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Monday, April 23, 2007

Special MP pleading on FOI in UK goes nowhere but has echos in Australia

An attempt by an Opposition backbencher to amend the UK Freedom of Information Act to exclude the houses of parliament from the scope of the Act, and create a new exemption for communications between members of parliament and public authorities has been derailed and seems unlikely to run again, according to this report in The Guardian.

David MacLean MP claimed that the amendments were necessary to protect constituency correspondence from disclosure under the Act but this didn't wash. As the Campaign for Freedom of Information pointed out in this briefing document such correspondence is already exempt, no specific examples of improper disclosure of such correspondence were cited in parliamentary debate, and the Information Commissioner said that no complaints had been received from constituents or members about inappropriate release.

The Campaign said the main effects of the changes would have been to prevent requests for details of MPs' expenditure from being disclosed and to protect correspondence with public authorities on general policy from disclosure.

In Australia our FOI acts apply to government agencies and specifically exclude houses of parliament. Documents held by a government agency or minister that emanate from members of parliament can be sought under FOI. Whether a document is exempt will turn on content but information about a constituent would not usually be disclosed on personal affairs grounds.

One effect of the acts not applying to parliament is that information about MPs' expenses and allowances isn't usually in the public domain. We have commented previously here about the contrast between Australian practices and those that apply elsewhere. For example, in Scotland simply look up any MP here to find out what expenses and allowances have been paid.

Not surprisingly, neither government nor opposition anywhere in Australia seems to have suggested that FOI should be extended to cover the legislative branch of government.

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