Tony Blair is flitting about on his "farewell tour," seeking praise and consolation for his failed policies. While Britain waits for him to go and Gordon Brown to take office, Members of Parliament (MPs) have done an astonishing thing that undermines their pledge of open government. They've voted to grant themselves blanket exemption from Freedom of Information legislation that affects every government agency in Britain!
The move was roundly condemned Friday by freedom of information campaigners and MPs opposed to the measure, who said it represents an attack on democracy. Former Conservative chief whip David Maclean, claimed change to the law is needed to protect MPs' private correspondence.
On Friday, the former Tory Cabinet minister Lord Baker of Dorking condemned as "scandalous" his former Commons colleague's attempt to exempt both Houses from the open government legislation. In an impassioned speech, Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat spokesman said "This has been a shameful day for the House of Commons. MPs should set an example of open government, not apply it to everybody but ourselves." He appealed to the House of Lords to "deliver" MPs from "this terrible mistake." Hughes spoke after opponents of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill secured its third reading by 96 votes to 25.
Despite the government's stated "neutrality" on the bill, several ministers voted in favour of a third reading, including Caroline Flint, Phil Woolas, Joan Ryan, Meg Munn, Ian McCartney, Tony McNulty, Parmjit Dhanda, and Maria Eagle. Parliamentary Private Secretary Angela Smith backed the measure, as did deputy chief whip Bob Ainsworth. Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information said he deplored the bill and the surprising support it had elicited.
Media reports indicate the Labour Party has secretly campaigned in support of the exemption. An email circulated by Labour's parliamentary committee urged back bench MPs to support a private members' bill that would prevent the public using Freedom of Information legislation to view MPs' correspondence. Further, government ministers have promoted additional damaging restrictions to the FOI Act that would ration the number of media requests allowed.
On Thursday, Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor addressed a group of media lawyers, journalists and academics at a Press Gazette/ Newspaper Society Media Law conference. He repeated the government's intention to press ahead with the proposal to limit requests made by the media.
Maclean's bill will now proceed to the House of Lords. The FOI (Amendment) Bill will need their support to become law.