Lib Dems to oppose Labour/Tory attempts to weaken Freedom of Information

by Stephen Tall on January 17, 2009

Today’s Guardian reports on Labour’s latest attempts to dilute the very Freedom of Information Act (2000) which it once passed:

Ministers today faced a backlash following the revelation that they are backing plans to exempt MPs from Freedom of Information Act legislation. The Liberal Democrats denounced the move, saying the party’s MPs would be advised to vote against the plan when it is considered in a free vote next Thursday. Tories are being urged to abstain. However, with many backbenchers from the two main parties privately in favour of the move, it is expected to be approved. …

Downing Street defended the plans to exempt MPs from key parts of the Freedom of Information Act, which were unveiled by the leader of the House, Harriet Harman, yesterday. The proposals are backdated to 2005, meaning they would nullify rulings from the high court and information tribunal that the public had a right to know exactly how MPs were spending allowances for second homes. Instead, individual MPs’ expenses would merely be split into more categories than before when published.

Asked whether it was right for parliamentarians to make themselves a “special case” when other public office holders had to release full details of expenses, the prime minister’s spokesman cited “security and other considerations”. He insisted there would be “a much greater degree of transparency” under the new system, adding: “You also have to be mindful of the cost associated with any very heavy-handed administration of any such scheme.”

We learn that, “A Tory source said David Cameron was likely to encourage his MPs to abstain on Thursday” – which suggests that, once again, Mr Cameron is far from convinced he can rely upon his own MPs to follow his lead.

Fortunately, the Lib Dems’ David Heath is prepared to speak up for the principle of Freedom of Information:

The Liberal Democrat frontbencher David Heath said ministers had got themselves into “a tangled and expensive mess”. “Had they published expenses in the terms they now suggest three years ago, it would have been seen as a bold move towards greater transparency,” he said.

“Now, whatever the practical merits, many will still see these proposals, fairly or unfairly, as a shabby retreat. Although this is not a matter for a whipped vote, [the Liberal Democrat leader] Nick Clegg and I have taken a consistent and clear line on the application of the Freedom of Information Act. It must apply to members of parliament just as it applies to anyone else in public life. We shouldn’t be seeking exemptions and special treatment just because it may be inconvenient.

“I will certainly be recommending that colleagues vote against the proposal to exempt parliament.”