MPs back bill to exempt themselves from Freedom of Information Act

A Commons committee today backed a controversial move to exempt Parliament and MPs' correspondence from the Freedom of Information Act after the Government signaled the time had come for the law to be reviewed.

A Commons committee approved a two-clause bill which, if it becomes law, will prevent journalists and others from using the FoI Act to secure information contained in correspondence and e-mails sent to public bodies by MPs on behalf of their constituents.

Constitutional Affairs minister Bridget Prentice, a member of the committee that reviewed the bill today, admitted the "time has come to address this", after MPs complained that the public disclosure of correspondence infringed confidentiality and inhibited their constituency work.

"MPs must be able to write to public bodies on behalf of their constituents and theprivate affairs of their constituents must remain confidential," the minister said.

Backing for the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill sponsored by David Maclean, a former Conservative chief whip, came despite an appeal from the Campaign for Freedom of Information for MPs not to seek "special status" by exempting themselves from legislation which applies to other public bodies.

Speaker Michael Martin made clear, however, that the Bill would not prevent plans for the wider disclosure of MPs' expenses and allowances. In a letter to the committee, the Speaker said the Commons" Estimates Committee, which he chairs, "has no intention of withdrawing whatever changes may occur in its formal obligations".

The Bill, which has already received an unopposed Second Reading, will now return to the chamber for its report stage, where it c ould encounter some opposition. Mr Maclean, told Press Gazette that if it gets the approval of the Commons it could run into trouble in the House of Lords.

Ms Prentice said the Government would remain neutral and would leave it for MPs to decide the matter in a free vote.

"The FoI Act is a significant success," she said. "It has resulted in the release of information of real interest to the public and most importantly it has increased the transparency of public bodies.

"We as a Government are very muich committed to open gov ernment but we do have to strike a balance."

Mr Maclean said: "We support the success of the FoI Act but it is right after six years that we look at the impact we have discovered this is having on Parliament and the potential of causing problems between MPs and their constituents."

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