David Maclean has already secured his place as a footnote in the history of state secrecy — by becoming the first British Member of Parliament to attempt to water down the UK Freedom of Information Act.
The Tory MP has presented a private members’ bill which will get its second reading in Parliament today.
The long title of Maclean’s Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill is: “A bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to exempt from its provisions the House of Commons and House of Lords and correspondence between Members of Parliament and public authorities.”
It does what it says on the tin — it is an attempt to add another exemption to the many that already exist within the FOIA, which came into force just two years ago.
Last month, Maclean explained the rationale for his billl to his local paper, the News & Star in Cumbria:
If someone approached me and asked for a letter sent to the police or a council about a constituent, I would tell them to go away. But there have been cases where the other body can be approached and things slip through the net.
I want to make sure this cannot happen.
The move would protect constituents and MPs. If an MP writes to their chief constable trying to get off a driving ban – that is totally different. I am flagging up the issue but I expect nothing will happen.
The fact is, Maclean’s fears are unfounded: truly confidential information about private individuals is already exempt from disclosure, under section 40 of FOIA. Anyone who has made a few FOI requests knows that officials just love citing the s40 exemption when blacking out every name before releasing a document. Mr Maclean’s constituents can rest easy.
Parliamentarians should not be attempting to exempt themselves from the same potential future scrutiny that all other people face when they write to a public authority.
Maclean’s bill is unlikely to get anywhere, of course. The far more serious threat to Freedom of Information in Britain remains the Government’s scheme to change the FOIA fees regime in order to make it easier for officials to reject FOI requests on cost grounds.
(Hat tip: Steve Wood’s excellent UK FOIA & Open Government Blog)