Suppressing democracy: British Parliament secrecy


Richard Moore

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WSWS : News & Analysis : Europe : Britain

Britain: Parliament votes to exempt itself from Freedom of Information 

By Richard Tyler
31 May 2007

With tacit support from the Labour government and Conservative front bench, a 
bill has been tabled that would exempt Parliament and MPs from Freedom of 
Information (FoI) legislation.

Former Conservative whip David Maclean was recently able to reintroduce his 
private member¹s bill removing parliament¹s obligations under the Freedom of 
Information Act.

Maclean¹s bill had failed to pass through the House of Commons on its first 
reading, as a coalition of Labour backbenchers and Liberal Democrats had talked 
it out before a formal vote could be tabled. This usually spells the end for 
most private member¹s bills.

However, in January, Maclean was able to gain a second reading for his Freedom 
of Information (Amendment) Bill, whose full title is: ³A bill to amend the 
Freedom of Information Act 2000 to exempt from its provisions the House of 
Commons and House of Lords and correspondence between Members of Parliament and 
public authorities.²

Guardian parliamentary correspondent David Hencke described how, ³On the day 
Westminster was convulsed by the revelations surrounding the dawn arrest of Ruth
Turner, the senior Downing Street aide, in the cash-for-honours investigation, 
MPs approved on the nod the second reading of a bill to exclude parliament from 
the Freedom of Information Act.²

Maclean was quoted saying, ³I am showing some of the younger hands how you can 
get a bill through Parliament after long experience as a whip in both getting 
and blocking bills through Parliament.²

This meant the bill could proceed through the parliamentary system and be put to
a formal vote, which then happened on Friday, May 18.

While in opposition, the Labour Party had promised it would introduce Freedom of
Information legislation once it took office. After winning the 1997 election, it
then took Tony Blair¹s government five years before what one expert described as
a ³much watered-down version finally reached the statute book.²

A plethora of exemptions were included in the FoI Act, offering ministers and 
civil servants opportunities to block requests for information on such grounds 
as ³commercial privilege² and ³international relations.² Moreover, ministers 
retain a blanket veto over the disclosure of any information where this might 
³prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.²

The result has been to severely limit the number of successful applications for 
information to be released under the FoI Act.

In a recent article for the Index on Censorship, founded in 1972 to defend the 
right of free expression, Guardian investigations editor David Leigh noted that 
of nearly 63,000 applications for information from central government under the 
FoI Act, only 36,558 had been granted, with seven departments, including the 
Justice Ministry, refusing over half the requests.

Not content with its wide existing powers to keep information from public 
scrutiny, the government has been seeking ways to further emasculate and 
restrict the scope of the FoI legislation.

While officially describing its position on Maclean¹s bill as ³neutral,² behind 
the scenes the government had been pushing for Labour MPs to support the 
legislation. An email to all backbench Labour MPs from the Parliamentary Labour 
Party¹s Parliamentary Committee said the bill was ³worthy of support.² Those 
signing the email also included Socialist Campaign Group member Ann Cryer and 
former Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament chair Joan Ruddock.

When it came to the vote on the bill, which passed by 96 votes to 25, a total of
26 government ministers could be found in the ³Yes² lobby, including some of the
closest allies of the prime minister in waiting, Gordon Brown.

Conservative leader David Cameron abstained from the vote, and there was no 
order to Tory backbenchers to oppose the bill. Only a handful of Labour MPs and 
the Liberal Democrats voted against.

Maclean and those supporting his bill argue that it is necessary to preserve the
confidentiality of MPs¹ correspondence, particularly when it involves their 
constituents. However, there are already protections in place to protect the 
privacy of letters concerning individual constituents. Moreover, in the 
two-and-a-half years since the FoI Act has been in force, there has not been a 
single complaint to the Information Commissioner from an MP or a constituent 
about the improper disclosure of such correspondence.

The press criticism that accompanied the passage of Maclean¹s bill stretched 
across the official political spectrum. The pro-Labour Guardian called it ³an 
insult to open government and democracy²; the Independent led by calling it 
³cynical and slippery behaviour² and the pro-Conservative Telegraph opined that 
³the Lords must throw out this hypocritical bill.²

Much of the press comment pointed to the fact that if enacted, the bill would 
prevent access to information about the expenses and allowances paid to MPs for 
their official duties. These can dwarf their already substantial £60,000 annual 
salaries; for example, Maclean himself was paid nearly £130,000 in expenses last

Public responses on news web sites were almost universally hostile, with many 
scathing comments being directed at MPs for seeking to exempt themselves from 
legislation that applies to all other public bodies.

The bill has now passed to the House of Lords, where it is thought unlikely to 
pass through intact. Liberal Democrat peers will oppose it and the right-wing 
Daily Mail wrote that Tory leader Cameron had performed a ³u-turn² and was now 
seeking to block the legislation in the Upper House. Chancellor Gordon Brown was
also said to favour the bill being rewritten to make explicit the publication of
MPs¹ expenses and allowances.

Maclean has sought to head off this widespread criticism by tabling an amendment
to include a statutory requirement for details of MPs¹ expenses to be published 

What has also gone largely unreported in the press is the fact that a major 
result of the bill would be to keep secret the lobbying of public authorities 
that MPs undertake. An article on the Index on Censorship web site by the 
Guardian¹s David Leigh notes that as well as enabling MPs to keep ³less 
salubrious interests² secret, ³The real effect of the bill would be to enable 
politicians not only to misspend the taxpayers¹ money but also to lobby under 

Whatever the fate of Maclean¹s bill in the Lords, the government is seeking to 
further curtail access to information under the guise of limiting costs and 
cutting down on so-called ³serial requesters²‹mainly news and media outlets that
engage in investigative journalism.

Last summer, the Lord Chancellor, whose justice ministry has overall 
responsibility for FoI issues, circulated a private paper to his cabinet 
colleagues that proposed relatively minor changes in the fine print of the 
legislation that could then be used to limit the number of requests from a 
single organisation, such as a broadcaster like the BBC, to just four a year per
government department.

A further ruse to ensure that an already prohibitive £600 maximum cost per 
request was reached and then exceeded is the proposal to include a charge not 
just for extracting but for ³perusing² the material that has been requested, 
with the cost of a minister¹s time being billed at £300 an hour!

In a letter dated May 8 to the Lord Chancellor, Trade Secretary Alistair Darling
has called for even more restrictions, writing that ³we are increasingly 
concerned that in a number of respects the demands of the Freedom of Information
Act are placing good government at risk.²

Darling calls for a speedy review of FoI regulations covering the correspondence
between MPs and ministers, the policy advice given to ministers by civil 
servants and for closer coordination between different government departments 
that receive requests for similar information.

The trade secretary concludes by saying consideration should be given in future 
to changes to the legislation ³needed to redress an apparent imbalance between 
the Œright to know¹ and the protection of private space where necessary for good

A government that has flagrantly lied to the public in order to justify 
launching an illegal war of conquest in Iraq has much need of a ³private space² 
where it can continue to hatch up further dirty deeds.

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