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Bid to exempt MPs' expenses from FOI due to resume today

A parliamentary debate over a bill to exempt MPs’ expenses from the Freedom of Information Act was due to take place today in the House of Commons.

The FoI (Amendment) Bill, tabled by former Tory Chief Whip David McClean, was due to be debated at the beginning of May but was dropped from the order paper.

The Newspaper Society says critics have warned the delay might have been an attempt to win more support for the bill which would see both MPs’ expenses and correspondence excluded from FoI laws and the FoI minister has already stated that the Government itself is neutral, as this is a Private Members Bill.

It has been urging society members to contact their MPs to ask them to attend the debate and vote against the proposals.

Contrary to claims by the Bill’s supporters, the FoI Act already contains numerous exemptions to protect against the disclosure of any confidential matter or sensitive personal information about constituents.

Yet the Campaign for Freedom of Information has reported that the Parliamentary Committee of the Parliamentary Labour Party sent an e-mail to Labour MPs last week, saying the measure was worthy of support.

The Bill was condemned in a letter to The Times signed by various pro-FoI groups, including the Campaign for Freedom of Information and Liberty.

It warned: “To pass this Bill would send an extraordinary signal to the public; MPs feel an obligation to pay lip service to transparency but are unwilling to take on serious openness obligations themselves.”

In a further development, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell wrote to Labour leader-in-waiting Gordon Brown urging him to oppose the Bill.

Sir Menzies also e-mailed all members of his party urging them to lobby their MP about the measure.

And Commons Leader Jack Straw has apologised for suggesting that Information Commissioner Richard Thomas was not upholding the intention of FoI laws.

Mr Straw previously said, in response to a question about the Freedom of Information Act: “The way in which some journalists and the Information Commissioner are acting means that the intention of the Act is not being met in practice.”

But in a statement to the House of Commons yesterday, he apologised, saying: “These remarks reflected a general concern I have about the scope of some of the decisions interpreting the FoI Act.

“But my comments were ambiguous. They could have implied that the Information Commissioner had made rulings on the issue of MPs’ correspondence or that he was acting in some way beyond his statutory responsibilities.

“He has not done that in any way and he has made no rulings in respect of MPs’ correspondence.”

The latest briefing to MPs by the Campaign for Freedom of Information on why the Bill is unnecessary and should be opposed is available here.

The bill was talked out in Parliament at the end of April but returns for its third reading today.