Monday, May 14, 2007

The Freedom of Information (About everyone but us) Bill Returns

David MacLean MP's objectionable private members' Freedom of Information (Amendment) bill returns to centre stage on Friday for it's delayed report stage. The ease with which time seems to find time in parliament's timetable can only be interpreted as de facto government support, and sadly the limited utterances from the opposition front bench suggests that they aren't exactly set against it. The argument that it's a matter for the house to decide is irrelevant the tone from the front benches is easily picked up by the public at large.

For those who haven't encountered this gem of a bill it's supposed purpose is to prevent Freedom of Information (FOI) Act requests forcing the disclosure of privileged communications between a Member of Parliament and his/her constituents or communications with third parties on the behalf of the constituent. It's mechanism for achieving this perfectly reasonable goal is to, uniquely among public bodies, remove both houses of Parliament from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.

As it happens, should the bill pass into law, nothing whatsoever will change. House authorities, including the speaker himself, have committed themselves to continue to publish information in areas such as travel expenses that have already been subject to FOI requests. On the other side it is abundantly clear that the existing provisions of the Data Protection Act (DPA) already provides all the legal framework needed to protect the privacy of parliamentarian's communications. Even if there was a potential loophole in the protection offered by the DPA, something which I doubt, working in spheres often impacted by its provisions, it could be closed with amendments of narrower scope. It is not, for example, possible to use a FOI request to get hold of our medical records from the NHS. For this we will probably have to wait for the first security hole in the NHS computerised patient record which will, doubtlessly within weeks of the system's eventual launch, have all our medical secrets available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Despite the limited impact the amendments they nonetheless offend on several levels.

Firstly there's the contrast with the last time I recall MPs voting on matters that ultimately concerned the terms and conditions of their employment. We were told that they had 'no choice' about voting through a huge top up to their pensions pool because not to do so would have required amending the law which simply wasn't practical. I've got a suspicion that, should the parties hammer out a deal on state funding for their operations, then as with the FOI (Amendment) bill, time will be found in Westminster's busy calendar to get the legislation through.

There are also the questions raised by the fact that the DPA already performs the functions of the proposed amendments, if you accept the functions of the amendments are those publicly stated. I don't go in for conspiracy theories but it's easy to wonder if the FOI requests that worry Mr MacLean and his supporters are the ones that haven't been made yet. At a more trivial level I suppose the DPA would allow for statistical abstracts of communications to be made available under the FOI. Frankly I don't think it's a bad thing if this brought some honesty to the lazy rhetoric about their '...bulging mail bags...etc' during debates on a particular subject, with some bulging mail bags being shown to contain just a couple of letters. You could take this to the extreme of revealing the existence or non-existence of a single letter, however the Information Commissioner appears to have rubbished the idea that there is a usable loophole here.

Finally there is simply the image that bills like this present of Parliament. I think one of the most attractive features of the UK system of government is the relatively limited special privileges that our representatives award themselves. There are a few archaic boons associated with the status of the Palace of Westminster, a sensibly minimalistic concept of Parliamentary Privilege and a generally reasonable approach to remuneration and expenses, but I don't find, at the moment, anything that would offend a reasonable person greatly. We have seen, in limited numbers, our representatives as defendants in the courts of law, and seem able to contemplate prosecutions at the heart of government. The fact that this happens is a sign of a healthy attitude to such eventualities and our MPs don't rush through legislation to 'grant immunity in order to protect the dignity of....etc.' in the continental style is admirable. We've taken steps in the right direction in recent years, from televising of proceedings to the FOI act itself and it's sad to see regressive steps like the one proposed that separate Parliament from the rest of public life, or worse still doors for corruption like state party funding being opened.

As a Conservative voter by instinct I'm slightly disappointed to see Team Cameron at best having the inability to quietly have their former whip kick his bill into the long grass, or at worst giving tacit support to it. It is true that there are more positive signs, such as ideas on MP's pay, though here I would like to see an approach more akin to Amendment XXVII to the US constitution, to ensure that the matter isn't simply handed over to some tame quango simply to disclaim responsibility, and to ensure that the whatever is done that the remit does not stop at basic salary. Overall the effect, as with so many other areas of policy is to take the shine off what would otherwise be a very clear, consistent and appealing message.

No comments: