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In particular, the importance of consultation with the MP, as a third party to the request, should always be remembered.
In other words, if a freedom of information request has been made about some correspondence between a constituent, an hon. Member and an organisation, the Member of Parliament has to be asked first. The Member of Parliament will almost certainly, in nearly every case, provide clear reasons why the freedom of information request would be inappropriate. The guidance continues:
If an MP has written to a public authority passing on information from or relating to a constituent, the presumption should be that the information is not disclosed. Information is likely to be exempt under one or more specific exemptions.
Chris Bryant: I never want to be too confident of anything, but the Information Commissioner has made sure that all public bodies have been informed, and I hope that this debate will result in further understanding of the position. The Ministry of Justice has recently written to Departments to ensure that they fully understand it too, because there has been an instance where a Department has, inadvertently, provided information.
MPs and their constituents do not have the same confidential relationship as a doctor and patient or lawyer and client. However, MPs often assure constituents that their dealings with them are confidential and there is usually in any event a legitimate expectation by the constituent that information disclosed in their dealings with their MP will be treated as confidential. This means that letters sent on behalf of a constituent may be subject to a duty of confidence.
I think that the situation is pretty clear, and we have arrived, through the guidance, at almost the same outcome, which is in the interests of our constituents, as we would have done through the private Members Bill tabled by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border.
The final issue to address is the one relating to Essex police. I wholly concur with the view of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford that the kind of letters that he has been receiving do not require such a high level confidentiality or are of such a restricted nature. I suspect that somebody in Essex police is being overly zealous about planting the word restricted on letters and not sufficiently zealous in stopping themselves doing so.
The Cabinet Offices manual of protective securityanother document that I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows inside outwhich is readily available to everybody, not least to the police, gives situations where the restricted marking should be used on a document. Among those are instances when the release of the document would
affect diplomatic relations adversely; make it more difficult to maintain the operational effectiveness or security of UK or Allied Forces; or undermine the proper management of the public sector and its operations.
Somebody being overly zealous and overly jobs-worthy might want to say that literally anything that one puts in a letter to a Member of Parliament might undermine the proper management of the public sector and its operations, but a common-sense approach should be adopted, not only by Essex police but by any other organisation writing to the hon. Gentleman.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD):
This is an informative and useful debate. Incidentally, Devon and Cornwall police do not put restricted on any of their letters, so I do not encounter this problem. I want to clarify something on freedom of information. If a local authority receives a freedom of information request, it is clear that they will let the person concerned know that they have received correspondence from a Member of Parliament on the issue. They will then write to the Member of Parliament asking for consent to issue the information. Given what the Deputy Leader of the
House has said, would it be right for a local authority to say, in response to a general inquiry from a member of the public, that they have received correspondence from a Member of Parliament regarding an issue? For example, in the case of a letter from a constituent about the noise caused by an adjoining neighbour, should that adjoining neighbour instantly be told, on going to the local authority, that the MP had written to it about that? That issue has occurred, although not that specifically, in my constituency and, I believe, in the constituencies of colleagues.
Chris Bryant: I cannot be absolutely certain about the specific point of two neighbours who might want to play Members of Parliament off against each other. I know that at least once in their parliamentary careers all right hon. and hon. Members will experience someone coming along to their surgery who provides a cast-iron argument why they should adopt position A, only to have the next-door neighbour come through the door 10 minutes later and argue exactly the opposite. After that happens once, hon. Members are more careful about determining their position. Certainly, I have tended never to get involved in planning issues as Members of Parliament do not have a specific locus to deal with them.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): A difficulty arises when people complain about antisocial neighbours of whom they are terrified. They pluck up courage to go and see their Member of Parliament, but what happens if the antisocial neighbour then writes to the local authority and is told that a complaint has been made against him? In that case, it would be a question not of the MP getting into a dispute between neighbours, but of the complainant fearing for their well-being.
Chris Bryant: As ever, my hon. Friend makes an important point. That is why the guidance has been produced. It is a matter of basic justice that when a constituent who is already suffering from antisocial behaviour, possibly including violence, complains to their Member of Parliament, the last thing that should happen is for that to become known so that they get more abuse from the person about whom they have complained. I am confident that the guidance that the Secretary of State for Justice has provided means that, in the event of a freedom of information request in such a case, the local authority would ring or write to the Member of Parliament. In that situation, the Member would immediately say that the authority should not reveal the existence of correspondenceand certainly should not reveal the correspondence itselfbecause that would aggravate the situation. That would be the end of the matter.
Mr. Jenkins: Can my hon. Friend confirm that the local authority would not reply to the inquiry until it had spoken to the Member of Parliament, after which point it would say that it was not able to reply?
The guidance makes it clear that local authorities and other bodiessuch as Departments or the policemust contact the Member of Parliament before deciding what to do. That gives the Member the opportunity to put the case in context. A clerk who receives the initial request may think that it is legitimate for anyone to know the contents of an MPs correspondence.
In some circumstancessay the question of whether a new road should be builtit would be legitimate for members of the public to know the local MPs view. That is very different from the example given by my hon. Friend, and that is why the guidance makes it possible for the individual MP to say no to the release of correspondence.
Richard Younger-Ross: The Deputy Leader of the House makes a good point on that issue. However, what would happen if a general inquiry were made and local authorities and other bodies said that they had had a letter from the MP on a subject? That can imply that he or she has taken a view on it and, by and large, we do not take a view but usually pass on the concerns of the constituent and ask the authority to consider them.
Chris Bryant: That is another area in which all hon. Members start to develop a way of dealing with constituents issues. When a constituent gets in touch with us about somethinglet us say that he makes argument Xwe might exercise our representative function by writing to the local authority and saying, My constituent says X. However, it would be a wholly different thing if we were to write, My constituent says X, and I agree with him. There are now sufficient protections in place to allow a Member of Parliament to assure constituents about their ability to raise matters that are genuinely confidential
Mr. Cunningham: In fact, I am going to agree with my hon. Friend. Some years ago, I took up the case of a doctor who had been suspended. The Speaker made some rulings in the House butwithout my permissionthe health authority tried to use correspondence in a court of law to get the person involved dismissed. The fact that the judge would not allow that shows that a lot of what the Minister has said is right.
Chris Bryant: I am sure that, in the course of a Parliament, nearly every Member of the House will encounter an issue relating to the confidentiality of correspondence. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, the one thing that has changed dramatically in the past 100 years in this House is the nature of the relationship between constituent and Member of Parliament. It is not just that a constituent might occasionally travel here to put a point to us, but that our daily life is full of e-mails, phone calls and letters, often telling harrowing stories of a deeply personal and confidential nature. That is the bread and butter of political life today. For many of us, the main things that we campaign on, both in the House and outside it, spring from what our constituents bring to useither when we knock on their doors, or when they knock on ours.
As the Speaker made clear in his 2002 ruling, and as the Government have been trying to achieve through the Justice Secretarys work with the Information Commissioner, we must make sure that confidentiality is based on the needs of our constituents and not on anything else.