We demand to know but you can’t

Posted on: 18th May 2011

Originally posted May 23rd 2007

Another ‘bad week’ for Government and for MPs.

Last week a rump of ‘Friday sittings’ MPs shot themselves full square in the foot with both barrels as they persuaded themselves that everyone who should ‘do as we say and not as we do’ where Freedom of Information is concerned.

‘Friday sittings’ are an almost exclusive preserve for MPs from the London area (or those whose constituents would prefer they stay away!).

I usually miss them, as 99% of the effort made on Fridays comes to nothing anyway.

Despite the best efforts of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, Simon Hughes (Southwark) and Norman Baker (Lewes) a Conservative MP backed by Labour members gave a ‘Third Reading’ to a Bill which would, to their enduring shame, seek to exempt themselves from the very Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) they voted into law just seven years ago.

MPs often rush in, to take credit, where Angels have in fact done the work, but on this occasion they used the synthetic excuse of wishing to keep constituent’s correspondence confidential to protect themselves from having to disclose anything else – including the use of expenses (a usually misunderstood embarrassment I have to endure once a year!).

But the Information Commissioner, who oversees the FOI confirmed this week that of the 5,000 appeals under the Act in the last two years, we had not had to rule on MPs correspondence (which is covered by Data Protection anyway).

It may be true that civil servants have many ‘time wasting’ requests for such things as ‘the number of eligible bachelors in Hampshire Police’ or ‘the amount spent on Ferrero Rocher chocolates in the Foreign Office’, but this should not be used as an excuse to weaken information rights either.

So, as the Government back tracks this week on Home Information Packs, Nuclear Power, Junior Doctor training and announce plans to close job centres, Remploy factories and give a green light to developers, MPs have diminished themselves and weakened their declining status.

The burnt out hull of this Parliamentary Cutty Sark needs to be rebuilt, but it can only do that if it respects the public’s entitlement to know.