in Politics

Freedom of Information, MPs’ expenses and good government

The whole episode of MPs’ expenses has been an interesting one, many will concentrate on the government’s reaction, which has been a typical Brownite dither, bottle it, try and blame the Tories.  What I think is more interesting, though, was the initial attitude.  Having passed the Freedom of Information Act, the government then decided it shouldn’t apply to MPs.

Initially I wasn’t a great fan of the Freedom of Information Act.  The great majority of applications that come through the council fall into five categories:

  1. Someone appealing against a parking ticket, asking for all the information they can get in the hope of supporting their appeal.
  2. Headhunters and recruitment consultants, looking for organisation charts, names and contact details to help them find and place candidates for jobs.
  3. Political researchers of all parties, who are compiling information for a current campaign or cause (and probably making the same request to every council)
  4. Journalists, hoping to find something embarrassing for a headline (again, probably making the same request to many councils)
  5. People genuinely seeking information, but not realising that looking around the council’s website or using Google would have found the information already published.

There are very few requests from members of the public for information they couldn’t get any other way.  This is because Wandsworth has always operated as openly as possibly, with the principle always being that unless there is a compelling reason information should be placed straight into the public domain.  The number of confidential papers seen by councillors is very small, and limited to those containing sensitive commercial or personal information.

On that basis we could probably have a great case for saying that Freedom of Information legislation should be changed, after all, why should the council tax payer be helping recruitment consultants who are already being paid by their clients.  Maybe we should be able to decide what is a ‘legitimate’ request, or decide the format in which we will provide the information so we can cut down on these requests.

But that would go totally against the the spirit of freedom of information.  Given that power, what would there be to stop us, or any public authority, picking and choosing the requests we answer, or the information we release.  It is a very very dangerous path when, as happened here, the government decides it doesn’t like the rules and that the best course of action isn’t compliance, but using Parliament to change the law.

The simple fact is that while the Freedom of Information Act is a pain a lot of the time, it does change behaviour.  Public bodies are more open to begin with knowing that private individuals have the power to see information even if they try and hide it.  It makes for an empowered public and better government; we let the state remove that right at our peril.

Everyone who joined the campaign, and especially MySociety who organised it, deserve congratulations in standing up against the government and Harriet Harman’s ridiculous proposals.

My expenses
It is only fair I reveal my expenses.  It’s fairly simple.  I haven’t claimed any – my total for the year is £0.00.

A councillor doesn’t get an allowance for a second home, nor does it buy any furniture, clean my windows or do my gardening and I’m expected to fund my own travel around the borough.

The nearest I get to expenses is being part of the council’s ‘Computers for Members’ scheme which provides IT related equipment to councillors to help them do their job.  I have a printer (I bought my own computer) and broadband access under the scheme and pay the council £12.35 a month for it.  Given that you can get broadband for free from a lot of places, and how cheap printers are, it’s probably not a great deal.

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