Hopes raised for MPs seeking to block Commons FoI exemption

A small but determined cross-party group of MPs opposed to a controversial bid to exempt members from their own transparency laws have recieved a boost.

The Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, introduced by Tory former chief whip David Maclean, was expected to be first up in the Commons today.

But it has now been “leapfrogged” by Sir John Butterfill’s Building Societies (Funding) and Mutual Societies (Transfers) Bill.

This was considered in committee on Wednesday and, under parliamentary rules, now takes precedence.

Debate on Sir John’s Bill will eat up the time available for Mr Maclean’s measure – giving critics more chance of blocking its progress.

Liberal Democrat Norman Baker, who has spearheaded the opposition, said Sir John’s measure would be “helpful” and advised that fellow critics had tabled amendments to it which they would seek to discuss fully.

“Our objective will be the same: to prevent Mr Maclean’s Bill from becoming law and any tactics to achieve that end will be deployed,” he added.

Opponents of Mr Maclean’s legislation thought they had killed it off when it was “talked out” in the Commons last Friday.

But a quirk of parliamentary procedure means it returns to the Commons tomorrow when – if business on Sir John’s Bill is completed – it will resume its report stage.

The Bill would exempt both the Commons and the Lords, and MPs’ correspondence, from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

Supporters say it is needed to protect the confidentiality of MPs’ correspondence with constituents, but critics claim the real aim is to block embarrassing disclosures about MPs’ expenses and allowances.

Challenged by Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell yesterday about the “shoddy” measure, the Prime Minister said it was inappropriate for the Government to take a view on a backbench measure.

But its failure to block the Bill has prompted accusations of tacit support and several ministers – including Tessa Jowell, Tony McNulty, Andy Burnham, Ian Pearson, and John Healey – voted for it last week.

Liberal Democrat constitutional affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said: “Things are looking good in our attempt to stop this stake through the heart of the Freedom of Information Act.

“This underhand Bill would fundamentally undermine Parliament’s transparency. Democratic institutions have an obligation to be accountable and the right to information is a key part of this.

“I am confident there will be a good number of opponents to this Bill and we have a better than evens chance of preventing it from progressing any further.

“More and more MPs have realised that the Government and opposition front benches are conspiring to kill freedom of information.

“The Freedom of Information Amendment Bill now has over 70 amendments tabled and there will likely be more.

“There is now one other Bill which is to be debated first – the Building Societies (Funding) and Mutual Societies (Transfers) Bill. This Bill has already had one new clause and six amendments tabled with the possibility of yet more to be added.”

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