As we noted in last month's bulletin, the freedom of information regime is not proving popular among many of those in positions of power, with a number of recent developments aimed at reducing the impact of the legislation on Parliament and Government being discussed. This month, there are further indications of the regime's unpopularity.
Following on from the Lord Chancellor's statements regarding amendments to the fee regime to reflect the true cost of responding to requests, a Private Members Bill has also been introduced to limit the application of the regime. The Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, introduced by former Conservative chief whip David Maclean, is due to go to report stage on Friday 20 April 2007. The Bill would remove both Houses of Parliament from Schedule 1 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the Act), which lists the public bodies to which the Act applies. In addition, the Bill seeks to amend the Act to exempt communications between MPs and public bodies from the provisions of the Act.
The Bill comes after several decisions by the UK Information Commissioner finding in favour of disclosure by MPs, which MPs appealed to the Information Tribunal. The Information Tribunal then held, in a case concerning a request for information regarding MPs travel expenses, that the 'legitimate interests of members of the public outweigh the prejudice to the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of MPs.' Therefore the information regarding MPs expenses was ordered to be disclosed.
Interestingly, in reaching its decision, the UK Information Tribunal noted the Scottish Information Commissioner’s decision in Paul Hutcheon, The Sunday Herald and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, which concerned a broadly similar request, and highlighted that the Scottish Commissioner went further and ordered the release of the destination points of taxi journeys of an MSP.
Differences between the UK position and the position applicable to Scottish public authorities are not uncommon: Scottish FOI legislation (the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002) was enacted separately and contains some differences. This current Private Bill would not affect the Scottish legislation in relation to MSPs, however, Scottish MPs at Westminster would be covered by the Bill.
The timing of the Bill is interesting. The additional exemption proposed in Mr Maclean's Bill is clearly aimed at protecting the work of MPs in relation to their constituents, however as the Bill works its way through Parliament, MPs privacy may be more greatly affected by Tony Blair's plans to abolish a ban on the tapping of MPs' telephones. The currently ban, (known as the Wilson Doctrine after Harold Wilson) has been observed over the past 40 years. While proposing to remove the ban, the Prime Minister is expected to say that MPs, as with all other citizens, will nevertheless be protected against wrongful tapping.
We will watch with interest the progress of this Bill and the future developments in relation to telephone tapping.