Today I had intended to write to you to encourage you to take part in the Convention on Modern Liberty, of which Unlock Democracy is proud to be a partner organisation. I had intended to write about what an inspiring event I hope it will be, the impressive lineup of speakers, the nationwide parallel sessions that Unlock Democracy is organising with NO2ID and its timeliness.
But events, as ever, have overtaken us.
On Thursday, the Government sneaked out the draft of the innocuous sounding “Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order.” This “statutory instrument” (not an act), if passed, will
“…change the scope of the application of the [Freedom of Information] Act in relation to information held by the House of Commons and House of Lords regarding expenditure in respect of Members of both Houses. This includes information held by either House about expenses claimed by and allowances paid to Members. Such information is no longer within the scope of the Act.”
In short, they intend to exempt the expenses of MPs and Lords from the Freedom of Information Act and thereby close them to public scrutiny. This is to be passed almost a year to the day after the Derek Conway scandal erupted, when it emerged that the MP had been paying his sons as research staff while they were at university, despite not being able to demonstrate that they had actually done any work for him. If the Government gets away with this, scandals such as this will be allowed to continue and we will not be permitted to find out about them.
It is completely outrageous that the Government should seek to do this at all, let alone in such an underhand manner. The Government is planning to put us all on a national identity database, force us to carry identity cards, keep the DNA of millions of innocent people on a database and to read all our emails, phone and internet records regardless of whether we are supposed to have done anything wrong. Their argument is always “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” Why, then, is it one rule for us and another rule for politicians?
What’s more, when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, one of his first acts was to publish the Governance of Britain Green Paper which asserted that “It is right that Parliament should be covered by the [Freedom of Information] Act.”
This proposal is going to be debated in the House of Commons this Thursday – we don’t have much time. For this reason I am strongly urging you to do the following as a matter of urgency:
- Write to your MP (use www.writetothem.com) and urge them “to sign the Early Day Motion “Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009 (Jo Swinson MP)” – the text of this motion is below for your reference.
- Phone your MP’s office (the main switchboard is 020 7219 3000) and ask to talk to him or her to ask them to oppose this proposal.
- If you are on Facebook, join our group and invite all your friends to join – ESPECIALLY the ones not normally interested in politics.
- Forward this article to everyone you know either by email or any social bookmarking websites you use.
Please, please do this as soon as you can. We can defeat this proposal if we put pressure on MPs this week. In 2007, a group of backbench MPs attempted to get a similar proposal passed. We beat them then and we can beat them again.
With best wishes,
Director, Unlock Democracy
PS Katherine Gunderson has written an excellent chapter on Freedom of Information for our book Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88. I would encourage you to buy a copy for yourself – and your MP!
PPS For more information about the Convention for Modern Liberty, please see the website.
TEXT OF EARLY DAY MOTION
Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009
Primary Sponsor: Jo Swinson (LD, East Dunbartonshire)
That this House notes with concern the provisions in the Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009 to exempt remove the expenses of Members of Parliament and Peers from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act’; notes that this order will single out MPs and Peers in a special category as the only paid public officials who will note have to disclose full details of their expenses; notes with concern the regressive effect of this Order on Parliamentary transparency and the detrimental impact it will have on Parliament in the eyes of the public; calls on Ministers to block or repeal the Order in the interest of MPs’ and Peers’ accountability to members of the public.
UPDATE: the Early Day Motion is on Jo Swinson’s website: Expenses move risks further tarnishing Parliament.