Tag Archives: freedom-of-information

Introducing the Carnival on Modern Liberty (crosspost)

Another day, another crosspost. I will just add a link to this story about the Government attempting to stop the Welsh Assembly from publishing its own expenses – even if I had time to blog about this I couldn’t as words fail me.

Much as I support the Convention on Modern Liberty, I am very conscious of the fact that there are two dangers inherent to an initiative such as this. The first is that all it leads to is talk and a thousand people sitting in a hall munching on sandwiches. Linked to that is the danger that all it leads to is despair; that the problem seems so big and so intractable that people simply end up withdrawing altogether.

It is crucial that the Convention leads to positive action by as many people as possible (I made some suggestions a couple of weeks ago – I’m sure you can think of others).

Our mission must be nothing less than a paradigm shift in how the general public perceives civil liberties.

That is an achieveable objective and has happened in politics over the years on numerous occasions, but the level of consciousness raising we need can’t be done by a single journalist or even pressure group.

What’s more, the need for action has never been more crucial. I write this having given up a substantial portion of my weekend doing stuff to block the Government’s plans to exempt MPs’ expenses from the Freedom of Information Act.

If liberty is to have any meaning, we have to be able to keep an eye on those we elect to serve. Otherwise we are no different from the animals at the end of Animal Farm, enviously peering into the House and unable to tell the difference between pig and human. Harriet Harman, champion of equality, has just added the rider “but some are more equal than others.”

We need to take urgent action on issues such as this, but it also highlights why it is high time we started being proactive.

It is with this in mind that Liberal Conspiracy – in association with Our Kingdom and Unlock Democracy – are launching the Carnival on Modern Liberty.

As an online companion to the Convention, it is intended to help promote debate on civil liberties on the blogosphere over the next few weeks. Fundamentally however, it is also intended to spur both bloggers and their readers into action.

I will be producing the first edition this Friday on Liberal Conspiracy. Over the next couple of weeks it will move to OurKingdom and Unlock Democracy and then we’ll be looking for volunteers to host future editions – what about you? (email offers to modernliberty *at* quaequamblog *dot* net).

If you have an article you would like to be included in the first edition you can submit it either by following this link or emailing modernliberty *at* quaequamblog *dot* net. The deadline is 4pm on Thursday 22 January (if you miss this it is no problem as it will simply carry over to the next week’s edition). We are particularly looking for articles on the following sub-topics:

  • ACTION: our favourite category! ideas and initiatives for raising awareness of civil liberty-related issues.
  • EVENTS: civil-liberty related events that you are either organising or would like to promote (you don’t need to wait until 28 February before holding a meetup, tweetup or even just a social to the pub or cinema – if it’s civil liberty related, publicise it here).
  • JEERS: reports of the latest assaults on liberties.
  • CHEERS: good news (we do get it occasionally!) and praise for the champions of liberty.
  • WHAT LIBERTY MEANS TO ME: think pieces about what liberty in a modern context actually means (once you’ve been all philosophical, do an action post to balance things out :)).

Finally, if I have one goal for the next six weeks, it is to get this debate out in the wider blogosphere instead of the usual political bloggers arguing amongst themselves. The UK blogosphere is gratifyingly diverse, yet too often the politicos seem to exist in a bubble.

So your first mission, if you choose to accept it, is to think of five bloggers who are not the “usual suspects” who you would like to encourage to take part in the Carnival – and then encourage them!

My five will be:

To help get the Carnival off the ground, please blog these five (so they get pinged!) and submit your post to the Carnival – thanks!

URGENT – Help us to stop the plot to conceal MPs’ expenses (crosspost)

Defend the right to know about MPs' expensesI have crossposted this message from here and would urge people to do the same. More to the point, I’d urge them to carry out the action – we only have until Thursday!

Dear friend,

Today I had intended to write to you to encourage you to take part in the Convention on Modern Liberty, of which Unlock Democracy is proud to be a partner organisation. I had intended to write about what an inspiring event I hope it will be, the impressive lineup of speakers, the nationwide parallel sessions that Unlock Democracy is organising with NO2ID and its timeliness.

But events, as ever, have overtaken us.

On Thursday, the Government sneaked out the draft of the innocuous sounding “Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order.” This “statutory instrument” (not an act), if passed, will

“…change the scope of the application of the [Freedom of Information] Act in relation to information held by the House of Commons and House of Lords regarding expenditure in respect of Members of both Houses. This includes information held by either House about expenses claimed by and allowances paid to Members. Such information is no longer within the scope of the Act.”

In short, they intend to exempt the expenses of MPs and Lords from the Freedom of Information Act and thereby close them to public scrutiny. This is to be passed almost a year to the day after the Derek Conway scandal erupted, when it emerged that the MP had been paying his sons as research staff while they were at university, despite not being able to demonstrate that they had actually done any work for him. If the Government gets away with this, scandals such as this will be allowed to continue and we will not be permitted to find out about them.

It is completely outrageous that the Government should seek to do this at all, let alone in such an underhand manner. The Government is planning to put us all on a national identity database, force us to carry identity cards, keep the DNA of millions of innocent people on a database and to read all our emails, phone and internet records regardless of whether we are supposed to have done anything wrong. Their argument is always “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” Why, then, is it one rule for us and another rule for politicians?

What’s more, when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, one of his first acts was to publish the Governance of Britain Green Paper which asserted that “It is right that Parliament should be covered by the [Freedom of Information] Act.”

This proposal is going to be debated in the House of Commons this Thursday – we don’t have much time. For this reason I am strongly urging you to do the following as a matter of urgency:

  • Write to your MP (use www.writetothem.com) and urge them “to sign the Early Day Motion “Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009 (Jo Swinson MP)” – the text of this motion is below for your reference.
  • Phone your MP’s office (the main switchboard is 020 7219 3000) and ask to talk to him or her to ask them to oppose this proposal.
  • If you are on Facebook, join our group and invite all your friends to join – ESPECIALLY the ones not normally interested in politics.
  • Forward this article to everyone you know either by email or any social bookmarking websites you use.

Please, please do this as soon as you can. We can defeat this proposal if we put pressure on MPs this week. In 2007, a group of backbench MPs attempted to get a similar proposal passed. We beat them then and we can beat them again.

With best wishes,

Peter Facey
Director, Unlock Democracy

PS Katherine Gunderson has written an excellent chapter on Freedom of Information for our book Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88. I would encourage you to buy a copy for yourself – and your MP!

PPS For more information about the Convention for Modern Liberty, please see the website.

TEXT OF EARLY DAY MOTION

Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009
Primary Sponsor: Jo Swinson (LD, East Dunbartonshire)

That this House notes with concern the provisions in the Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009 to exempt remove the expenses of Members of Parliament and Peers from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act’; notes that this order will single out MPs and Peers in a special category as the only paid public officials who will note have to disclose full details of their expenses; notes with concern the regressive effect of this Order on Parliamentary transparency and the detrimental impact it will have on Parliament in the eyes of the public; calls on Ministers to block or repeal the Order in the interest of MPs’ and Peers’ accountability to members of the public.

Is Nick Harvey happy being the unacceptable face of Parliament?

One thing that really bugs me is when people who clearly don’t know what they are talking about come up with fatuous excuses for not allowing reasonable requests. Nick Harvey MP, sadly, is a case in point. His response to Jo Swinson’s reasonable request for Parliament to allow video clips to be posted on YouTube and other websites was met by what can only be described as utter stupidity:

Mr Harvey, who is also a Lib Dem MP, replied that copyright of the pictures was an issue, as was the cost of filming.

He said the rules dated back to when cameras were first allowed into the chamber, in the 1980s.

MPs, he added, were allowed to use clips for their own website if they showed them speaking – or a reply from a minister to their own question.

They were not permitted to show clips on “any third-party hosting website”, however.

Mr Harvey said: “At the moment the rule is that the clips can be streamed to be viewed in real time, but not downloaded in such a way that they can be manipulated at a future point.”

How is this stupid? Oh let me count the ways. To start with, what is the precise difference between an MP’s website and a “third party hosting website”. Does that apply to ePolitix’s dreadful homepages for MPs? What about Prater-Raines, the hosting service most Lib Dems use for their own websites? What is the fundamental difference between them and a YouTube channel? I suspect you can count the number of MPs who host their own websites on the fingers of one hand.

Secondly, downloading footage on YouTube is the best way to prevent them from being “manipulated at a future point.” YouTube converts footage into flash files, which apart from usually being of low quality, cannot simply be imported into editing software in the way that windows media files and Quicktime files can be. If an MP hosts their own footage using these formats they are far more vulnerable to future manipulation. But it’s a daft reason anyway because if it is live streamed at any point, it can always be saved and manipulated in the future. Therefore, this is a reason to shut down BBC Parliament, not for disallowing films on YouTube.

What really bugs me about all this though is that we’ve already been through all this. Not long ago, Harvey’s committee was playing silly buggers over TheyWorkForYou and using very similar arguments for why this website should be shut down. The question over the use of footage could and should have been resolved then. They had another opportunity over the Puttnam Report. Three years down the line and they are still being obstructive. The House of Commons Commission was also where the dreadful Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill – happily defeated last year – came out of. And all this on the same day that the police rule out an inquiry over the Derek Conway scandal due to a “lack of systems in this case to account for MPs’ expenses.” Which committee is responsible for those systems? Step forward Mr Harvey.

In short, this committee consistently fights to defend the exclusive, clubable air of Parliament and blocks attempts at greater openness, transparency and accountability. It isn’t really Harvey’s fault that he is the unacceptable face of Parliament – it is the Commons as a whole that appoints this damnable committee. But after the last couple of months, it is perhaps time for a new broom. Such a shame that far from calling for this, Nick Clegg has been spending so much of his time of late defending the Speaker and thus the status quo. So much for being anti-establishment.

A kick in the Gorbals

If MPs do vote to committing themselves to declare it whenever they employ family members, surely this would be effectively a vote of no confidence in Michael Martin? After all, this will pre-empt his own longer term inquiry.

It should be remembered that David Maclean’s Freedom from Information Bill, which with the Labour and Conservative front benches’ initial passive assent very nearly became an act last year, came out of proposals by the Speaker Committee. If these proposals had been passed, the fallout from the Conway affair would have been worse by several degrees. Meanwhile, Maclean is part of the review being conducted by Martin – it doesn’t bode well.

As with Prescott, a lot of the criticisms of Michael Martin smacks of snobbery. Regardless of his accent however, he is a part of an establishment that is clinging desperately to the idea of Parliament being an aloof club. In short, he is emblematic of many of the problems we face in politics today.

As an alternative, how about… Ming Campbell?

Meanwhile, under the category of “MPs do love to take the piss sometimes”, here’s a heartwarming tale of a prodigal son being welcomed back into the fold (hat tip: Duncan Borrowman).

Anti-choice Tories attack freedom of information

You’ve got to laugh. Ben Goldacre writes:

In the case of this Minority Report on abortion, it’s a rollercoaster ride of pseudoscience and dubious data, signed by one Tory MP with the support of one other, and I highly recommend giving it a read. I’ve posted the PDF here, until it appears on the parliament website.

If you want a good example of how spectacularly weak the evidence behind this “Minority Report” is, then you need look no further than the bit where they talk about, er, well, me, bafflingly.

What Dorries and Spink are complaining about is that Goldacre used publicly accessible evidence to attack the credibility of vacillating “expert” Professor John Wyatt. In his Guardian column on Saturday. Parliament operating policies of openness and transparency? Outrageous!

Is Cameron actually leading the Conservative Party?

I’m really starting to wonder. Readers might recall earlier in the year that I pointed out that Cameron could not command majority Tory support for their manifesto commitment for a substantially elected House of Lords and failed to persuade them to back his stance on the Sexual Orientation Regulations. This week, we find party’s MPs running riot over the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, and going bonkers over David Willets repudiation of Grammar Schools.

Most bizarrely of all, Cameron has chosen to take a firm line on the latter, but go all soggy and wet over the former. He might not have deliberately set out to make the showdown on Grammars a “clause 4 moment” but he isn’t backing down. Nor should he: neither Willets nor Cameron are arguing for anything that is particularly distinctive from views of the Blessed Milk Snatcher and the fact the Tories are so ready to go to war over such a totemic change is ludicrous.

In terms of Freedom of Information, he has firmed his position up to the extent that he is now, cautiously, suggesting that he wouldn’t vote for the Maclean Bill and that he “will act to stop the bill in its current form in the House of Lords,” (my emphasis), but he has given himself enough wriggle room to fit an aircraft carrier inside.

All this despite the fact that the Lib Dems and pretty much all of the media are roasting his ass on the fire on the subject. Why won’t he simply stand up to Maclean and slap the more reactionary elements of his party down?

The answer is, it seems, his Parliamentary Party would just laugh at him. Those cynics among us who always thought this “change to win” guff was empty rhetoric are finding new evidence that the Tories are still the same old reactionary, swivel eyed loons on a nearly daily basis. Cameron’s great achievement of the last 18 months has been to distract the public’s attention from this, not to introduce meaningful change.

It all bodes pretty ill for these disparate policy reviews that are now just weeks from being published. I don’t believe that the edifice that Cameron has constructed can survive many more weeks like this one before coming crashing down, and I’m not at all clear what he can do to prevent it. Will the Conservative Party pull themselves back from the brink and, at the 11th hour, sign up en masse to Cameronism? The portents don’t look good.

Comical Tommy’s War against Information

Via Iain Dale, I come across Tom Watson‘s spirited defence of his decision to back the Freedom from Information (none of your fucking business) Bill. Apparently, the Tories Made Him Do It. But, for a bit more detail, here is his argument point-by-point (I’d comment on his blog, but he banned me years ago):

1. If the speaker had not guaranteed that MP’s expenses will continue to be published, I would not have supported the Bill. I repeat – you will still be able to see the expense tables like you have been able to for the last three years.

This is a mischevious half-truth. The fact is there are currently numerous appeals to the Information Commissioner calling for MPs to disclose more detailed information. The Commons’ expenses disclosure isn’t even close to the Scottish Parliament where literally every single invoice is available to view online.

Note that he says “you will still be able to see the expense tables like you have been able to for the last three years” – in other words the detailed information about travel expenses published earlier this year as a result of a case brought forward by Norman Baker would be the first to go.

2. Despite people saying that there is protection under the Data Protection Act, public sector bodies are still revealing the private correspondence between them and MPs regarding constituents.

If it is illegal now and yet people are doing it, it follows that it will still happen if this new Bill is passed. How does passing another law stop people who are already breaking the law? The issue is enforcement – yet the government forces the Information Commissioner to get along with a shoestring budget.

3. This Bill was put forward by the former Tory Chief Whip. Don’t be fooled by the disingenous comments and synthetic outrage of Iain Dale and his chums. Incidentally, he seemed to know how many MPs from each party had voted on the Bill yesterday afternoon – before they are made available in Hansard. He can only have got this information from a source in one of the Whips offices (I’m certain the parliamentary clerks would not help him). This suggests to me that he is part of a Tory spin operation – understandable but funadamentally dishonest in regard to this piece of legislation.

This is worth looking at because it is simply hilarious. Like Iain Dale, I was following the debate on Hansard, which now has less than a three hour time lag. I certainly agree with Tom that the Tories were equally complicit, but I don’t extend that criticism to individuals like Richard Shepherd, John Redwood and, yes, Iain Dale, any more than I do Labour rebels like David Winnick. For Watson to try to blame the Tories for this Bill when Labour has a majority and three times as many of them voted for the Bill as Tories is just eye watering, Comical Tommy stuff.

4. Finally – If Menzies Campbell thought so strongly about this Bill, why wasn’t he there to speak and vote against it?

Because like most MPs he usually has constituency work on Fridays. We can’t all lounge around in Westminster ready to serve as government lickspittles at a moment’s notice.

If I wanted to sum up everything that I truly find deplorable about the Labour Party, it is Tom Watson. A dirty tricks campaigner par excellence, a House of Lords abolitionist (and simultaneously supporter of the status quo), anti-electoral reform, pro-compulsory voting, bemoans the civil liberty implications of RFID tags while voting enthusiastically for ID cards, die-hard Blairite loyalist right up until he can detect the wind has changed whereupon he attempts to orchestrate a coup for newfound best friend Gordon Brown, friends of even bigger moron Sion Simon… what it all adds up to is a nasty little man who is just a little bit too much in love with totalitarianism.

Oh, and if you haven’t done so already, join the Protect Freedom of Information Facebook Group.