MPs’ HOME ADDRESSES – 17 July 2008

Dr Julian Lewis: I would like to begin by thanking the Leader of the House and all of her staff for the extremely positive way in which they have reacted to the concerns, initially expressed by me and then by hundreds of other right hon. and hon. Members, about the situation we were in danger of getting into. I say with the greatest sincerity that I only hope that the stance that she took did not contribute to the fact that her home has been invaded twice – by people who no doubt feel in the depths of their being that the cause they propose was justification for their actions. Nevertheless, such things are precisely what should not be allowed to happen. She has excelled in her office in the work that she has done and in the way in which she has spoken out in defence of Members’ rights and interests on this matter.

I would like to thank the 98 Members of my party, the 111 Members of the Labour Party and the 31 Members of the Liberal Democrat Party who supported Early-Day Motion 1620. I would also like to thank the several Ministers who told me that they could not sign the EDM because of the posts that they held, but who nevertheless wrote to Mr Speaker explaining why they supported the principle of the motion.

I know that we are waiting for an important debate on Intelligence and Security, so I shall not detain the House for long. This, however, is a debate on a related subject. It is a debate about security, but on an issue where not very much intelligence has been shown by a certain number of people from whom we thought we could have expected it. I exclude, however, the Information Commissioner from that criticism. I say that because I had laboured under the mistaken impression that he wanted our individual addresses to be disclosed, but as he later pointed out to me, he had not ordered that. After an appeal, that requirement was added by the Information Appeal Tribunal and upheld by the High Court in a subsequent hearing.

The guilty men, as it were, were those two latter bodies. It was not the Information Commissioner. In fact, he proceeded to enter the lion’s den and, at short notice, 50 to 60 hon. Members of all parties came to meet him and his team. I think that even he was quite shaken by the stories that they told him about their experiences when their constituency addresses had been exposed. Indeed, some honourable Ladies were in tears at that meeting and the Information Commissioner and his team were shaken by what they heard.

Mr Peter Kilfoyle: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work. I was one of those who attended the meeting with the Information Commissioner and, like him, I witnessed the genuine concerns that were expressed. Does he ever speculate on whether those venerable High Court judges who made the decision would publish their private addresses if the occasion demanded?

Dr Lewis: I have not only speculated on the matter but put it to the test. After one of the earlier debates on the subject, I took the liberty of sending the relevant Hansard to each of the three judges, who had, in their wisdom, determined that our addresses should be published en masse. I asked whether I could have their home addresses for future correspondence. Every one politely but firmly declined.

There is a postscript. One – the right honourable Sir Igor Judge – was subsequently appointed Lord Chief Justice and I asked, on what some might consider a bogus Point of Order, whether it was possible within the rules to send him our congratulations, and express how happy we were as a House that one silly mistake had not spoiled his promising professional career. I duly sent the Hansard to the Royal Courts of Justice, but I have not yet received a reply and I can only regret that, if I had gone to the trouble of finding his home address, I might have discovered whether he saw the joke.

There is an incredible lack of self-awareness in the wider debate. I hope that the House will indulge me while I quote from a short letter, which was published in my local paper, the Southern Daily Echo, on Monday, 9 June. It is headed: “Why is MP secretive?” It reads:

“Why has Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest, East, attacked the decision to disclose details of MPs’ homes?

“He has access to our home details through the nation census and other government data. The Freedom of Information process was brought in by the government, so he should respect it.”

At the bottom of the letter, a little note states that not only the writer’s address, but his name has been withheld. [Laughter]

David Taylor: I note the hon. Gentleman’s Early-Day Motion 1620 and I was not one of the 256 Members who signed it. Does not he think that he is going a little over the top? Although the correspondent to whom he referred requested anonymity for some reason, he has a point. People have a right to know that Members of Parliament live in their constituency. Like many Members, I am in the phone book and I welcome constituents who turn up at my address, if they wish to do that. The information on the ballot paper for a general election every four or five years can include a bogus address. Candidates – of all parties – can simply rent a flat in the constituency and visit it once a month from their real home 100 miles away. Why do not people have the right to know?

Dr Lewis: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman had many important things to do at the time, but if he had attended some of the earlier debates, he would have heard me address those points in detail. It is not fair to the House for me to go over them again now. Let me put it in a nutshell. First, anyone who wishes to disclose a home address and put it in the phone book can do so – it is a matter for him or her. However, if the decision had been implemented, 646 private home addresses would be made available to anybody – including any troublemaker at home or abroad – who wished to send something through the post to 646 unprotected mail boxes. If there is any sense in our having the expensive and complex screening arrangements at the House of Commons to ensure that nothing horrible, explosive or contaminated is sent through the post en masse to Members of Parliament, who are probably being targeted not individually but as a body, it is obvious madness to reveal the 646 home addresses. I could make many other points, but I shall leave it at that and refer the hon. Gentleman to my previous speeches on the subject.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Michael Ancram) typically put his finger on the heart of the problem when he referred to data that are published at election time. We have to include a home address on specific documents every time we stand for election. I have already said in an intervention that, just because we have to reveal some addresses occasionally, it should not be regarded as an excuse for revealing them all, en masse, all the time in a way that makes them accessible at home or abroad at the touch of a button. Nevertheless, that bogus argument – that the cat is already out of the bag – led the judges and the Appeal Tribunal wrongly to conclude that there was no point in refusing the request for addresses en masse.

It is important to close that loophole and I would welcome a response from Government Front Benchers on that. I believe that the idea that people had to publish a private home address – even if it has not found its way on to the internet – at election time predated the time when one could put the name of one’s party on the ballot paper. The requirement is archaic and an unnecessary infringement of individuals’ rights. If people want to stand for public office, I do not understand why they must disclose their home address. The Information Commissioner has a wise ruling, which is that, in almost all circumstances, he would at most recommend disclosure of only the first three digits or letters of the person’s postcode. The Government should take the opportunity – I am not sure whether the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 is the relevant vehicle – to close the loophole, because it was seized upon. Without that, we would not have to go to such lengths.

I want to consider Anonymous Registration. In the past, it was possible to give a nom de plume if one felt that one was at risk and wished to be on the electoral register under another name. The rule has changed and someone who wishes to be on the electoral register anonymously must have the signature of a police Chief Constable, that of a Director of the Security Service or that of a Director of Social Services. We need to reconsider that to make it clear to Chief Constables that, when a Member of Parliament wants to be on that list, that is all that is necessary for Anonymous Registration.

I will conclude, much to the satisfaction of my Whip, who has been making noises offstage. I hope that anybody present today who believes that I am wrong will divide the House. I do not think that it will happen, but I hope that it will because the Sunday Telegraph, whose reporter was responsible for this mess in the first place, found plenty of space to attack me and suggest that my party opposed what I was doing. However, it found no space other than for two sentences of a letter that I wrote in reply to try to explain that the House had already resolved to take action, without a vote. I wish that there could be a vote so that even the idiot scribblers on the Sunday Telegraph could understand that our action has nothing to do with expenses and everything to do with security.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the draft Freedom of Information (Parliament and National Assembly for Wales) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 15th July, be approved.