After being terribly lazy and not pitching any articles for a while, I am back in action with a piece in today’s Times.
What do MPs think they’ve got to hide?
The Times, Thunderer, April 19, 2007
By Heather Brooke
Tomorrow MPs will debate exempting themselves from their own law of openness. The prospect of escaping scrutiny from prying eyes is so tempting that MPs do not realise the colossal damage they are doing to their own reputations.
They are so shortsighted that all they can see is that they are fed up with questions from the press and the public who want to know the details of their expense claims for travel, staff, postage and “additional costs”, as well as who they are meeting – whether big businesses such as Tesco or special interest lobbying groups. Before the Freedom of Information Act 2000, MPs didn’t have to tell the public any of this. Now several rulings from the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal are forcing greater transparency.
I can see why MPs could succumb to the belief that it would be much easier to operate outside the public spotlight. All those awkward questions; all those pesky reporters; members of the public moaning; – it probably gets on their nerves. The danger is, though, that you don’t have to travel far down this road before you’ve forgotten the central tenet of democracy – government by and for the people.
That seems to be why a Private Member’s Bill that would exempt Parliament entirely from its own freedom of information law has sped through readings and committee stage like a hare. It reveals the extent of our MPs’ self-serving hypocrisy. It’s one law for the lawmakers and another for everyone else.
This Bill, introduced by David Maclean, the former Tory Chief Whip – and unopposed by the whips – will become law in the summer unless it is voted down or talked out. Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, who has made himself unpopular in the House by leading the charge for more transparent expenses, isn’t confident that his colleagues will vote against the amendment to the Act and so will try to talk the Bill out tomorrow.
I hope for the sake of our legislators that he succeeds. If their activities, funded from the taxpayers’ purse, are shrouded in secrecy the result will increase public mistrust. Secrecy benefits only two types of people: the incompetent and the corrupt. It does not benefit the politician who works diligently on behalf of his or her constituents – and it most certainly does not benefit the public. Good governance can only ever be open governance.
If it reaches the statute book, this Bill will be a self-inflicted wound for politicians, who already are suffering from crumbling levels of public trust. Any MP that values his or her reputation should be outraged and ashamed that it was allowed to get this far. The people must be welcomed into the heart of our democracy; not have the door slammed in their face.