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23 May 2007

An unholy alliance of Tories and Labour

The Lib Dem leader explains that when it comes to Freedom of Information there shouldn't be one rule

By Menzies Campbell

Last week David Maclean’s Bill to curb Freedom of Information laws for MPs was passed in the House of Commons. This was a self-inflicted blow by Parliament which will deeply damage its reputation.

The Bill was voted through by an unholy alliance of Conservative and Labour MPs.

It was also given unofficial support from the Government which, unusually, did not block it at Second Reading and instead appeared content to have its own Freedom of Information Act watered down.

The Liberal Democrats do not believe that there should be one law for MPs and another one for everyone else. Exempting politicians from Freedom of Information requests only adds to the public perception of Parliament being opaque and clouded in secrecy.

The Bill removes any obligation for MPs’ expenses to be made public. But, the expenses of other public figures and senior officials such as judges, councillors and civil servants remain accessible under FOI legislation.

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It also means that members of the public would not be able to find out the advice or policy opinions that their own MP had expressed to public bodies.

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Supporters of the Bill say that they are concerned about preventing constituents’ correspondence from being disclosed. But, correspondence about constituents’ personal affairs which contains personal data is already exempt from the Act and also protected by the provisions of the Data Protection Act.

Of all public figures, MPs have the least right to be exempt from public scrutiny. We are elected to represent our constituents’ interests and to maintain high standards in public life.

Before the debate last Friday I invited Gordon Brown to live up to the welcome sprit of honesty and transparency that he has been pledging during his leadership campaign by speaking out in opposition of the Bill. His failure to do so will have profoundly disappointed many people who wanted to see the Prime Minister in waiting stand up for the openness and accountability of MPs. Since than Ed Balls has begun the process of rowing back, no doubt by arrangement with his Chancellor but the damage has been done.

I welcome David Cameron’s comments making clear that the Conservative will try to stop the Bill in the House of Lords. It is a great pity that he did not make his opposition to the Bill known last week when Conservative MPs worked to push it through the Commons.

The Bill will now go to the House of Lords and I am renewing my call on Gordon Brown to ask Labour peers to stop this it.

My colleagues and I have launched a petition calling on people from all political persuasions to make clear their opposition to the Bill. This can be accessed by clicking here. I urge all readers of the New Statesman to sign up to the petition, write to a member of the House of Lords and campaign to defeat this squalid bill in the House of Lords.