Stop treating us like children, Lord Falconer
The Lord Chancellor professes to be the people's friend. His every cynical action disproves that
Sunday, 25 March 2007
Few members of the government manage to finesse with quite the charm and affability of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer. He lectures us on Magna Carta and boasts about government openness without the slightest sign of personal unease or, for that matter, criticism. But with the announcement on the new rules concerning the Freedom of Information Act, the game is surely up.
In a little-reported lecture on budget day, he said: 'The government approaches openness on the basis of improving how government operates, for the benefit of the public... the job of government is not to provide page leads for papers, but information for the citizen. Freedom of information was never considered to be a research arm for the media.'
He added that openness must have a purpose. 'Openness is not an absolute good in itself. Openness is good where openness is of benefit, crucially of benefit to the public [that] governments are here to serve.'
The first point to make is that openness, the flow of information from government to the public, is a purpose in itself. The public has a right to know. That is now an absolute in a democracy. If knowledge improves government performance, all well and good, but Lord Falconer has no business delineating where the benefits must accrue in order for the legislation to be regarded as working properly. Because he has never faced election and relies for his position on the patronage of the Prime Minister, he does not perhaps fully grasp that government ministers are our servants and that openness is a duty, not a privilege to be selectively conferred at the pleasure of ministers and officials.
His two-pronged strategy is plain to see. The first part is to separate the interest of the public with that of the media by portraying the media's requests as nakedly commercial or simply frivolous. Once he has eliminated the media from effectively using the act, officials high and low will run rings round the public by claiming that people are acting in concert or that individual requests for information are vexatious or that they are just too expensive. He knows that and so does the Prime Minister, who has always had his doubts about the practicalities of open government.
Whatever the media's faults, they are undeniably capable of representing the public against official secrecy. With the decline in parliamentary scrutiny and in the Commons' ability to hold the government to account, the role of journalists in providing information to the public becomes ever more crucial.
It is important to understand that media requests differ from those made by the public and often deal with broader issues. Through media applications, we know 74 Metropolitan Police officers have criminal records; Lord Falconer met American businessmen who wanted to develop the Dome as a casino no fewer than 13 times; the former permanent secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Sir Kevin Tebbit, declined to investigate American allegations of corruption in the BAe scandal; EU farm subsidies were benefiting multinationals such as Tate & Lyle; and that MPs claim nearly £6m in travel expenses. These are embarrassing for officialdom, yet it is incontestable that the public good has been served by such revelations.
At present, the costs of the act, which was fully implemented in 2005, are estimated to be £35m a year for about 120,000 requests. Falconer's changes will reduce the bill by between £5m and £10m, a fraction of the tens of millions already blown on the ID card scheme and wasted on government databases (figures that will not be available to us under Falconer's clamp-down).
What sticks in the gullet is that while the Lord Chancellor, acting as the Secretary Of State for the Department for Constitutional Affairs, neuters the act as far as public good is concerned, he continues to boast that the act 'is one of the greatest reforms for which this government will be remembered'.
How can that be when he dismantles the very mechanism responsible for the openness gained in the last two years? Maybe the synaptic overload in a politician's mind that enables him to maintain two entirely contrary beliefs at the same time or perhaps a deeper contempt for the media and the public?
A leaked memo from Lord Falconer to the Ministerial Committee on Domestic Affairs suggests that the changes are aimed at allowing 'the most difficult requests [generally received from determined and experienced requesters] to be refused on costs grounds'.
Cost is the pretext, not the reason. The reason, therefore, must be that after two short years of this experiment, the government and the Civil Service want to restore the secrecy under which they have operated for generations. I find this unsurprising. While Falconer has sought to detach the interests of the citizen from those of the media, and flatter the public with noble thoughts about improving the relationship between citizen and state, the whole drift of the work of his department is in fact to reduce the citizen's power and rights.
Look at the proposed Carter reforms on legal aid and what you find is a penny-pinching operation that will result in less legal representation for defendants calling on public funds. The same neglect for rights of the vulnerable may be seen in the legislation piloted by Falconer's undersecretary of state, Vera Baird. The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill will give powers to bailiffs to break into homes to collect debts and fines and, where necessary, restrain people. When it was pointed out by Conservative MP Henry Bellingham that this ended the 400-year-old right that 'the poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown', Baird said that the right was done away with in 2004. 'It has been that long since the Englishman's castle crumbled around his ears,' she snapped.
It's in these moments that you catch a glimpse of the cynicism of the government. Whatever Lord Falconer professes in public, you may be sure that this bustling personage is not the citizen's foremost champion and the idea that denying journalists access to information will benefit the citizen should be dismissed with the derision it deserves.