Commons FOI debate delayed until May

The Commons debate over a bid to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act has been deferred until next month, in a move that opponents of the bill fear is designed to "rally the troops" in support of the measure.

Opponents of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill had expected the measure to return to the chamber for further discussion today. But in a surprise move, former Tory chief whip David Maclean's bill to exempt MPs and peers from FoI laws was dropped from the Order
Paper for debate.

Commons officials confirmed that Maclean had not put his Bill
down for consideration today but said it was expected to return on 18
May.

One of the Bill's main critics, Labour's David Winnick, swiftly warned that the delay might be an attempt to get more time in which to muster more support for the Bill next month.

In a point of order as business got under way, Winnick said: "There'll be some surprise I'm sure that the Freedom of Information Bill isn't to be debated today.

"It was due to be the second item and there is a feeling that it has been withdrawn."

He told Deputy Speaker Sylvia Heal: "Many of us believe that is just a ploy to bring the troops in on May 18 so there will be over 100 to try and pass the bill.

"Those of us who are opposed and consider it would be a disgrace if this Bill were passed will be here on May 18."

Heal confirmed the Bill was deferred until May 18, adding that the decision was entirely up to the MP sponsoring the Bill.

Winnick's reference to 100 MPs relates to the number required to close debate and force a vote on any amendment in a bid to prevent filibustering by critics of the measure.

Winnick was among a tiny band of MPs, including Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, who fought a fierce rearguard action last Friday to block the Bill's progress. The cross-party group of opponents had succeeded in blocking the Bill by tabling a
series of amendments and talking on them for five hours.

Opponents of the bill thought they had killed it off when time ran out but a quirk of parliamentary procedure meant that it returned to the Order Paper today.

It was initially the first item on today's agenda but was then "leapfrogged" by two other bills.

Supporters of Maclean's measure say it is needed to protect the confidentiality of MPs' correspondence with constituents, but critics say correspondence is already exempt under the Freedom of Information Act. 

The Government has insisted that its attitude to the proposals is neutral, but its lack of opposition so far has suggested that it tacitly supports the Bill.

Several ministers – including Tessa Jowell, Tony McNulty, Andy Burnham, Ian Pearson and John Healey – voted in favour of the legislation last week.

Hughes said today that MPs should be given better notice when a Bill's debate date was changed.

Heal said "nothing irregular or improper" had taken place and it was incumbent on MPs to keep in regular contact with the table office to find out what was happening.

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