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The veracity of MPs' constituents

Martin Rosenbaum | 10:47 UK time, Thursday, 8 February 2007

Yesterday's Commons committee debate on the Bill to exempt MPs from freedom of information is worth listening to for what it indicates about the motivation of the Bill's supporters.

There was very little discussion of the Bill's implications for blocking the forced release of further details of MPs' expenses. Instead the debate focused almost entirely on MPs' concerns about disclosure of their correspondence when they take up constituents' cases with public authorities.

Of course the personal details of such constituents will generally already be exempt under the current law. David Maclean said the main motivation driving him to introduce this Bill was actually the need to also protect from disclosure 'our own personal view about the veracity of a constituent'.

He stated that sometimes he would write to, say, the local Chief Constable, saying 'I think my constituent has got a genuine case' and sometimes saying 'that is what my constituent told me and you may have a different view'. He wants to be certain that such letters would not be made public. (These remarks are between 14 and 15 minutes into the recording, if you don't want to listen to the entire proceedings.)

On the point that the Bill would also prevent the release of MPs' letters to public authorities which are nothing to do with individual cases but are about matters of public policy, Maclean said that on this MPs 'have to be trusted to know' whether to publicise these letters or keep them confidential.

I was also intrigued by the remarks from the LibDem MP Nick Harvey about how he puts his more candid remarks on yellow Post-It notes which he sticks onto his letters.

The minister Bridget Prentice told the committee that it was an issue which deserves attention and a matter for Parliament itself to decide. So there is no official government line.

The Bill will now proceed to its next stage in the Commons (Report and Third Reading). The initial version of the Bill has been amended so that it covers all communications (not just correspondence), is limited to MPs (and not Peers), and only covers what MPs do in their capacity as MPs. The Commons library has produced an excellent guide to the issues raised by the Bill.

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