This man is ‘affecting good government’

I read an article this week that could have come directly from the pages of any Kenyan or Nigerian newspaper where politicians are fighting off demands for the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act. In the piece, a senior government minister claimed that freedom of information is “placing good government at risk” by forcing sensitive papers to be disclosed.

Openness is bad, he states. It means the exposure of politicians’ private letters and their lobbying of other politicians. Such transparency will limit the government’s ability to formulate policy.

“If we are to live under constant threat of publication, this will prevent MPs from expressing their views frankly when writing to a minister. We need urgent advice on what the position is.”

Politicians as delicate creatures frightened to speak in public? As if! I’ve said it before, but this quote shows that it still must be said again: policies made in secret are bad policies. They don’t serve the public well at all. It is only by debating the relative facts and merits of an issue that a superior solution can be found. We only have to look at the shambolic state of government to see what level of competence results from policies crafted in the dark recesses of secrecy.

Imagine if science worked in this way. Someone could determine (in secret) that his snake-oil was the best solution to a problem (treating polio, for example) based on findings that only he and his minions could access. No data would be published so no one could challenge the legitimacy of the policy. The reasons behind the decision would be kept secret, too. It is easy enough to see how detrimental such a process would be to science. Yet this is exactly the way our ‘modern’ Parliament makes policy and it is in every way as detrimental to the health of our society.

So the real danger to government – step forward Trade Secretary Alistair Darling who has written to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, expressing his worries about open debate between politicians and the public.

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