I’ve been mulling over whether I should post something on this for a few days.  I mean, who would speak out in support of Sir Fred Goodwin?  He’s a national enemy.

But I’m have become increasingly concerned about the way this whole issue is being handled by the Government.  This isn’t really an issue about Sir Fred.  It probably isn’t possible to defend that size of pension for failure, but there is no question it is entirely legal.  Harriet Harman herself made the comment that:

It might be enforceable in a court of law this contract but it’s not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that’s where the Government steps in

This is not only bizarre.  It’s worrying.

For a start it was the Government who approved the pension.  Lord Myners approved the deal, either knowing how big the pension was or not even bothering to ask.  It’s also not as if Goodwin’s huge pension was secret until recently; the Dizzy Thinks blog links to a number of media articles dating back to last October on the subject.  And let’s be honest, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the billions the Government are splashing over the public sector.  I’m prepared to bet the recession won’t end a single second earlier if the pension is surrendered.

However indefensible the pension is, it is a diversion.  The government are using it to divert attention from their own failings, and doing it in a particularly unpleasant way.

Sir Fred got his pension legally and with the Government’s consent, and it’s a matter for his conscience how he deals with it.  But the government, from Brown down, seems to be enjoying stirring the mob – suddenly deciding that the court of public opinion is all important.

But oddly, we have representative government when it comes to other issues, the court of public opinion has been ignored over issues like:

  • The war in Iraq
  • The abolition of the 10p tax rate
  • Jacqui Smith’s £100,000 second ‘home’, which is a room at her sister’s house

We might all feel uncomfortable about Sir Fred’s pension, but I feel even more uncomfortable about a government that devotes so much energy to convenient scape-goating one man to distract attention from its own failings.

This rabble-rousing is not driven by principle, if it were then the pension would not have been approved in October, it is driven simply because the court of public opinion puts Labour miles behind in the polls.

COMMENTS I rather expected to be criticised for this post, but it was not to be. However, something in it has attracted spammers like crazy. Rather than delete 40-50 spam comments from this post every day I’ve closed the comments about half-way through the current 60 day commenting period.

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.