Article: A Prime Minister’s conversion to openness

Freedom of information? It’s a state secret
The Times, June 11, 2009
By Heather Brooke

Promises of more open government have been made before

When it comes to politicians advocating open government the best advice is to ignore what they say and focus on what they do.

Yesterday, Gordon Brown used the dreaded word “transparency”. I have been campaigning for five years on freedom of information and had to go to the High Court to force the disclosure of MPs’ expenses, so it is with some satisfaction that I now hear the Prime Minister issuing statements about the need for open government that I couldn’t have written better myself.

Mr Brown proposed extending the scope of freedom of information. The funny thing is that he suggested this once before, in October 2007. It must have slipped his mind.

Back then, in the first flush of office, he gave a rousing speech on civil liberties. He announced a public consultation about extending coverage of the Freedom of Information Act to institutions that received huge whacks of taxpayers’ cash but had no obligation to be publicly accountable, such as city academies, Network Rail, and private companies providing public services.

The consultation closed in February 2008 and the results were supposed to be implemented no later than November 2008. Need I say that nothing happened? In January I inquired about this phantom consultation. I asked the Ministry of Justice for a copy of the submissions and timelines of progress on implementation. Not getting a straight answer, I filed an FoI request (as I do).

You can guess what happened next. My FoI request about the progress of freedom of information was rejected. The ministry claimed that all the information was exempt as it involved the “formulation of government policy”. So much for Mr Brown’s airy claim that “this is the public’s money. They should know how it is spent.”

Now Mr Brown has put in charge of the FoI reforms one Jack Straw, of the Ministry of Justice, (a department with one of the shoddiest records in answering FoI requests). He is to head a public debate on this secret public consultation. When it comes to making bureaucracies accountable this is the snail’s pace of progress.

How unlike the lightning speed with which new bureaucracies are created. Two were magicked into life just this week: A shiny new department for Peter Mandelson and the ironically-titled Government Democratic Council. I say ironic because in the true spirit of Yes, Minister its creation is shrouded in secrecy. It appears the members will be ministers appointed by the Prime Minister in secret and it’s unclear how transparently they will formulate reforms for a more transparent democracy. Here’s betting it will be behind closed doors.


2 Responses to “Article: A Prime Minister’s conversion to openness”

  1. Conrad says:

    I remember listening to a speech Brown made in Sheffield in 2007, where he made a point to talk about “Open Government”. He made some ridiculous generalisation about restriction on public political debates in the US (grouped, pre-approved questions, etc.), and then proceeded to engage in an audience debate that had even more limitations than the fictional US debates he had just decried!

    I found my blog post on the topic, here: Funny you recalled Yes, Minister here – I wrote the same in that post from 2007.

    Lots of talking the talk, and not much walking the walk. Putting aside any talk of whether or not he should be leader, Brown and Co.’s record on “transparency” is laughable at best.

  2. Dr David Lowry says:

    I share your cynicism. FYI, the Parliamentary table office struck out part of the PQ below, which wanted to ask whether the FOIA 2000 would apply to these councils!

    Written Questions for Answer on Thursday 11 June 2009

    Mr Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent): To ask the Prime Minister, by what means the proceedings of the (a) democratic renewal council and (b) domestic policy council will be reported to the House; and what estimate has been made of the administrative cost of each of the councils in the next 12 months. (279467

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