Today the British House of Lords will be looking at the latest bill to be passed up from the House of Commons for their seal of approval; in fact, they’ll probably leave it till Monday. Out of all those bills passed by the Commons to be looked at by the Lords, The Private Members’ Bill is perhaps the most likely to become law because it is for nobody else’s benefit but theirs — MPs and Lords.
If passed the Private Members’ Bill will exempt them from having to give all information requested under the Freedom of Information Act. And I don’t mean information that might jeopardize Britain’s security or is otherwise classified. The MPs in favour of the bill say it is to protect private letters from constituents. But MPs and Peers, as individuals, are not covered by the FOI act at all, so their correspondence to and from constituents is exempt from the FOI act anyway. Thus many fear the new exemption law is a smoke-screen to allow them to keep their abuses of expense accounts secret, and god knows what else.
If the Private Members’ Bill is passed it will be law that MPs and Lords don’t need to adhere to the same laws that they have been so strict in ensuring that all other public bodies adhere to. The law would effectively remove the Commons and the Lords from the list of public bodies covered by the Freedom of Information act. The PM’s bill also protects all MPs correspondence and prevents authorities such as councils or companies from confirming they received a letter from an MP. In all likelihood, as it currently is in so many cases, it will be up to a judge to decide whether or not the information can be withheld under the Private Members Bill — a judge who may or may not be in the House of Lords.
Tony Blair’s successor for the Labour leadership and job of Prime Minister, Gordon Brown said in one of his major speeches that he would make government more open, but also said he wouldn’t dictate to MPs. Telling the world that Brown would not stand in the way of the bill, his spokesman said: “Gordon has also spoken about the sovereignty of Parliament. If MPs have voted this measure through then that is a matter for them”
Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker is against the bill. He and other critics had planned to talk it out, using up all its allocated time in the Commons — but the bill was passed up to the Lords for further consideration 96-25 by its supporters with five minutes to spare. Baker claims MPs were prevented from debating the bill more fully earlier and said events “made him ashamed to be an MP.”
Vowing to continue the fight the bill Baker said:
“Let me make it plain the best solution entirely is that this bill doesn’t go through because the present arrangements are working really quite well and there is no need to change them.”
“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.”
“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.”
During the debate, sponsor of the bill David MacLean said his bill was necessary “to give an absolute guarantee that the correspondence of members of parliament, on behalf of our constituents and others, to a public authority remains confidential”.
If this bill was only to protect constituent’s letters in other places, then the bill should specifically exempt MP’s letters concerning constituents wherever they are from the FOIA. Making letters private from MPs to constituents, as well as letters from MPs to public bodies and companies, but only where they concern a third-party’s (constituent’s) business.
As a sceptic of the House of Commons, even now, when things are pretty well transparent, and with protection from the FOIA if we ever feel things we wouldn’t like are going on behind the scenes, this bill scares me. Especially with our government sucking up civil liberties like a Hoover, attempting to hold prisoners longer with no charge to prevent terror, telling us identity cards are necessary in the same fight, and attempting to deport “terrorists” back to countries where it is almost certain they will be tortured or even killed. The more transparent our government is the better it is for everyone. I hope Norman Baker is successful in blocking this abuse of power.