There was more good news for press freedom campaigners this week after a bill to exclude MPs from the Freedom of Information Act ran out of time as the parliamentary session closed.
It follows news last week that Prime Minister Gordon Brown was scrapping proposals to drastically water down the Freedom of Information Act and give coroners new secrecy powers.
In a wide-ranging civil liberties speech, Brown also backed self-regulation of the press and outlined proposals to broaden FoI and reduce the 30-year secrecy rule on sensitive Government documents.
Although an FoI exemption for MPs is now shelved, Justice Secretary Jack Straw has said public bodies are not to release MPs’ constituency correspondence to journalists other than in exceptional circumstances.
The Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor has told Parliament he will promote the new guidance, which has been issued by Information Commissioner Richard Thomas.
The move brings down the curtain on an extraordinary episode which led to the House of Commons this summer backing a private members’ bill to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act.
The Bill had been introduced by David Maclean, a former Tory whip, because he claimed FoI requests could lead public bodies to divulge correspondence MPs has sent on behalf of their constituents.
But it would have meant that Parliament being exempted from the FoI Act that it has applied to other bodies, including councils and the Welsh Assembly.
Critics claimed the real aim of the Bill was to prevent further embarrassing disclosures about MPs’ expenses.
MPs’ backing for the Bill provoked a backlash from editors and peers, who vowed to kill it off in the House of Lords. And Maclean failed to find any peer willing to take on his Bill which fell on Tuesday. In evidence to Mr Straw said that it had seen no evidence indicating that ‘existing protections for constituency correspondence were inadequate”.
‘Such an exemption would be contrary to the culture of openness which we have argued should prevail in the public service,’the committee said.
Mr Straw responded: ‘In August the Information Commissioner produced guidance for public authorities on dealing with requests for MPs’ correspondence relating to constituents. The Ministry of Justice will promote this guidance to public authorities to ensure that they apply the Act in a way that balances openness with the need to protect the privacy of constituents.”