UK Liberty

Disinformation and the Freedom from Scrutiny Bill

Posted in freedom of information by ukliberty on May 21, 2007

Via Tim Worstall, I learn of a Dean Godson, writing for the Times:

… [David Maclean’s] real crime in the eyes of the media is not his bike,

Indeed, a lot – perhaps too much – has been made of his quad-bike, which as an M.S. sufferer he uses to get around his rural constituency, a mobility scooter being pretty useless in the mud.

Apparently the bike was paid for by his Parliamentary expenses. I have no idea whether or not this is justified, nor do I particularly care at this time, although one or two M.S. sufferers have pointed out that the taxpayer hasn’t purchased them a quad-bike, which seems a fair point.

but his sponsorship of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, which secured its Third Reading last Friday. Harold Macmillan used to say that, when the Establishment is united on a topic, it is almost always wrong. Similarly, when the media are united we should beware.

Woe betide anyone who seeks to trammel the media’s collective definition of their prerogatives. One Sunday broadsheet characterised the legislation as “East German”. Most egregious was the editorialising on Friday’s BBC Ten O’Clock News, where Gordon Brown was put in the dock for violating his commitment to open government by not opposing the Bill. One for the Corporation’s governors, surely?

Why? It seems fair comment to point out that Brown has claimed to be committed to openness but remains ‘neutral’ on the Bill, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.

Likewise a Government that ostensibly stands for openness and transparency is also ‘neutral’ on the bill, preferring to leave it to the consciences of the thirty Ministers who voted in favour of it.

I wish the BBC did point out such things – in a neutral way of course.

The Bill is not principally about MPs’ expenses, which the Speaker has pledged will continue to be openly available.

And he can change his mind at any time, because it’s out of the goodness of his heart, not a guarantee in legislation.

That’s a good idea isn’t it, putting our trust in politicians?

Especially the ones who fought so hard against Norman Baker’s (ultimately successful) attempts to have the Commons publish detailed breakdowns of MPs’ expenses – a battle that took two years to win.

In case you didn’t know, you may be interested in learning that our Mr Speaker (Michael Martin) is the Chairman of the House of Commons Commission, which fought Mr Baker all the way to the Information Tribunal (and lost). Mr Maclean is a member of the Commission.

Rather, it is about ensuring that MPs’ correspondence is exempted from freedom of information legislation. Mr Maclean is addressing the fear that sensitive communications to MPs – such as those relating to child support payments – may be released to a third party with whom that constituent is in dispute.

The Bill also helps MPs to communicate in private to the public authorities which constituents have genuine cases and which haven’t. It is the political equivalent of consultants quietly rationing NHS care for the sake of the truly needy.

Such correspondence is protected by the legislation we already have. Now, Maclean and his co-conspirators supporters have claimed that some public authorities have released this correspondence under the FOIA – well, the obvious counterpoint is that they shouldn’t have, and they should be punished if they did. Is there any evidence of any of this – crime and punishment – actually occurring? It seems not.

Regardless, as Norman Baker pointed out, it “is like suggesting that if a murder is committed, we should pass a further law making murder a criminal offence because the original law clearly did not work.”

But okay, if you think it’s unclear, let’s make it absolutely clear by explicitly exempting such correspondence from the FOIA.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why Dean Godson, like many other supporters, fails to discuss the paragraph before the bit about correspondence, which totally exempts the House of Commons and the House of Lords from the Act.

Don’t take my word for it, have a look at the bill: it’s right there in the preamble and in section 1, before the bit about correspondence, section 1 paragraph 2 (in other words not hard to miss):

1 Exemption of House of Commons and House of Lords
(1) The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (c. 36) is amended as follows.
(2) In Part 1 of Schedule 1 (public authorities) omit paragraphs 2 and 3 (which relate to the House of Commons and the House of Lords).

No-one to my knowledge has explained what that is doing in a Bill intended to protect MPs’ correspondence.

MPs’ prerogatives are an integral part of the constitution. To give but one example: the press benefit greatly from the right of legislators to raise issues “under parliamentary privilege” that would otherwise fall foul of libel law.

Is Mr Godson arguing that MPs shouldn’t be subject to the same laws as the rest of us?

Neither side in this debate has yet secured a knockout blow. But there is far more to this than the simplistic notion that MPs are featherbedding their nests.

Mr Godson is right. So why hasn’t he discussed s1(2)?

More “open” government is not necessarily better government.

Not necessarily, but fairly likely I imagine.

Also I think it’s fair to know how my employees spend the time I’m remunerating them for.

Update

The Government may have been neutral, but the Parliamentary Labour Party Committee was not.

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6 Responses

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  1. Andy said, on May 22, 2007 at 9:17 am

    Truth is stranger than fiction, I know; but he needs a *quad bike* to get around his consituency? Is this a constituency without any roads? As explanations go it sounds (sorry, really) muddy.

  2. ukliberty said, on May 22, 2007 at 9:36 am

    Groan!
    Ok, his constituency is Penrith & the Border. Mean population density about 24 people per square kilometre. The Guardian says it is “England’s largest [constituency], splendid borders countryside, foot and mouth an issue”.
    I imagine it’s pretty rural, but I couldn’t guess the road conditions!

  3. ourkingdom said, on May 22, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Interesting piece, I notice we are blogging on the same subject – we’ve just put up a document claiming to prove that the new FOI amendment is needed to preserve constituents privacy, and the exisitng data protection act / foi bill does not leave MP – constituent correspondence exempt. What do you think?

    http://ourkingdom.opendemocracy.net

    Best wishes,

    Jon Bright

  4. ukliberty said, on May 22, 2007 at 6:32 pm

    Thank you Mr Bright.

    I was unaware of the document linked to in your blog article but it seems to confirm my (perhaps shallow) understanding, which is that correspondence would normally be exempt under s40 (personal information) and s41 (information provided in confidence) of the FOIA.

    This seems to be the position of the Campaign for the Freedom of Information – see its briefing paper.

    It also seems to be the position of David Maclean himself, who said in committee that:

    Clearly if one writes to a public authority and gives the personal details of a constituent, such as their CSA claim, information relating to their children and so on, that information should be protected. It should quite clearly be protected under the current Act. However, inadvertently, someone may release it. This measure would remove that small problem.

    So as I said, fine – make it explicit that it’s protected. I have no problem with that.

    Now I want Mr Maclean or his supporters to explain s1(2) of his Bill!

  5. […] Freedom of Some Information and Certainly Not Anything to Do with Parliament […]

  6. Gordon Brown on liberty « UK Liberty said, on October 30, 2007 at 12:17 am

    […] will we be having words with Alistair, and David Maclean (and anyone who was neutral or supportive), are we going to stop fighting freedom of information requests, and are we going to stop destroying […]


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