MPs today succeeded in their fight to prevent their home addresses being available to the public. The Government moved an order to exclude certain information that Commons authorities would have had to disclose under Freedom of Information laws.
Now the addresses of MPs, their travel plans, how much they spend on security and the identities of people who deliver goods or provide services to them will not be able to be revealed under the Freedom of Information Act. Commons Leader Harriet Harman told MPs they had to be able to "speak freely in this House without fear or favour" and debate controversial issues without feeling they or their families were at risk.
Ms Harman was speaking after a campaign by MPs, led by Tory Julian Lewis (New Forest E), to prevent their addresses being made public. Mr Lewis began his fight after a High Court ruling in May that MPs would have to publish their addresses. A total of 256 MPs from across the House have signed his Common motion stating an MP's address should not be published if he or she objected.
Today Ms Harman, whose London home has itself been targeted by protesters, said the issues were not just about "current threats" but also unforeseen threats such as from terrorists. The public who lived near MPs had to be protected as well. Advice from the Parliamentary Security Co-ordinator was that it would be a risk to put details of MPs addresses in the public domain.
She told MPs:
"If the House authorities continue to be obliged by law to publish our addresses and our travel plans we would know that a controversial speech in this House might lead to harassment at home."
Ms Harman said the Government was amending the Schedule 1 entry of the Freedom of Information Act relating to Parliament and the National Assembly of Wales to exclude the four categories of information disclosure under the Act.
She told MPs:
"This is not just about current threats but about the future. These could be threats in respect of an individual MP - whether from a fixated individual sometime in the future or from their future involvement with a particular controversial issue - or to all Members from circumstances which pose new dangers which are as yet unforeseen, such a terrorist threat focusing on Parliament. Once a Member's address is a matter of public information, it cannot be made private without moving home."
She said she had spoken to security experts within Parliament:
"The Security Co-ordinator's firm advice is that it would be a risk to put our addresses or anything that would lead to identification of our addresses or our travel plans in the public domain."
Ms Harman added that the order would not change the fact that the "overwhelming majority" of information held by the Commons and the Lords "will remain subject to the Act and be published".
Shailesh Vara, for the Tories, said:
"This is not about secrecy for secrecy's sake - it is simply a matter of striking a balance between greater openness and the need for ensuring safety and security for both Members and their families."
For the Liberal Democrats, Sir Robert Smith said:
"This order implements the will of the House ... and I always have reservations about allowing security to impact too much on our legislation ... but it does seem to make sense."
But Labour's David Taylor (Leicestershire NW), who has not signed the motion, said the measure was "going a little bit over the top". He himself was in the phonebook so his constituents could contact him easily. "People have right to know where their MPs do live in my view."
Mr Lewis said:
"Anybody who wishes to disclose his home address and put it in the phonebook, that is a matter for him or her to do. What we are talking about here is a situation where, had this gone ahead, 646 private home addresses would have been made available to anybody, any troublemaker, anyone at home or anyone abroad who wished to send something through the medium of the post to 646 unprotected mailboxes."
Mr Lewis said MPs did have to put their home address on "certain documents" when they stood for a General Election.
"But that should not be regarded as an excuse just because we have to reveal some addresses occasionally, some of the time for revealing all of them en masse all of the time in a way that is accessible at home or abroad at a touch of a button."
This "bogus argument" that "the cat was already out of the bag" had led to the High Court judges issuing their ruling, he said. He added:
"This has nothing to do with expenses and everything to do with security."
The Draft Freedom of Information (Parliament and National Assembly for Wales) Order was passed without a vote.
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'MPs TO VOTE ON ADDRESS PRIVACY'
BBC News Online – 19 June 2008
MPs have been granted a vote on whether they should be allowed to keep their home addresses secret to protect their privacy and security. It comes as the Commons prepares to publish a detailed breakdown of all MPs expenses on a quarterly basis.
More than 230 MPs have backed a campaign by Tory MP Julian Lewis to ensure home addresses are blanked out. Commons leader Harriet Harman earlier told MPs they would be given a vote on the issue on 3 July. Mr Lewis told BBC News he was confident of victory
"judging by the overwhelming strength of feeling in the House and the stance taken by the leader of the House, whom I applaud for standing up for MPs on this non-party issue".
The Commons authorities will publish a detailed breakdown of expenses, including second home allowances, from the Autumn. But 235 MPs have signed an Early Day Motion by Mr Lewis calling for home addresses to be left out "if he or she objects to publication on grounds of privacy or personal security".
Anyone seeking nomination to be an MP must publish a constituency address but MPs are not obliged to publish the address of their second home, which is normally in London. And those who face specific criminal or terrorist threats are thought to use false names on the electoral register, by agreement with the local returning officer.
But the arrangements were thrown into doubt last month when the High Court ordered the publication of a detailed breakdown of the expenses of 14 senior MPs, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron. The judges ruled that addresses should be published – pointing out they were already disclosed when MPs sought nomination for election and if someone was determined to discover it, they were likely to be able to do so.
But Mr Lewis rejected this argument as "lunacy" saying it would needlessly expose MPs to the risk of being targeted by extremists or individuals with a grudge against the government. He said letters to MPs in the Commons were routinely security vetted.
"Just because some MPs' addresses have to be published some of the time, that is not an excuse for making them all publish their addresses all of the time in an easily accessible form,"
he told BBC News. Judges' addresses are kept secret to protect them from reprisals by criminals they have jailed – but Mr Lewis argues MPs should be entitled to the same protection.
Last month, Mr Lewis made a Freedom of Information request for the home addresses of judges to be published to illustrate his point. It was turned down on the grounds of "privacy" but The New Forest East MP said he had been told by Justice Secretary Jack Straw on Monday it had also been rejected to protect the "individual personal security" of judges.
In a Commons speech last month, Mr Lewis said the plan to publish addresses was "barking mad" – and it should be made as difficult as possible to discover where MPs live, if they had good reason to keep it secret.