MPs were warned today they would face a public backlash when they voted to exempt parliament from the Freedom of Information Act.
Ministers, parliamentary private secretaries and government whips gave up their constituency today to stay behind at Westminister to back a private members bill that would remove the Commons and the Lords from the same right-to-know legislation that applies to more than 1,000 other bodies, including councils, health trusts, police authorities, schools, and the Welsh and Scottish assemblies.
By 96-25 votes, the MPs gave a third reading to the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, introduced by David MacLean, a former Tory chief whip.
The bill now goes to the House of Lords, where it could face further opposition. If it is amended, it will then have to be returned to the Commons where MacLean could have problems finding time for it to be debated.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said despite the Government’s official stance of neutrality, senior ministers had backed exempting Parliament from the FOI Act, which was only implemented two and half years ago. “They have made cynicism respectable,” he said.
With the help of whips on both sides, MacLean had succeeded in persuading more than 100 MPs to stay behind on a Friday to end a five-hour debate so it could be put to a vote.
He claimed the bill was necessary to protect MP’s letters and emails sent to public bodies on behalf of their constituents.
The constitutional affairs minister Bridget Prentice – despite her insistence that Government was neutral – acknowledged that MPs were concerned and said a letter she had sent to a public body alleging domestic violence against a woman had been disclosed to the man.
“I now fear very much for her safety and the safety of my constituency staff,” she said.
But opponents of the bill said MPs’ correspondence was protected by the Data Protection Act and claimed the real motive was to protect MPs’ expenses from further disclosure.
The speaker has given MPs an assurance that their expenses will continue to be published every October, as now, even if the bill becomes law, but this decision could be reversed by a future speaker.
Richard Shepherd accused MPs of acting to safeguard their personal interest. “This is a dreadful bill. It smells like bad fish.”
Labour MP David Winnick said: “We are in danger of bringing ourselves into disrepute. The public will come to the conclusion that we have something to hide.”