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MPs vote to keep addresses private (theirs, not yours)

Our house, in the middle of a street we're not about to reveal to you plebs

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Members of Parliament have voted themselves the right to withhold their names and addresses from publication. Candidates at Parliamentary elections will get the same right.

This is perhaps less surprising than it ought to have been. Last May, the High Court ruled in a Freedom of Information case that MPs' addresses should be public information. British citizens ought to be able to check on MP expense claims, or to monitor the living arrangements of individuals such as the Home Secretary.

In July, the government used an order in the House to overturn this, arguing that some personal information – particularly that relating to addresses and travel information – should be withheld from publication on the grounds of national security, and also the possibility that MPs would be harassed.

In October, Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East raised the matter in the Commons. He praised the Leader of the House, Harriet Harman MP, for her "decisive intervention" in respect of the High Court case.

He pointed out that the High Court's "dangerous decision" to allow addresses to be revealed was based on the fact they were published every four or five years anyway and asked: "Can we now consider closing this loophole?"

"The guidance from the information commissioner in situations of this sort is usually that the first part of the postcode is enough," he added.

In an earlier speech, Mr Lewis described the plan to publish addresses as "barking mad" and suggested that it should be made as difficult as possible to discover where MPs live, if they had good reason to keep it secret.

Arguments for this measure tend to run along the lines of "common sense", and are couched in terms of the victim culture that has come to be the hallmark of recent legislation. So, Julie Kirkbride, MP for Bromsgrove argues that "You never know if someone is going to explode and you can feel vulnerable sometimes".

She adds: "In terms of personal safety and well-being I would feel better if my address was not freely available. If you saw some of the letters we get here, you would understand."

Labour MP Tom Harris takes refuge in sarcasm. Blogging on the issue yesterday, he writes: "But why should anyone pay attention to the concerns of these bloody women and their young children, eh? If they didn’t want to be abandoned for most of the week, they shouldn’t have married an MP. And it’s not as if there have been any actual cases of assault or harassment of MPs’ families, so why should we change the law just to make them feel safer?"

There is a grain of truth in these arguments. The modern world has its fair share of nutters, and in order to create the anodyne, risk-free society to which each and every one of us is entitled, an insistence on publishing awkward details like home addresses undoubtedly runs counter to that aim. After all, it is not as though previous generations of MPs have had to put up with such risks.

There are, however, two points at issue here that MPs really need to address (sic). First is the entire culture of "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear". In respect of other issues – particularly anti-social behaviour – this government has been at the forefront in encouraging councils and police to name and shame offenders.

This, critics argue, is an additional extra-judicial punishment and offends against Human Rights: but at no point have MPs been particularly concerned about the risk to individuals from individual nutters – despite evidence that in some cases, vigilantes have taken it into their heads to act.

Second, and more worrying, was the way in which this measure was introduced into the House on Monday, as an amendment, with no debate permitted, to the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

No matter how desirable a new law, it might be thought that a debate about its desirability would be even more desirable.

In vain, backbench MP David Heath raised a point of Order as to "whether there is any precedent for taking a Division on a completely undebated new clause, which falls in a later group that we have not yet reached, which is in the hands of Back Benchers from an opposition party and which has not even been moved".

Mindful of her responsibility to the House, and the weight of centuries of democratic tradition weighing down on her shoulder, Deputy Speaker, Silvia Neal replied: "I have made a decision, and given my ruling and the reasons why this vote has been taken. I have nothing further to add."

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