» Thursday, May 24, 2007

Freedom of Information

The Leader was asked if he had been helping to secure agreement on an amendment to a Private Member’s Bill being promoted by David Maclean MP, to ensure that MPs’ expenses were made public. He said that he had offered advice. His view was that, firstly, it was made clear from the start that, whatever happened to Mr Maclean’s Bill, details of expenses had to continue to be published. This was in line with the Publication Scheme agreed by the House as a public authority. Under the FOI Act, every public authority had to have a publication scheme for information which they collect and ought to make routinely available. Mr Straw referred to his earlier comments during Business Questions in response to a question from Martin Salter MP about Commons Early Day Motion 1540, asking him to table a resolution to give direct authority for what the Speaker already had announced. He had said: "I certainly recognise my hon. Friend’s wish, which is shared by the whole House, to ensure that whatever happens in respect of the protection of MPs’ correspondence, the publication scheme in respect of Members’ allowances and expenses continues. I shall give serious consideration to his suggestion and consult the Opposition parties about the matter."
The Leader said that it was a matter for Mr Maclean to pursue the issue of an amendment to his Bill. Questioned further about whether he was concerned about a wider public perception of the Bill, that it would be seen it as an attempt to water down the Act, Mr Straw said he was not.

He added that the Act gave a very broad right to information. It was an issue on which there was bound to be a conflict, both of an institutional and individual nature, between anyone in government – local or national – and journalists. He thought both sides had to recognise that.

The Leader said that the best illustration of that was by referring to the BBC, which was both the largest journalistic organisation in the country and also a public authority – so it literally faced both ways. One the one hand, it had journalists in a specialist FOI unit, pursuing FOI requests and, on the other, as a public authority the BBC received FOI requests. The BBC had shown as much exercise of the exemptions and exclusions permitted under the Act as other public authorities. That illustrated the dilemma. The Leader said that Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, was absolutely right to say that vexatious FOI applications should be ended because, otherwise, the main purpose of the legislation – to produce much greater information – was undermined. One change as a result of the Act was to ensure that there was almost always a presumption that statistical information had to be made public. The other side was that government could not be run, if there could not be confidential discussions. That was no different from the BBC not disclosing the minutes and other decisions of its editorial boards. The issue was trying to find a balance. Mr Straw said that, as he read the debate, MPs were not seeking exemption in respect of their expenses. However, they were seeking – he thought legitimately – protection for dealings with their constituents.

He joked that the next Private Member’s Bill would be to ensure that journalists’ expenses were made public on a similar basis!

In response to a further question, he said that on the issue of MPs’ expenses the public would be reassured. He pointed out that, before he had become Leader, guidance had been issued to MPs, saying that under the FOI Act their correspondence could be released by a third party, a public authority, without their permission. That was the worry.

Briefing took place at 15:00 | Search for related news

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