MPs' FOI exemption bill may have Tory sponsor in Lords

Critics of a backbench bid to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act today vowed to do everything possible to stop it becoming law amid confusion over whether it has found a Tory backer in the Lords.

The Liberal Democrats said Lord Trefgarne had agreed to sponsor David Maclean’s Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill – a claim later confirmed by Government sources.

Maclean, the Tory former chief whip, refused to confirm the reports but said: “He is one of a few people I am talking to about it. There is no rush.”

Meanwhile, a Conservative Party spokeswoman insisted a sponsor had not yet been secured in the Lords.

Lord Trefgarne is a hereditary peer and former defence minister. His backing would infuriate opponents of the measure – which triggered an outcry when it was backed by MPs last week.

Lord McNally, Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords, said: “It is disappointing that any peer has seen fit to back this grubby Bill. It must not be allowed to become law.”

He added: “Rather than offering warm words about minor amendments, Tory leader David Cameron should call on his colleagues in the Lords to block this Bill completely. The Government should also cease its covert support for the Bill.

“The Liberal Democrats have been clear that all members of Parliament should be open to full public scrutiny. We will fight all the way to stop this legislation.

Maclean yesterday moved to change his Private Member’s Bill in an attempt to save it from defeat by peers. He said he had put down an amendment guaranteeing that details of MPs’ expenses and allowances would continue to be published.

This followed a warning from David Cameron that the Conservatives would vote against the measure in its current form when it came to the upper chamber.

Economic Secretary Ed Balls – Gordon Brown’s closest political ally – has also said it should be changed to ensure continued publication of expenses.

It is not clear when the Bill will get its first airing in the Lords, but it could be as early as next month.

Supporters claim it is needed to keep correspondence between MPs and constituents confidential, but critics say there is no evidence this is under threat and it is already covered by data protection laws. They claim the real aim is to prevent detailed scrutiny of MPs’ expenses.

The Information Commissioner Richard Thomas earlier told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that, of the estimated 200,000 FOI requests filed so far, he was not aware of a single one relating to MPs’ correspondence with constituents.

Meanwhile in the House of Commons, Labour’s David Winnick – a key critic of the measure – warned: “The amendment which has been put down will not satisfy opponents like myself.

“The best possible way forward is that the measure, instead of being further debated, should be buried.

“The decision which was taken last Friday was unfortunately a collective blow to the reputation of this House.”

Commons leader Jack Straw said there were strong opinions on both sides.

“The Bill has now gone to the Lords – it is entirely a matter for them what they do with it.”

Meanwhile, a Commons motion, signed by 30 MPs, supports measures to protect correspondence from constituents from disclosure, but says “all other matters” relating to the administration of the House – including MPs’ allowances – should be subject to annual disclosure.

It calls upon Straw to table a motion to this effect to be voted on by MPs. Urged to support the move in the Commons earlier, Straw said: “I will give very serious consideration and consult the Opposition parties about the matter.”

A separate motion, signed by 60 MPs, endorses Maclean’s purchase of a quad bike, with a parliamentary allowance, to enable him to get around his large rural constituency.

It “condemns the journalists and broadcasters who sensationalised this story for playing down, and in some cases not even mentioning, the devastating effects of his illness and his refusal to give in to it.”

Maclean, who has multiple sclerosis and walks with the aid of a stick, hit the headlines at the weekend when it emerged he bought the bike on expenses.

A third motion, backed by nine MPs so far, warns it would be “totally wrong” to exempt the Commons from the FoI Act while leaving 110,000 other public bodies in its scope.

It calls instead for a clarification of the law governing disclosure of MPs’ correspondence.

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