris Pounder, a data protection and FOI specialist with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said "It's quite clear that there is something worrying MPs about public access to their correspondence that has been sent to public bodies – but these concerns have not yet been clearly defined."

Dr Pounder said that, while two sections of the FOI Act dealing with exempt information have featured in debate, another 21 sections also describe exempt information.

"Since all the other exemptions also apply to MPs' correspondence, it follows that for the MPs to want a further exemption, the correspondence must contain a special class of exempt information that has not been thought of before," said Dr Pounder. "Perhaps it is dawning on some MPs that this class of information is so special it has yet to written down".