MPs’ HOME ADDRESSES – 3 July 2008

Dr Julian Lewis: A few days ago, after the Leader of the House gave us the good news that she would table a motion to enable the privacy and security of our home addresses to be maintained, an hon. Labour Member approached me and said in all seriousness: “Julian, what do you think about the prospect of establishing a trade union for Members of Parliament?” I think that he had me in mind for the role of Shop Steward – not quite the climactic outcome that I had in mind after six long years as a Shadow Defence Minister. However, he had rather a good point because, as the hon. Member for North Durham (Kevan Jones) revealed in a previous debate, no security information was apparently taken by the House authorities or put before the court before the crazy decision was made to release our home addresses en masse in easily accessible form for the benefit of any troublemaker or terrorist at home or abroad.

I did the Information Commissioner an injustice on a previous occasion because I assumed that he had first suggested releasing our addresses. In fact, the matter first arose when the Information Appeal Tribunal said that private addresses should be revealed, and the three eminent judges, in their wisdom, upheld the decision. On 25 June, 50 to 60 Members of Parliament attended a meeting with the Information Commissioner and, consequently, he has issued a statement. I shall briefly put some of it on the record.

The Information Commissioner states that his office

“has consistently taken a cautious approach towards the disclosure of home addresses, whether in the context of the Freedom of Information Act or otherwise. In most cases, an address is an individual’s personal data and is protected by the Data Protection Act. None of the Freedom of Information decisions about MPs’ expenses made by the Commissioner has required disclosure of home addresses.”

He goes on to say that

“if any disclosure of personal address information arising from a Freedom of Information request is required at all, it should normally be limited to the first three digits of the postcode.”

He concludes that

“it would be prudent for the House Authorities first to give each MP”

– about whom a Freedom of Information request is made –

“the opportunity to indicate whether they have a current or prospective security-related concern ... The Commissioner considers that the House Authorities would then be entitled to withhold each address where such a concern is registered.”

As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) pointed out, once every four or five years we have to reveal our constituency address in the process of getting elected. But the fact that we have to do that with some of our addresses, some of the time, is no reason whatever for our having to do it with all our addresses, all the time, in an easily accessible form. Of course, if someone who is targeting a particular MP and means to track him or her down in order to do him or her harm puts in enough effort, it will be possible to do so. However, that does not cater for a situation in which someone with a grudge, someone with an obsession, a follower of a political cause or a self-taught follower of al-Qaeda, at home or abroad – who will not even have heard of most of the Members of this House – goes on the internet, conveniently finds 646 addresses and sends 646 packages containing something explosive, horrible or, at the very least, abusive to 646 unprotected mail boxes. The proposal is absolutely insane.

Patrick Hall: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Lewis: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not, because of the time.

Finally, let me say something to those hon. Members who are worried about what the press say about our deliberations today. This is my first experience of a total media black-out. Journalists have again and again admitted to me privately that they have no answers to the points that I have made, but time and again they have refused to put anything in their papers. Even the Daily Telegraph refused to publish a letter in reply. Could that conceivably be something to do with the fact that one of the people who took the case to court was a journalist [Ben Leapman] on the Sunday Telegraph who then proceeded to write an inane half-page article about how vital it was to reveal our home addresses, to ensure that we were not fiddling our expenses? He ought to be ashamed of himself, as should the media. I am grateful to the Leader of the House (Harriet Harman), who has done her duty so well in this event.

* * *

Later, the following Motion was passed without a Division of the House:

Members’ Home Addresses

That this House asserts that the freedom of Members to speak on any matter without the fear or threat of interference or molestation is essential to the effective conduct of parliamentary proceedings; notes that this freedom has long been recognised to be an integral element of the protection afforded to Members enabling them to participate effectively in parliamentary business, and thus that Members must be able to speak on any matter in parliamentary proceedings without threat of interference or molestation; considers that this would be threatened by publication of Members’ home addresses, patterns of travel or other information linked to addresses held by the House authorities revealing details that could threaten their security, and so would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs; and urges Mr Speaker to take account of these considerations in the discharge of his responsibilities. – [Ms Harman]