|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
I shall jump on a bit in what I was going to say as a result of that excellent intervention; I hope that the House will forgive me if I go back and forth a little in my line of argument. I have come to the conclusion that nothing will concentrate the minds of the judges, the officials of this House or the officials who work for the Information Commissioner more than being put in the position in which they are seeking to put Members of this House. That is why I have, not at all facetiously, put in freedom of information requests asking for the private home addresses of High Court judges in general. Now that we know the names of the three High Court judges who took the decision, my parliamentary assistant has put in a supplementary request for their details to be made public. The grounds on which those judges came to their decision were that if someone really set their mind to it, it would be
possible to find out legally and quite straightforwardly where anybody in the public eye lived. If that applies to us, it applies to them.
However, in reality, the argument is a falsehood, as a moments reflection will reveal. If somebody wishes to take basic security precautions in respect of their address, it is possible for them to do so. My address has never been on an electoral register, and that is quite legal. Owing to my individual political history, I have explained to the electoral returning officer every time that I would prefer to register under a nom de plume. Anybody can do that. I fill in my electoral registration form with my nom de plume and sign it Julian Lewis, indicating that I have used that nom de plume.
It is true that when I stand in elections, my private constituency address has to be published in certain electoral documents; that fact is used as an excuse by the various individuals and bodies to say, Well, the cat is out of the bag, so all the addresses for which money is claimedeither the London or constituency addressesshould be put in a big list on the internet.
I have done an experiment. As I said, my private constituency address does not involve my partner and her safety. I have entered that address into the Google search engine with my name. I have had to fill in various forms with that addressI am talking only about my constituency address, not my London onebut despite that fact, no match comes up anywhere on the internet. If somebody is sufficiently evil-minded about it, they will no doubt now make a point of going to New Forest, East, ferreting around, finding the relevant forms and publishing my address in the papers. I have had to take that calculated risk in putting my head above the parapet and raising the issue at all. Good luck to themthey will just prove my point. However, at least my London address, where my partner lives with me, will not be involved.
The people I have been talking about have taken leave of their senses. The problem has been that we have not had the opportunity properly to present the security considerations to those who ought to consider themnamely, the judges and commissioners. Furthermore, as I said in an intervention, we have not had an opportunity to raise the issues outside the House, because the very people who are determined that all this stuff should be exposed are the media themselves. I have no confidence whatever that I will be any more successful at making the public aware of the issues at stake as a result of this debate.
I have tried my best with the media. I had a very long conversation with a journalist from The Times whom I know well and whom I regard as principled. I explained to him at length the issues about the disclosure of MPs addresses, particularly in the context of the current terrorist environment. I explained to him what I would do, even if I were only an al-Qaeda sympathiser at home or abroad; I have given one example of what I would do, but I do not want to generate too many free ideas for the extremists out there by giving more. However, I could do plenty more things with my twisted mind; I am sure that the extremists do not need my suggestions anyway. The journalist had no answer to any of my points. He really did notI am not doing him a disservice or being unfair to him. However, I could tell that he was uncomfortable with the conversation, which ended with him saying, Well, Ill have to think about it, Julian.
I later had a conversation with a particularly experienced and distinguished parliamentary correspondent from one of the tabloid newspapers. He went even further than The Times correspondent. He said, Gosh! It would be barking mad for those addresses to be published.
I should like to spend a moment considering what the Information Commissioner, supported by the wisdom of the High Court, proposes that we should rely on. I say it again: there is an exemption through which if a particular MP has a special reason for keeping his or her address confidentialbecause of a stalker, terrorist or other criminal threatthe address may be redacted. Right, let us think about that.
Let us take half a dozen female MPs as an example, and let us imagine that the provisions are about to come in. One of those MPs is being stalked. Ah! Thats all right, says the Information Commissioner, We have catered for thather address will be redacted. Fine, so we go to press and the address of one of those half a dozen female MPs is withheld and the other five addresses are published. But hang on a momentsix months down the line, two of the other five suddenly acquire stalkers. What will we do about them? Will we say, Sorry: general public, please disregard those addresses that we published? Are we going to say, Too late nowtough luck. If we say that, why should the first one to be stalked have had the advantage of not having had her address published, while the others did not? Alternatively, will we say that the lady MPs should be moved and that we will pay for the costs of that? That would involve the public purse, and the issue is supposed to be about the public pursealthough it is not, in my humble opinion.
Mr. Bacon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is being very generous. Another issue that occurs to me is this: how are we supposed to know in advance that we are about to become a victim of terrorism? I say that very seriously. At about a quarter to 3 in October 1984, I happened to be in Brighton. I walked through the revolving doors of the Grand Hotel to see whether some friends of mine were still there. I sat down and had a chat. About four to five minutes later, the Brighton bomb went off. I did not know that that was going to happen; if I had, I would have been somewhere else.
Dr. Lewis: That is why we can see that not a moments real thought has been given to the security implications. I am afraid to make the following proposal, because I know the bureaucratic mind as well as the extremist oneeven now, I can see the bureaucrats groping madly for the wrong conclusion. My proposal is that if there are any grounds for withholding any hon. Members address because they already face a specific threat, that must be an argument for withholding every hon. Members address because we could become subject to such a threat at any time because of the nature of our work.
In fact, the bureaucrats would no doubt say, Ah! Perhaps we have been too generous. Perhaps we had better say that it is so absolutely vital to be certain that MPs are not fiddling the additional costs allowancethat is the matter of supreme importancethat we had better publish the addresses, even of those MPs who do face a criminal threat or threat of stalking or who have put their heads above the parapet.
The very hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has put his head above the parapet many times by naming in this House extremistI would call them unIslamicorganisations and individuals. He has been very brave. He knows that he may well be attacked on account of his bravery, but why should he have the additional concern that his family might be? The whole thing is barking mad, as I said earlier.
Andrew Mackinlay: I have not signed that EDM so farI am a bit of a loner in this placebut I will consider doing so. I have asked parliamentary questions on my own initiative, one of which asked whether the addresses of judges lodgings will be published. They are demonstrably provided at public expense, and I imagine that the Government, who are craven, will baulk at pressure from the judges and say, You darent do that. These are public buildings. I want the addresses of the judges lodgings.
Dr. Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is irrepressible and, as usual, he is not only irrepressible, but unanswerable. The only way in which the problem will be solved is to force the people sitting in judgment on these matters to consider how they would like it.
I mentioned briefly during business questions a couple of the other early-day motions that have been tabled by other hon. Membersnot in any co-ordinated way; I knew about them only when I saw them on the Order Paper. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) tabled early-day motion 1623, which states:
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.
on the basis that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
That this House notes the High Courts 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 was not going to raise this point, but that EDM reminds me of a press story that I read recently concerning the fact that certain chief executives of local councilspeople whose salaries are between three and four times larger than those of hon. Members of this Househad been receiving what was described as hate mail from members of the public because they were getting such gigantic increases in their salaries. As a result, for data protection and privacy reasons, their increases in salary were no longer to be revealed. I am not sure whether I have that right
Dr. Lewis: I see that the hon. Gentleman agrees. It was certainly the case that someone would not be able to identify which particular chief executives had received massive salary increases. How would those chief executives like their home addresses to be published? They were so concerned about their privacy and about not getting nasty letters from irate taxpayers, that they did not even want it to be known that they had had such large increases, let alone to receive letters at their home address rather than at their work address.
Mr. Evans: We know how much he earns, but I said to him, Do tell me how much Jeremy Paxman earns. He said, I am not going to tell the Committee because it is confidential. Everyone is taxed through the TV licence; public money is provided for all BBC journalists, so the same sort of revelations should be made in that case.
Dr. Lewis: This is where I have another confession to make. I am not a very religious man, but in so far as I have a religious hinterland, it goes back more to the Old Testament than the New Testament. I do not take the view that one should turn the other cheek; I take the view that if I am going to go down, I am going to take as many of these people down with me as I can. For that reason, I have not only submitted a freedom of information request for the private home addresses of judges to be published, but I have started tabling questions to every Cabinet MinisterI am up to about 12 Departments so farasking what their policy would be if they received a freedom of information request asking for the disclosure of the private home addresses of senior civil servants, who correspond to Ministers, and middle-ranking civil servants, who correspond to ordinary Members. I do not want to belabour those points, and I shall move on to newer ground.
Mr. Bacon: I have just been reminded of a case from the Public Accounts Committee. We spent months, if not years, trying to get information on redundancy payments out of the Foreign Office. The amounts in question were not smallin many cases, they were £300,000, £400,000 or £500,000. Retired diplomats were being paid off without the inconvenience of having to continue their employment for five or six years more. It was impossible to get the names of the individuals involved, even though it was public money.
Dr. Lewis: That does not surprise me at all. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, we have an absurd situation in which, based in the same organisation, we have the people responsible for freedom of information requests and those responsible for data protection. Effectively, if there are conflicts, there ought to be two separate bodies to fight the corner of each side of the argument, but that is not the case at the moment.
I shall diverge a little more, as I have mentioned the Information Commissioner. I have a chequered history with the Information Commissioner, and I do not have a great deal of regard for the way in which that office has done its job. In September 2004, I was surprised to receive a summons from the then leader of my party, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). He informed me that although my only speciality in life was defence and security matters, as I hope some of the remarks I have made illustrate, he wished me to take on the role, on a temporary basis, of shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office. I am sure that he will not mind me mentioning it now the election has been and gone. He was quite blunt about it; he was concerned about the way in which the Freedom of Information Act might be appliedhe had a lot of foresight on thiswhen it came into force. Although it had been enacted in 2000, it came into force only on 1 January 2005 and of course the election was due to take place soon after that.
My right hon. and learned Friends concern was that the Act lent itself to being used in a politically partisan fashion. It would be possible to release all sorts of detailed information about why previous Governments, who happened to be Conservative, had taken decisions that had led to all sorts of disasters like Black Wednesday, but it would not be possible to get similar information out about the current Government because it was too current, and exemptions would have kicked in concerning the act of government becoming impracticable if current matters were being investigated. My job, which was given to me on a temporary basisthe promise was that I would go back to defence whether we won or lost the election, and I am delighted that it was fulfilledwas to try to neutralise that threat.
In the course of doing that job, I did two things. One was to table a lot of questions to a lot of Cabinet Ministers that I knew would be rejected, as indeed they were, and thus when old material was brought out, it became a matter of whether the Act was being used in a partisan way. The other thing was something I stumbled across by accident. I tabled a series of questions to every Department, asking how many confidential or secret files had been shredded in the each of the past five yearsin other words, since the measure had been enacted but before it came into force. In several cases,
there was no discernible change and a roughly equal number of files had been shredded in each of those years. However, in several Departments, including some important ones, there had been a massive increase in shredding files. To my mind, that provided at least a prima facie case that something had been going on and that some Departments had decided to make a bonfire of files before they had to open them. I thought that addressing that was surely what the Information Commissioner and the Freedom of Information Act were about.
To my amazement, Mr. Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, immediately declared that he was unaware of the deliberate destruction of files by civil servants and that Departments were keen to co-operate with him. He said that he would give them all a clean bill of health but that, if I had any evidence that they had been destroying files to avoid the terms of the Act, I should give it to him. Excuse me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I thought that that was his job. I believed that I had established enough prima facie evidence. When an Act is coming into force that requires many files to be opened and there is a pattern that shows files being destroyed steadily and then a sudden massive increase in that destruction, surely that is enough to trigger an investigation. However, he was having none of it.
By contrast, determining whether a bunch of Members of Parliament genuinely live in the houses for which they claim expenses shot to the top of the Information Commissioners agenda. Only today, he is at the top of the news agendait is the same man; he is doing well. I wonder what his home address isperhaps I will find out. He is initiating an investigation into how the Tory party gave names, voting intentions and so on to some media. Why does he need to investigate that? We know how it happeneda massive mistake was made. All the people who received the information assured everybody that they have destroyed it. Of course, those in the Conservative party who are responsible deserve a severe reprimand for making a stupid mistake. However, why does the Information Commissioner leap on that and investigate it when there is no mystery? When something happened that genuinely mattered, he flunked the challenge. I do not hesitate to say that I have no confidence in the man as an individual and no professional confidence in him. The sooner he is brought before the House, so that he can be subject to some oversight and answer some questions, the better.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|