Denial of information
Roy Hattersley warned the Freedom of Information Society in 1991 to make sure that any Freedom Of Information law must be passed in the early years of a new government - or they would soon lose interest in the idea.
It was a memorable occasion. My researcher Tony Lynes and I had been given a parliamentary award for FOI. More to Tony's credit than mine, we had published answers to parliamentary questions that had disappeared from Hansard when Next Step agencies were set up.
At that time, Labour was expecting to win in 1992 under Neil Kinnock and it was committed to a strong FOI law. The eventual version was a triumph for Labour and an uncharacteristic step for a government. All governments are comfortable with a full denial of information programme as they can get way with.The 2005 Act has now run into trouble with Government and more unexpectedly opposition.
There has been abuse with multiple requests from journalists and others on fishing exercises hoping to turn up a story. Answering their requests, however trivial, is expensive and clogs up the works. There is a real fear among MPs that confidentiality would be breached.
But it was not the Government that set out to limit the parliamentary scope of the Act.
To the relief of many in Government, it's ex-Tory Chief Whip David Maclean who is seeking to shield MPs from Freedom of Information. His bill is almost certainly doomed. A compromise is being cooked up by Martin Linton MP. It will protect correspondence but not give a carte blanche cover that few others like the Royal family have.
But there is indignation against the front page lead story of the Sunday Mail. They crucified Maclean for buying a quad bike on expenses. MPs were puzzled. Vehicles cannot be bought with expenses. A few crucial details were omitted from the Mail report. An all party Early day Motion "saluted the bravery with which the Rt. Hon Member for Penrith & The Border has for several years defied the onset of multiple sclerosis so crippling that a less determined person would have been confined to a wheelchair long ago; endorses the decision of the House of Commons Fees Office to approve his purchase of an outdoor vehicle, from the appropriate Parliamentary allowance, to enable him to negotiate the largest rural constituency in England; and accordingly condemns the journalists and broadcasters who sensationalised this story for playing down, and in some cases not even mentioning, the devastating effects of his illness and his refusal to give in to it."
Another Tory MP told me that the only vehicle his late wife could drive in the later stages of her illness was quad bike. So the Mail on Sunday story was bunkum. The bill in its present form cannot get through parliament if it is judged to give unfair protection for MPs.
We already have disclosures on MPs claims for expenses. The only ones that received attention were the lowest and the highest.
There have been benefits to the FOI Act. Openness has certainly improved transparency. Whether it has improved government has yet to be proved.