CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

BUSINESS QUESTION – MPs' HOME ADDRESSES – 22 May 2008

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): … On the question of Freedom of Information requests in relation to Members' allowances, following the High Court's decision last Friday I can confirm to the House that there will be no further appeal on the applications for information about the allowances claimed by 14 current and former Members. Tomorrow, information in respect of those 14 will be made public in the terms laid down by the High Court. Information in respect of all other current Members will be given out on a single date in the autumn.

On the question of the home addresses of the 14 Members concerned in this case, the information will be made public, subject to individual consideration of security issues. I should like to tell hon. Members that as far as publishing the addresses of all Members is concerned, as Leader of the House, I am determined that hon. Members should be able to speak in this House on controversial issues without looking over their shoulders because their home addresses are in the public domain. We are considering further how we can be sure that the money for Members' London homes is properly spent, but we must also ensure that the protection needed for Members to speak out in the House remains.

Mrs Theresa May (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons): I am sure that the whole House will have welcomed the statement that the Leader of the House has just made, not only on forthcoming business, but on Freedom of Information. As she has said, our systems need to ensure not only that money is properly spent and that there is transparency, but that hon. Members are not prevented from speaking out as they wish to in the House. …

Ms Harman: I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments in response to my points about the Freedom of Information issues. We all want to emphasise that we want probity in how public money is spent, but we must also have democracy, in that people must be able to speak up freely in this Chamber. I thank the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), whose early-day motion on this issue is attracting a lot of support. …

Dr Julian Lewis: May I thank the Leader of the House for her statement robustly defending the right of Members of Parliament to enjoy the same degree of privacy and security that any other citizen is entitled to enjoy if he wishes to keep his private address private? May I thank her also for drawing attention to my Early-Day Motion 1620, which has so far been signed by 88 hon. and right hon. Members?

[That this House believes that the home address of any hon. or Rt. hon. Member should not be published if he or she objects to publication on grounds of privacy or personal security.]

May I express my bafflement that the judges and the Information Commissioner do not appear to have appreciated the security considerations in this matter? May I also draw attention to Early-Day Motions 1623 and 1628, which were tabled by a Liberal Democrat and a Labour Member respectively, asking for the release of similar information about the home addresses of judges and senior civil servants?

[That this House notes the reasons given by the High Court as to why the addresses of hon. and right hon. Members can be published; and considers in the same spirit of openness and public accountability that the home addresses of High Court judges, who are adult, law-abiding citizens and holders of public office in the public eye, should also be published along with a detailed break-down of the expenses which they charge to the public purse.]

[That this House notes the High Court's reasons for why the addresses of hon. and right hon. Members can be published; and in the same spirit of openness and public accountability, the home addresses of High Court judges, chief police officers, fire chiefs, chief executives of local authorities, chairs of public bodies and senior Crown civil servants should also be published alongside detailed breakdowns of the expenses which each charge to the public purse.]

I have already made Freedom of Information requests for that information to be released. What arrangements will be in place for individual MPs to register their specific objections before the release of their addresses? Have any of the 14 MPs concerned been given the opportunity to object to their individual addresses being disclosed in that irresponsible way?

Ms Harman: We are in a different position to other people. We have to be subject to the appropriate level of scrutiny because the money being spent on housing, communication, office staff and travel is public money, and the public must have confidence that it is being spent properly. I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the points that I have made – Indeed, he has made them himself on many occasions – that, above all, it is important that hon. Members are able to speak freely in this House according to their conscience and concerns.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the 14 Members. It is the practice of the House authorities to consult individual Members regarding the handling of Freedom of Information requests, and that will be the case following the High Court decision. Those Members will be consulted in respect of their individual security situations. However, we will be looking to have a general position on addresses that satisfies the public that there is proper scrutiny of the money being spent on London homes. We need to consider this matter further, so I shall not say any more at this stage, but I know that it is of concern. I invite hon. Members to speak to me and the Deputy Leader of the House about this; we need as much information about and discussion on the issue as possible, and then we need to move forward appropriately. ...

Mr Kevan Jones: Further to the question that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) asked, may I ask for a debate on security issues in relation to MPs? I and other members of the Administration Committee were dismayed this week to hear that no advice on security was taken before the appeal. As part of that debate, may we debate the advice that the Members Estimate Committee gets on such matters, as well as mechanisms to ensure that the head of Finance and Administration is under proper parliamentary scrutiny and control, rather than taking decisions that, as we heard the other day, are his alone?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is right to say that the Information Tribunal did not have specific information about security when it was dealing with the requests for the private London addresses of the 14 current and former Members of Parliament. The Tribunal said that it regretted the paucity of information, and that is something that needs to be reflected on. I will take steps in the coming days and weeks to ensure that I get the views, experience, background and circumstances of all hon. Members, so that when a decision comes to be made in the future it can be made on the basis of properly gathered evidence. I think that that is the way we need to go forward.