Posts Tagged ‘Thunderer’

MPs seek to exempt themselves from own law

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

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.

Thunderer: This Man Must Be Watched

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

The Times and Sunday Times published a series of articles over the last few days taking a critical look at the work of the Information Commissioner. The flagship piece was an interview with Richard Thomas, the incumbent commissioner, which dealt mainly with scares about government surveillance and criminals gaining access to your bank account.

The Sunday Times leader article picked up on one disturbing issue Mr Thomas steered well clear of in his interview – the tendency for politicians and other powerful figures to hide behind the Data Protection Act, turning the investigation of their dodgy dealings by journalists into a prisonable offence.

My article in the Times ‘Thunderer’ column highlighted a particular weakness of the Information Commissioner: his dependence on the patronage of the Department of Constitutional Affairs:

This man must be watched
The Times, Thunderer October 30, 2006
By Heather Brooke

The man who stands between us and Big Brother has just woken to the fact that we live in a surveillance society. Not before time. But what can Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, do to give us back some personal privacy away from the State’s prying eyes?

Not a lot. Mr Thomas told The Times on Saturday that he’s worried about the Government’s plan for total information convergence – the central control of records on every single child, our health, run-ins with the police, our DNA, taxes and identity.

It can’t be long before these data are used to target people in myriad ways. Already we have seen the Terrorism Act used to intimidate and arrest those who speak out against Government. How much easier it will be for politicians once they know everything about us, down to our cellular structure.

Mr Thomas’s pronouncements are few and cloaked in that mealy-mouthed deference common to bureaucrats – but to pick on him is to kick a kitten. Weak laws, weakly enforced are only partly his fault.

How I’d love to see someone with chutzpah become the next Information Commissioner. Someone such as Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney-general, who takes his role as populist protector seriously, taking on all comers from Merrill Lynch to Enron. If he were to discover banks leaving bags of statements on the pavement he’d do more than unleash a fusty press release.

But of course, in England, our regulators are neutered. The people cannot have real power, only the semblance of power. Mr Thomas must always have one eye on his political paymasters, for his position is closer to patronage than independence. His budget and staffing salaries are controlled by the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

That’s Cheeky Charlie Falconer’s department – the same man who wants to smother our new-born Freedom of Information Act. The Government has an interest in keeping the commissioner’s office weak. If it is underfunded and understaffed then it cannot hold the Government rigorously to account.

In Scotland the commissioner answers only to Parliament. So it should be in England. Without a fully independent information commissioner we can expect to find our privacy rights shredded at the expense of a Big Brother state.

Read all the articles:

Article: Journalists and wiretapping

Friday, August 11th, 2006

Living in a Stalinist blackout
The Times, Thunderer 11 August 2006
By Heather Brooke

The Information Commissioner thinks that journalists should be imprisoned for up to two years for paying private detectives to obtain information. This same commissioner took almost two years to fudge a decision on the release of the Attorney-General’s advice on the Iraq war – more than a year after it had been leaked. And that’s one of the more optimistic examples of how long it takes reporters to access official information legitimately.

No wonder British journalists resort to nefarious means to get information that in other countries is freely available. It amazes me that hacks manage to ferret out any hard news in such a Stalinist blackout.

If you think bugging phones is amoral or shady then think about the kind of society that restricts freedom to such an extent that this is the only way a member of the public – journalists have no more rights than you – can get his hands on information in a timely way.

How else can a reporter investigate the Royal Family when it is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, virtually unaccountable to Parliament and all its staff must sign a fearsome gagging order? There is no legitimate way to get facts on the Royal Family. We don’t even know how much taxpayers’ money it sucks up. The cost of keeping the Queen as head of state was £36.7 million in 2005, according to the Keeper of the Privy Purse. But this omits the immense cost of security, tax breaks and income generated from assets deemed to be held for the nation, but that the nation cannot see, such as art in the Royal Collection.

Some say that the Royal Family ought not to be held to public account. Fine. But what about the police, courts and Whitehall? Surely we have a right to know what they are up to? Not so. Criminal and court records, arrest bookings and police incident reports are the bread and butter of American journalism. Such records are used to check facts and examine the truth of official rhetoric. In the UK, all this information is off-limits. Even getting a list of local council restaurant inspections can take almost a year. If such information is suppressed what hope is there for investigating more serious issues?

Don’t mistake the authorities’ crackdown as a matter for journalists alone. When those who are paid to dig out facts find it nigh impossible to do so legitimately, no one else stands a chance.

Article: Policing of protests

Wednesday, February 8th, 2006

Tough on the causes of peace
The Times, Thunderer, 8 February 2006
by Heather Brooke

Forget all this namby-pamby peaceful protesting. The only way to grab a politician’s ear is to do so with force. That’s the loud and clear message from the authorities. The police record clearly shows they take a softly-softly approach towards religious extremists who threaten violence, but a sledgehammer approach when faced with peaceful protesters.

The Islamic protests last weekend in London have led to questions in Parliament about why the police failed to arrest those holding placards advocating mass murder. Meanwhile, the police have shown no delay in arresting peaceful protesters. According to Hansard, police have arrested 28 people protesting peacefully for taking part in “unauthorised demonstrations” in the “designated area” around Parliament since August 2005. The Met arrested 57 peaceful protesters outside an arms trade exhibition in September 2005. These protesters went so far as to dance in the street; a few climbed on top of a standing train.

You can see the mistake made by these deluded activists. They clung to the belief that the Government rewards those who play by the rules with a listening ear. But the Serious Organised Crime Act makes it an offence to protest peacefully outside Parliament. The Government sees no difference between dancing in the street and inciting beheading.

Peaceful protests are the steam valves for a democratic society, so by criminalising all protests, no matter how participants behave, the temptation is to say: “What the hell, let’s go for it!”

And this is exactly what has come to pass. Just look at Fathers4Justice. Hundreds of law-abiding families and lobbyists tried for years to reform the failing family justice system. Then suddenly a gang of thugs invades Parliament, throws condoms at the Prime Minister and posts letters of excrement to the head of the Family Court and before you know it – bam! The family courts are reformed.

This is a dangerous message for any government to send out to its people. For it is a drawn-out process to achieve change peacefully. Those treading the path must feel their efforts may be rewarded. Instead, the vast powers of the police to arrest are influenced by politics and political correctness. On one hand they are tough on the peaceful; on the other they are soft on the thugs who march under the banner of Islam.

If you are interested in protesting against the Westminster no protest zone, you might like to sign this pledge.

Police Secrecy

Thursday, November 17th, 2005

The secret policeman has a ball
The Times, Thunderer, 17 November 2005
By Heather Brooke

When I was a reporter in the US, one of the first things I did was ride along with a local cop. I was in South Carolina – hardly the progressive policing capital of America – where it was perfectly normal for members of the public to shadow an officer on the beat. Local people knew the names of their officers, how many were on duty, and had access to weekly crime statistics, street by street.

I’ve tried to ferret out similar facts from the police forces in Britain and failed. Officers are shocked at the idea of trusting the public with such basic information, even though their American counterparts divulge this and much more every day.

Yet Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, had the temerity to say at the Richard Dimbleby lecture last night that he’s frustrated by the lack of serious debate about policing. If he’s frustrated how does he think the public feel? How are we meant to have an informed opinion when the police shroud their routine activities with such secrecy? How are we supposed to join the debate when the police and politicians continue to foist their decisions ready-made on us in feudal fashion?

There was no debate about the shoot-to-kill policy. The first the public knew about it was the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes. Yesterday it emerged – through leaks, of course – that he was shot with hollow-point bullets; ammunition selected in total secrecy three years ago. Even now the police refuse to justify such decisions, hiding behind the excuse of “national security”.

The Association of Chief Police Officers increasingly controls many aspects of policing. It receives substantial sums of public money, yet is not accountable to us. It is not even considered a public body under the Freedom of Information Act. Acpo lobbied hard for 90-day detention, yet it failed to provide any compelling reason why the police need to hold terror suspects without charge longer than any other democratic country. Tony Blair resorted to arguing that “if the police say they need this power then they should have it”.

For too long the authorities have demanded that we trust them while giving nothing in return. If the commissioner really wants a mature debate he can kick it off by trusting the public enough to give us a full and frank account of what his officers do.