If Norman Baker did not exist, we would need to invent him. Today, the Lib Dems’ very own Stormin’ Norman is battling Tory MP David Maclean’s attempts, via a private member’s bill, to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act (2000).
Mr Maclean is hiding behind the skirts of that much-abused notion, ‘public interest’, claiming his only desire is to enhance the privacy of MPs’ constituents, and prevent their personal details being disclosed in correspondence between MPs and public bodies under existing FoI legislation. As Mr Baker has pointed out, such details are already protected by the Data Protection Act (1998).
If, as Mr Maclean claims, perhaps accurately, “things slip through the net”, his job is to ensure existing legislation is being correctly interpreted and enforced, before he piles on yet another layer of legislation designed to emasculate hard-won freedoms.
It is - naturally - a complete coincidence that Mr Maclean’s bill would also exempt disclosure of MPs’ expenses and allowances. Their revelation, in part due to Mr Baker’s unpopular and tireless efforts, has caused acute embarrassment to some MPs. The personal assurance Mr Maclean has received from the current House of Commons speaker, Michael Martin, that these will continue to be released voluntarily isn’t worth the paper it’s not written on.
Of course, the Labour Government is still trying its utmost to undermine its own legislation by passing into law the Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2007. This will, according to the Government’s own independent review, result in an extra 17,000 FoI questions (out of around 100,000) a year being turned down, regardless of the public interest in answering them.
Small wonder, then, that Mr Maclean’s bill has the tacit approval of Labour, who could easily have squashed it if the Government were actually opposed.
It is on just such occasions, when individual freedoms are being assailed, that the Lib Dems are such a vital bulwark. Labour cares little for such ‘middle-class niceties’, believing the state is the only way in which society’s vulnerable can be protected. And Tories, as exemplified by David Maclean, care little for anything which challenges the status quo, or entrenched privileges.