Friday, 4 May 2012

Freedom of information and democratic challenge - can you overstep the mark?

For me openness and transparency at all levels of government is vitally important without being daft about the stuff that needs to kept confidential like state secrets etc.

I am gently amused by Tony Blair's and Jack Straw's recent discomfiture with the Freedom of Information Act and their realisation that it was, in so many ways, naive.   Indeed it was.  But that particular genie is now well and truly 'out of the bottle' and almost certainly for the public good.

The trouble is, as always, the transition between the old and new ways of working.

The Act, effectively denies Ministers and Civil Servants (and everyone else in the government or local government world) the opportunity to think the unthinkable and discuss it in any form of formal setting.  Would Geoffrey Howe ever have advocated a policy of managed decline for Liverpool (not taken up incidentally) if he knew those thoughts would have ended up in public years later?  These thoughts have emerged with cabinet papers being made public after 30 years.  Whilst I think Geoffrey Howe was wrong on this point - and the Cabinet didn't agree with him in any event - I do think it was right for him to be able to discuss this topic or indeed another topic with colleagues in a formal setting.   But with the Freedom of Information Act this may no longer be possible.

Now Tony Blair was notorious for his informal 'sofa style' of government - quite possibly a good way of ensuring that there were few records of discussion and decision making.  As we know he has been criticised for this - most notably in relation to the inquiries into the war in Iraq.

Anyway this is all at the high end of politics.   Lets step down many levels.

Locally I am keen that as many people as possible are engaged in and interested in what happens at CWaC and FTC.  With few exceptions, all the books and records are available for inspection at both councils.  This must be right.  As an elected representative I go a step further.  If anyone wants to know anything that is going on they only have to ask me.  My help and assistance will always be freely and willingly given.  I will always try and answer a question as best I can and swiftly too.  I am happy to engage in any debate anyone wants to have.  All I request is that personalities be kept out of the debate.  I'd also hope that those engaging in a debate would listen (me included of course) to the other side - and dare I say it make sure they knew their facts - certainly before proclaiming their version of them to the world!

FTC will be debating its existing policy for managing communications at its next meeting.  It will be interesting to see how we manage democratic challenge set against scarce resources.