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Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill

18th May 2007

Jonathan Djanogly calls for a balance to be struck between ensureing that freedom of information requests can be made without excessive intrusion.

1.33 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): This has been a very interesting debate and let me say at the outset that the Conservative party remains neutral on this Bill. As many Members have pointed out, a balance clearly needs to be struck between ensuring that freedom of information requests can be made to maintain accountability, and between the right of elected Members to carry out their business and represent their constituents' interests without excessive intrusion.

I hear the opposition to this Bill as expressed sincerely by the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher) and for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes)-they made their points well-and the belief that, the law apart, this will appear to be a retreat from the advance of freedom of information, and that it looks bad because MPs are treating themselves as being different. If the Bill is passed, the intention of the Bill will need to be carefully explained to the public. It could also be pointed out, however, that should the Bill fail, MPs will not have the right to stop FOI requests made against public bodies when MPs have written to local authorities on their constituents' behalf. Ultimately it will still be the public authority and not the MP who would in law have the right to decide whether the information was released. There is no guarantee built into the law, only guidelines, to ensure that the public authority would inform the MP.

David Maclean: On the subject of guidelines, has my hon. Friend seen the four pages of detailed guidelines relating to the handling of MPs' correspondence? They are so woolly that it is as if they were written by 10 QCs on different sides of the argument. On the one hand, one may do this or that, this may be released, that may be secret, one may consult or one may not consult. It is almost impossible to follow the guidelines and that is why we need a simple Act of Parliament stating that in all circumstances our correspondence is protected.

Mr. Djanogly: I take the point that my right hon. Friend makes. I have read those guidelines and they are woolly. Whatever happens to the Bill, the guidelines need reviewing.

The lack of a guarantee may have the unintended consequence of preventing MPs from pressing their constituents' issues as openly as they have been able to do until now, for fear that what they say may be more likely to embarrass the constituent at a later stage. I do not think that the information tribunal's decision on16 January 2007, confined as it was to Members' travel allowances, need prevent us from action here. It would, however, have been helpful if the Information Commissioner had gone further and expressed the interrelationship between freedom of information and data protection in wider terms than he did in his judgment, not least because it would have prevented much of the existing confusion about MPs' staffing arrangements and data protection issues. In the meantime, the Information Commissioner seems to be waiting for the result of this Bill before issuing clearer guidelines.

Julia Goldsworthy: There has been an exchange about the need for regulation and how the area is woolly. Surely the key problem is that if there is a lack of awareness, it is important that enforcement action is taken when breaches of FOI legislation take place, rather than simply more regulation to confuse the matter even more?

Mr. Djanogly: I certainly agree with the hon. Lady to the extent that if problems have arisen, they should be highlighted so that they do not happen again. She makes a fair point.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is strong potential for a deterrent effect on constituents, who may be reluctant-to my personal regret and, I am sure, that of other hon. Members-to approach their MP because they fear that their case may later be rehearsed in public?

Mr. Djanogly: As the Minister said, when one weighs up how one intends to vote today, the point that my hon. Friend makes will be foremost in many hon. Members' minds.

Tim Farron: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Djanogly: No, I intend to conclude my remarks as so many hon. Members wish to speak.

My party's position on this issue was set out by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) on 20 April, and it is that we are neutral on this Bill and believe that it is for Parliament to take a view on a free vote on how best to proceed.

1.38 pm

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