Bercow ‘suppressed MPs booze reports’

Commons Speaker John Bercow who was today accused of dodging scrutiny by suppressing reports of alcohol problems in parliament.
Commons Speaker John Bercow who was today accused of dodging scrutiny by suppressing reports of alcohol problems in parliament.
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John Bercow has been accused of dodging scrutiny by suppressing reports detailing the scale of alcohol problems at parliament.

The Speaker has invoked a controversial loophole in the Freedom of Information Act to withhold material which is thought to raise concerns about the extent of drinking in Westminster’s subsidised bars.

It follows a series of incidents that highlighted the issue of alcohol at parliament.

Former MP Eric Joyce was convicted of assaulting Pudsey MP Stuart Andrew during a brawl in the Strangers’ Bar in 2012, while another ex-member, Mark Reckless, confessed to missing a late-night parliamentary vote in 2010 because he was too drunk.

Dr Sarah Wollaston, Totnes MP and now health select committee chairwoman, warned in 2011 that some of her colleagues were drinking “really quite heavily”.

Alcohol Concern has urged parliament to remove subsidies from booze, which cost the taxpayer £4m a year, and means a parliamentary pint costs as little as £2.90.

The House authorities are believed to have conducted work to establish the extent of problems and consider ways they could be addressed.

But it turned down the FOI request by the Press Association for documents from the Safety, Health and Wellbeing Service, citing Section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act as grounds for keeping them secret.

The House of Commons is the only public body that can use the exemption without demonstrating that the public interest is weighted against disclosure.

It said the Speaker had formed the “reasonable opinion” that disclosure “would inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation.”

The only information given was that nine appointments were made with the Health and Wellbeing Service over “alcohol dependency” in September 2012, and none the following month.

The Information Commissioner cannot even analyse the reasons for the Speaker’s decision, as a certificate signed by him constitutes “conclusive proof” the exemption has been properly applied. The same mechanism was deployed three years ago to avoid revealing details of Mr Bercow’s tax bill for his grace-and-favour residence.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said Mr Bercow appeared to be “avoiding scrutiny” to prevent damage to the reputation of MPs. “He is exploiting a loophole in the FOI Act which parliament itself has inserted to protect parliament from scrutiny,” he said.

But Mr Andrew, the victim of the drink-fuelled attack in 2012, suggested the “wild Westminster” image was exaggerated, saying drinking was no worse in parliament than in pubs in his own constituency. He added: “I enjoy a pint and going to pubs in my constituency. I wouldn’t say that one is any worse than the other. They are comparable.

“The reason why I found (the 2012 incident) so shocking is that it’s not that sort of bar. People go for a drink after work or if they entertain constituents, and the state he (Eric Joyce) was in, was something I have never seen before.

“It’s the one and only time I have seen it thankfully. I don’t see people in that sort of state. Most people have a couple of drinks before they go home.”