Opinion: So just how strongly did the Lib Dems oppose the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill?

“This is unacceptable” said Ming Campbell in an email to party members and supporters on the eve of this bill being given its third reading in the Commons.

But having watched this bill progress through the Commons I’ve not been hugely impressed by the Lib Dem commitment to oppose it.

To take it in stages.  This bill received an unopposed second reading.  I’m not an expert on the minutiae of Parliamentary procedure but according to the committee stages of this bill, it could have been blocked if it had it received an objection from a single member.

The bill then passed to the committee stage.  You would expect that a bill which the party considered to be unacceptable would be strongly opposed at committee stage.

Yet not a single amendment was put.  Not a single vote was called for.

Indeed to read Nick Harvey’s comments there wasn’t even a Lib Dem MP on the committee.

“I agreed to serve on the Committee to provide some of the insight that I have gained through my work on the House of Commons Commission and the Members Estimate Committee. I am not here as a party spokesman; I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is a House matter on which Members must make their own judgments. I would not expect party Whips to seek to get involved in it.”

(Nick Harvey – Committee stage – 7th February 2007)

Leaving aside the fact that the views of the House of Commons Commission should perhaps have been represented by submissions to the Committee rather than having a “man on the inside”, it seems to me to be astonishing that a party which is the only one to have expressed a party view on a bill doesn’t have someone on the Committee considering that bill.

If Nick was not going to represent the party position then why not replace him with someone who would?  Norman Baker would at least have ensured some opposition to the Bill at Committee stage!

Whilst not a party spokesman, Nick’s position on the bill can at best be described as tacit support (he certainly didn’t vote against it):

“I confess that I am slightly queasy about the suggestion that the solution is to take Parliament out of the Freedom of Information Act altogether…  However, it is up to those who do not believe that the Bill, which has the advantage of clarity and simplicity, is the way to address these very real issues to come up with a better suggestion.”

So we come to the 3rd reading stage.  Messrs Baker, Hughes and Heath did a good job in talking the Bill out at its “first” third reading and there was some surprise when it came back again.

It was encouraging that the party geared up for some serious opposition to the Bill.  Ming issued clear statements opposing it:

“Of all public figures, MPs have least right to be exempt from public scrutiny. We are elected to represent our constituents’ interests and to maintain high standards in public life.”

(Party press release – 18th May 2007)

“The Freedom of Information Act is a vital tool for allowing members of the public to assess whether their MPs are doing so.  We must not allow it to be compromised.”

(Email to members and supporters – 16th May 2007)

“In recent days Gordon Brown has spoken out about the need for restoring the reputation of Parliament, and for more openness and transparency. That’s quite right. But these objectives are hardly likely to be served if we have one law for MPs and a different law for everyone else.”

(Today programme – 18th May 2007)

The email to members also urged people to contact their MP urging them to oppose the bill.  Whilst such a high profile step was welcome – I can’t recall being emailed by the leader to lobby my MP on any previous bill – it was perhaps slightly late in the process coming less than 48 hours before the bill was due for debate.

So after all that “sound & fury” you would have expected a Parliamentary show of strength from the Lib Dems.  Sadly just 16 Lib Dem MPs spoke or voted in the debate* – barely 25% of our Parliamentary strength.  Among the absentees appear to be:

Ming himself

Home Affairs spokesman Nick Clegg

In the interests of balance 🙂 – the other “future leader” Chris Huhne

Chief Whip Andrew Stunell

Three London MPs (Ed Davey, Sarah Teather and Tom Brake) – two of whom are Shadow Cabinet members.

Other Shadow Cabinet members – Steve Webb, Michael Moore, David Laws, Norman Lamb, Nick Harvey, Don Foster, Alastair Carmichael and Danny Alexander.

(* These are based on the Hansard records currently available.  These are the “uncorrected” version so there may be omissions.  It is unlikely they were all omitted though!)

Now to be fair, some of those people could have had entirely valid reasons – Lynne Featherstone for example is not attending Parliament at the moment for medical reasons.  Others may have had genuine unbreakable commitments or significant problems with travel (Danny and Alastair in particular).  A key vote on a Friday is after all quite a rare event.

But it is equally rare for the leader to go on the Today programme to oppose a bill and email members asking them to do something about it.  And surely in that context 75% of the Parliamentary Party didn’t have unbreakable commitments.

After all, Lembit missed the meeting of the Welsh party discussing potential coalition arrangements to attend this debate.  Likewise MPs from distant constituencies like Jo Swinson, Alan Reid and Julia Goldsworthy were there.

Had every Lib Dem MP turned out it wouldn’t have changed the result, and it is probable that supporters of the Bill had extra “troops” to call on if needed.

But as the Bill goes on to the Lords it would have sent a powerful message about opposition from one section of the Commons and given greater weight to any Lords objections.  How seriously should the Lords regard any objections when so few Lib Dem MPs cast a vote?

Norman Baker, Simon Hughes, David Heath etc deserve a great deal of credit for their opposition to this bill.

Sadly the Party leadership and organisation seems to have failed to support them and deserves little credit.  We had the change to make a powerful statement of our belief the MPs are not above Freedom of Information laws.  Sadly our leader and too many of our MPs failed to do so.

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20 Comments

  • Patrick Wallace 20th May '07 - 1:06pm

    Well, if they won’t do their job, then ordinary people can at least sign the e-petiion against this:

    http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/MPs-and-FOI/

  • Lib Dem member 20th May '07 - 2:26pm

    I am rather disappointed by this piece.

    It mentions several times how the party has being doing more and more to oppose the bill as it has progressed through Parliament – and the unusual things the party has done (emails, leader in the media etc) to oppose it.

    Yet the conclusion is all doom and gloom. It seems to me more a case of insisting the glass is a quarter empty rather than mentioning it is three quarters full.

    Looking at some of your other comments here it does read sometimes as if you’re only happy when criticising others 🙂

  • johnhemming 20th May '07 - 3:14pm

    There is a point that the bill is a private members bill upon which normally parties don’t whip.

    Personally I am opposed to the bill, but I had meetings scheduled in Yardley. I would presume that this was the case for many of the other people involved. This bill was unusually brought back without people expecting it.

  • Lady Violet 20th May '07 - 6:05pm

    >>Looking at some of your other comments here it does read sometimes as if you’re only happy when criticising others

    Have to agree with that. Love you as we do, you do seem to be turning into a bit of a grumpy old man, Hywel 😉

  • Paul Burstow is Chief Whip these days.

    Afraid I agree with Hywel. I know Friday is a constituency day but for only 16 Lib Dems to vote on a Bill we clearly oppose and is an absoloute outrage is pretty pathetic.

    I believe it was a Labour MP who talked about having to relay on the Lords to put a stop to this nonsense. Given the strong performance of our lords team in reccent years will they be putting their collegues in the lower house to shame?

  • I think the comments say more about Nick Harvey, than they do about the Lib Dem MPs in general.

  • “Lembit missed the meeting of the Welsh party discussing potential coalition arrangements to attend this debate.”

    I thought Lembit stayed in London Thursday night because he was recording HIGNFY

  • Real Liberal 21st May '07 - 10:00am

    Lynne Featherstone missed the vote as she claimed that she was in bed with Shingles (poor shingles!). On Saturday she was at a ‘fun run’ in Crouch End and on Sunday she was being the media tart that she is on the Westminster Hour!

  • It is very important to emphasise the following point:

    The reason why there was no opposition to the Bill at committee stage is a procedural one. For a Private Member’s Bill, the MP in charge is allowed to hand-pick the members of the committee. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the committee tasked with “scrutinising” the Bill was little more than a love-in.

    That is not to say Nick Harvey did not give succour to the Bill. Yet another “Liberal” who is not worthy of the party.

    If you can bear MPs falling over themselves to agree with each other in a sickening display of patronage above their electorate, the committee’s “debate” can be found at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmpublic/freedom/070207/am/70207s01.htm

  • I believe part of the plan was also that the bill be “talked out”. Even with all the entire parliamentary party there, the Liberal Democrats couldn’t have voted the bill down – there were too many Labour MPs (including ministers) backing it. The hope was for the LibDem MPs there to filibuster it, but the MPs in favour of the bill voted for closure motions, forcing it through.

  • It would have been possible to talk the debate out if the Deputy Speakers hadn’t granted three closure motions in the course of the afternoon. That many in one sitting is unheard of.

  • I am glad to hear it, Nick. But since this is the case, why have we allowed the Tories to misrepresent your position so badly?

  • simon wilson 26th May '07 - 2:41pm

    The poor turnout amongst our MPs was appalling, including our leader I am sorry to admit.

  • Hywel Morgan 29th May '07 - 6:27pm

    Nick – I’m glad to hear clarification of your opposition to this bill.

    I don’t think it is misleading people though by quoting what you said at the committee stage. I think “tacit support” is a fair summary of someone who mildly criticises a measure but doesn’t vote against or seek to amend it.

    I can’t read your comments at committee stage as being those of someone expressing trenchant opposition. And if your were so opposed to it then why not vote against or propose an amendment? That remaining the case I stand by my criticisms of you for those (in)actions.

    Will you be signing the EDM (1545) from Simon Hughes and others which doesn’t currently include your name?

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