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Sunday, October 24, 2010

‘Above the law’ Speaker blocks information request in row over Commons chaplain

‘Above the law’ Speaker blocks information request in row over Commons chaplain:

Bercow uses unique power to dodge MoS questions

By Chris Hastings

Speaker John Bercow has blocked the release of documents that reveal his own role in the controversial appoint­ment of an outspoken vicar as Chaplain to the House of Commons.

Mr Bercow, 47, has signed a binding parliamentary order, known as a certificate, which not only prevents the release of the material but also stops anyone from challenging his decision with the Information Commissioner.

His decision to issue the ‘veto’ certificate, in response to a request by The Mail on Sunday under the Freedom Of Information (FOI) Act, has infuriated civil liberties campaigners, who have accused him of trying to put the House of Commons ‘above the law’.

The Speaker’s intervention on this occasion is particularly controversial because he is effectively suppressing material related to his own actions. He is the only official in the Commons who has the power to issue the certificates.

The row is the latest twist over his decision to appoint the Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin to the historic role of chaplain, whose duties include reading the prayers at the start of each day’s sitting. His choice sparked controversy because the Speaker normally confirms whoever is nominated by the Dean of Westminster Abbey.

Dr John Hall, the Dean, had put forward the name of Canon Andrew Tremlett, a Cambridge-educated cleric. Mr Bercow’s decision in June to snub Mr Tremlett was seen as support for the campaign for women bishops, and for ethnic minorities in high-profile public posts.

Jamaican-born Ms Hudson-Wilkin, whose parish is in Hackney, East London, has called for the Church of England to apologise for its role in the slave trade. She has also accused the clergy of racism.

An ally of the Speaker said Mr Bercow, the Tory MP for Buckingham, was keen to ensure the job did not go to a ‘white middle-class man’. But critics said he had made a ‘tragic mistake’ by cutting Parliament’s ties with the Abbey ‘on a whim’.

In July The Mail on Sunday asked for all relevant correspondence between Mr Bercow and the Dean and also Ms Hudson-Wilkin, and all relevant internal documents in the Speaker’s office.

The Commons’ FOI unit released some heavily censored papers but held back others on data protection grounds.

The Mail on Sunday asked the Commons to carry out an internal review, but that was effectively derailed by the certificate. The Speaker’s intervention is final. The matter cannot be referred to the Information Commissioner, who usually adjudicates on FOI disputes.

The Speaker can issue a certificate to stop a release of information if he believes it will undermine parliamentary privilege or prejudice official business.

In July it was revealed that Mr Bercow and his predecessor Michael Martin had issued 16 certificates since the FOI Act came into force in 2005.

Katherine Gundersen, Campaign for Freedom of Information research officer, said: ‘The Commons is unique in having these certificates which place it as being above the law.

'If the Speaker and the Commons have proper grounds for holding back information they should be willing for it to be examined and possibly challenged by the Information Commissioner.

‘They should not use these certificates as an automatic “get out of jail free” card.’
A spokesman for the House of Commons last night said the Speaker did not want to comment.

The Information Commissioner’s Office confirmed it was unable to look into the issue.

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