FOI move to protect MPs' contact with constituents

Public bodies are to be given fresh guidance not to release MPs’ constituency correspondence to journalists other than in exceptional circumstances.

The move from Information Commissioner Richard Thomas comes in the wake of a controversy earlier this year over a bid by Tory MP David Maclean to introduce a Private Members’ Bill exempting MPs from the Freedom of Information Act.

Although the bill was backed by MPs, it now lies dormant after no peer agreed to take it forward in the Lords.

However, after consulting with the Ministry of Justice, headed by new minister Jack Straw, Thomas is to issue fresh guidance ‘shortly”.

He told the Commons Administration Committee that this would make it clear that MPs’ constituency correspondence should not be disclosed except in the ‘most exceptional circumstances”.

‘Our guidance will give very substantial reassurance to MPs. If there was uncertainty, that should not be there in future,’he said.

Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith said one possible exception might be in the case of a health issue, where, with the approval of the MP and constituent, the correspondence could be made public if it was in the public interest.

Maclean had claimed that unauthorised disclosure of MPs’ correspondence could harm their relationship with constituents.

But he failed to produce any evidence that any such disclosures had taken place, and FoI campaigners argued that his real aim was to prevent further embarrassing disclosures of MPs’ expenses.

• The author of Your Right to Know: A Citizen’s Guide to the Freedom of Information Act, Heather Brooke, has warned that copyright laws are holding back the FoI Act in Britain.

Speaking at the Centre for Investigative Journalism at City University, the author and freedom of information campaigner explained that Crown copyright on the answers to FoI requests are intimidating for those who are unfamiliar with the law.

‘The biggest thing that is holding up computer-assisted reporting in this country is the way data is held. It’s held in a very proprietorial way, in that Crown copyright means that the public has to ask permission to reuse the data, and it gives the Government control of how that data is released and what you can do with it,’she said.

‘So when you get your answer back you will find on it a big copyright notice, which can be quite intimidating if you don’t know much about it.”

Brooke added that a separate problem was caused by government out-sourcing of IT databases.

‘When you try to get the data, they find they can’t give it to you because the private company they are doing business with won’t release it because it says it is commercially confidential,’she said.

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