Let freedom of information ring

It would appear that the plan to exempt MPs and Lords from Freedom Of Information provisions has been ditched. The Mail’s Benedict Brogan is trying to unpick what just happened:

Gordon Brown claims that Tories have pulled out of a cross-party deal to introduce the change. The suggestion from No10 is that up until yesterday the Tory and Labour Chief Whips were agreed that the Tories would vote with Labour in favour of the scheme. In effect the accusation is that David Cameron took fright when he realised what that would mean for his stand on transparency. The Tories are expressing mystification, suggesting that there was no deal. So either it’s embarrassment for Dave because Brown has revealed that the Tories were ready to back the exemption. Or it embarrassment for the PM because the Tories have forced him to back down.

Arguably, it doesn’t matter. A bad thing has been averted, and we – the citizens of the Internet – should take some credit, and pride in that. ‘Today we stopped moving in the wrong direction. Tomorrow we start moving the right way.‘ Not Obama’s inauguration address, as I initially assumed; that’s from Tom Steinberg’s blog post on the subject. 🙂
But it’s been a depressing couple of days, watching this come to a head. The potential implications, if such stories are true, aren’t pleasant to contemplate, if (like me) you believe it’s inherently a good thing for the country to know what its leaders are doing, and why. The two parties conspiring, behind the scenes, to get the measure through, undermining any claims they’ve ever made about transparency – and, while we’re at it, any claims of affinity to the Obama message:

As president, Obama will restore the American people’s trust in their government by making government more open and transparent and by giving regular Americans unprecedented new tools to keep track of government officials, who they are meeting with, who is giving them money and how they are spending taxpayer dollars.

It would have been sheer hypocrisy. As a small business owner, I have to be able to present receipts for every sum I try to claim back from the public purse (in the form of the Tax Man) as expenses incurred in the course of my work. I’m not allowed to deliver a top-level summary under either 9 or 26 headings. And quite simply then, MPs should have to do likewise – and be seen to do so.
And let’s give due credit to the Liberal Democrats here. It was Jo Swinson who tabled the (relatively poorly supported) EDM on Monday; and Nick Clegg had imposed a three-line whip on his MPs to oppose the move. Their credentials are reinforced today.
UPDATE: The story is evolving. ‘Tory HQ are desperate to claim that there was no deal or collusion between their backbenchers and Labour over the issue,’ says Sam Coates at The Times.  ‘The decision, apparently made in the 45 minutes between the mid-morning lobby briefing and the beginning of PMQs, looks shambolic at best – but the Conservatives’ ire has been fuelled by what was said (and left unsaid) at PMQs,’ says Niall Paterson at Sky News.

One thought on “Let freedom of information ring”

  1. As a small business owner you have to be able to demonstrate to HMRC that your business expenses are legitimate, but you certainly don’t have to publish your receipts. You – or rather your company – are also obliged to publish a “top level summary”, more often known as the company accounts. Good governance requires those doing business with a limited company to have some understanding of its financial position; it doesn’t require every transaction to be documented in public.
    So the question is not whether MPs should be exempted from something which applies to the rest of us, but whether they should be subject to a regime of public accountability which is much more detailed and intrusive than that applying to everybody else. I think there are argumenst why they should be, not least the apparent spinelessness of the Common authorities in the past (to pursue the analogy, you can only trust the accounts if you trust the auditors), but I am less sure where the balance best lies.
    All of this is complicated, of course, by the near universal presentation of the support costs of MPs as though they were all personal expenses, which is a large part of what provokes the tabloid frenzy. The IT, staff and office costs which support me in my work are never treated by anyone as though they in some way formed part of my personal income; we might have a better debate if we could apply that distinction to MPs.

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