Lord Falconer suffered a blow this week when a former journalist sensationally quit as his Parliamentary aide to campaign against the bill to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act.
Journalist-turned-politician Martin Linton led MPs into revolt demanding that they should face the same law as 110,000 other public bodies.
Linton, who worked for the Daily Mail, Labour Weekly, the Daily Star and The Guardian before becoming MP for Battersea in 1997, said: ‘I felt so strongly that I decided to step down as Parliamentary private secretary and table a motion expressing my opposition.”
While the Government has insisted it is neutral, 13 of the 16 Government whips backed David Maclean’s Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill when it was given a third reading last month.
Linton’s resignation came as another minister exposed a hole in the argument used by Maclean for the bill.
Baroness Ashton, who is the minister in charge of FoI, told the press this week that the Government had received no indication of improper disclosure of MPs’ constituents’ correspondence. Maclean claims that the bill is needed to prevent disclosure.
But in reply to Lib Dem peer Lord Lester, Baroness Ashton said: ‘The Government has not received notification of any improper disclosure of personal or confidential information communicated to public authorities by MPs in their capacity as such.”
Nick Harvey, chairman of the House of Commons Commission, also admitted this week that when deciding whether to respond to FoI requests public authorities were required to take a view on each case.
Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris pressed him about the basis of guidance given over the release of MPs’ correspondence.
Harvey said: ‘Unless an exemption applies, the public authorities must respond to request for information by confirming or denying it holds relevant material and, where held, providing a copy.
‘In practice an exemption (for example, for personal of confidential information) may apply to the whole or part of such correspondence. The public authority is required to take a view on each case.”
Some 50 MPs have now backed a Commons motion from Lib Dem president Simon Hughes claiming that the argument for new laws to protect MPs’ correspondence is ‘not laid out on the evidence”.
Linton, in his motion tabled in the Commons, called for the law to be clarified. His call this week was backed by 25 MPs.
‘It will be totally wrong to remove the House of Commons from the scope of the FoI Act while leaving 110,00 other public bodies within it,’Linton said. ‘The House of Commons should be on the same footing as other public bodies.’
Politicians now accept that when peers consider the bill there will be substantial amendments, which means it will return to the Commons.