BBC BLOGS - Open Secrets

Archives for September 2010

Cable evades Murdoch meeting

Martin Rosenbaum | 12:36 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010


It's a busy life for Vince Cable being business secretary, having to find time to deny being a closet Marxist and so on. It made me wonder if he'd been learning lessons from how Tony Blair coped with the diary pressures of being prime minister.

Vince Cable and James Murdoch


This thought was suggested by some e-mails between officials in the Department for Business which the BBC has obtained through a freedom of information request.

When Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation announced in June that it wanted to take full control of BSkyB, his son James (its chief executive for Europe and Asia) spoke to Vince Cable about it on the phone.

A couple of days later Mr Cable's private secretary e-mailed colleagues to report: "James Murdoch's office has called. At the end of the call this week James suggested he and the SoS [Secretary of State] meet up at some point, SoS vaguely agreed. They want a slot in the diary."

An official in the competition law and mergers section of BIS replied that it "would perhaps seem unreasonable to refuse their request".

However no such meeting has since taken place. The Department for Business says that Mr Cable, despite having "vaguely agreed" to the meeting, then felt it might be inappropriate, as he may in due course find himself considering the implications of the proposed takeover himself.

Nevertheless it reminded me of a passage in Tony Blair's recent memoirs: "The leader has always got to be the good guy. You bump into someone; they ask for a meeting; you agree, of course." But when this is followed up, "It's the job of the scheduler to say no."

Mr Blair recounts how his office used in mock severity the phrase "SO", which stood for sackable offence, for "scheduling a meeting with people who were never to cross the threshold". (The Murdoch family probably did not come into this category).

Still, the policy official who recommended the Cable-Murdoch meeting should take place added the rider that "the SofS should be in listening mode". So if the encounter had happened, James Murdoch would have been spared having to hear the details of Mr Cable's critique of capitalism, opinions which may not be identical to his own.

Straw reveals cabinet switch on veto

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Martin Rosenbaum | 09:50 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010


My blogging has been a little light recently because (in the non-FOI part of my job) I've been producing The Brown Years, a BBC Radio 4 series about Gordon Brown's premiership which begins today.

I'm afraid the series doesn't contain anything about freedom of information, but there's one FOI-related detail that emerged during the interviews and didn't survive the editing process which I thought might interest those who are particularly intrigued by FOI matters.

The former Justice Secretary Jack Straw told us that, in contrast to the later cabinet meetings under Tony Blair, Gordon Brown's cabinets held proper discussions which sometimes resulted in a change of policy.

The example he then quoted relates to the decision to veto the publication of the minutes of cabinet meetings in the run up to the Iraq war. This was in response to the Information Tribunal's judgement [155KB PDF] and a previous ruling from the information commissioner [80KB PDF], both ordering disclosure.

Mr Straw revealed in his interview that the initial government intention had been to issue the ministerial veto after the unwelcome decision by the commissioner, but that discussion in cabinet changed that stance and it was agreed instead to appeal to the tribunal. It was only after this appeal failed that the veto was announced.

It fell to Mr Straw as lord chancellor to issue the veto formally. This action was taken by the cabinet to protect the confidentiality of cabinet meetings. Whether Mr Straw has himself breached such confidentiality with this minor revelation is another matter, but he along with our other interviewees provided some candid descriptions of events during Mr Brown's premiership, and I hope you find the series adds to your knowledge and understanding of that period.

Tribunal orders Westland disclosure

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Martin Rosenbaum | 10:40 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010


A tribunal has told the government to release the minutes of the 1986 cabinet meeting during which Michael Heseltine suddenly walked out and resigned as defence secretary.

This stems from a freedom of information request I made over five years ago in February 2005. The Cabinet Office now has five weeks to decide whether to publish the document, appeal or use its right of veto to overrule the tribunal.

As I reported earlier, the case was heard by the First-Tier Tribunal last month, when the Cabinet Office appealed against an earlier decision by the Information Commissioner. The tribunal has now ruled that it is in the public interest for the minutes to be disclosed.

In its judgment the tribunal accepted that cabinet minutes should be kept secret except in rare cases, to preserve the convention of collective responsibility.

But it concluded that in this instance disclosure is justified. It argued that the convention has been undermined by several former cabinet ministers who have published their own accounts of the meeting in memoirs and by Margaret Thatcher herself in her Commons statement on the resignation.

The tribunal's decision was also influenced by the political and historical significance of the meeting and by the fact that nineteen years had passed at the time of my request.

It states: "We do not think that any reasonably robust member of the present or a future
cabinet would be deterred from arguing his or her corner by the thought that the opinion expressed might see the light of day twenty years from now. By far the greater and more imminent threat would seem to come from the prompt publication of a colleague's memoirs."

This is only the second occasion on which the tribunal has ordered the release of cabinet minutes. The other case concerned discussions prior to the Iraq War, and publication was then vetoed last year by the Labour Justice Secretary Jack Straw.

The tribunal also accused the Information Commissioner's Office of "inexcusable maladministration" for taking over four years to assess my case.

I calculate that so far over 1,400 working days have passed since I made this FOI application.

FOI truths, or myths?

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:59 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010


Here are three statements frequently made about freedom of information:

  • Freedom of information is for the ordinary citizen
  • There would be no need for FOI requests if government published more information proactively
  • Freedom of information has a chilling effect on the quality of advice and the public record
I have certainly heard all three statements frequently. But are they true? Not according to a new analysis of how FOI has worked in practice since it came into force in the UK in 2005. The researchers involved in the study, academics based at the Constitution Unit at University College, London, maintain that they are simply powerful myths.

Based on their detailed evaluation of the impact of FOI on Whitehall, Robert Hazell, Ben Worthy and Mark Glover argue that FOI is not much used by ordinary citizens, that more proactive publication is unlikely to anticipate what FOI requesters actually want, and that they could find "very little evidence" of a significant chilling effect.

Their research is reported in a recently published book, The Impact of the Freedom of Information Act on Central Government in the UK: Does FOI Work?. So, does FOI work? The authors conclude that it does in some ways and it doesn't in other ways.

They say it makes government more open and accountable, promotes efficiency and acts as a check on the integrity of government. But it doesn't produce better decision-making, increase public participation or encourage trust in government.

I can see how these conclusions make sense, given the sort of material which has actually been released under freedom of information. Facts and figures about the spending of public money, the performance of public services, the statistical measurement of government activities - FOI has thrust a lot of this information into the public domain, and there are now many well-established precedents for disclosure of such data.

But compared to what many expected there has been a thinner supply of releases relating to policy debate, internal discussion and decision-making processes. And Whitehall is often, though not always, highly resistant to revealing this kind of information.

For some that is a disappointing outcome. For others who are worried about the threat of a chilling effect undermining the frankness of advice and discussion, it may be a good thing - even if it means that freedom of information hasn't achieved the rather grand goal of empowering the public that Tony Blair proclaimed for it, before he decided that FOI wasn't such a good idea after all.

[Declaration of interest: I was one of those interviewed by the Constitution Unit researchers for their report.]

Why Tony Blair thinks he was an idiot

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Martin Rosenbaum | 12:20 UK time, Wednesday, 1 September 2010


"You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it."
Tony Blair and David Miliband at meeting in the cabinet room

These are the words Tony Blair addresses to himself in his memoirs while reflecting on his government's introduction of the Freedom of Information Act.

He claims that FOI is not used, for the most part, by "the people", but by journalists. His view is that "For political leaders, it's like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, 'Hey, try this instead', and handing them a mallet."

And he says there's another reason why it's dangerous: governments need to be able to discuss issues "with a reasonable level of confidentiality". In his Guardian interview today, he expands further:

"If you are trying to take a difficult decision and you're weighing up the pros and cons, you have frank conversations... And if those conversations then are put out in a published form that afterwards are liable to be highlighted in particular ways, you are going to be very cautious. That's why it's not a sensible thing."

Of course, some people say the same about ministerial memoirs, but that's another issue.

None of this is very surprising. One of his former advisers in Downing Street told me that FOI was the worst thing the Labour government had done - and that was in 2005, before (in Blair's words) "the full folly of the legislation had become apparent". It was perfectly clear that freedom of information was not popular in practice in Tony Blair's Downing Street.

And of course it's all very different to the views on FOI he expressed when leader of the opposition, when he presented awards for the Campaign for Freedom of Information. At that time he thought "The very fact of its introduction will signal a new relationship between government and people: a relationship which sees the public as legitimate stakeholders in the running of the country and sees election to serve the public as being given on trust."

Then he justified implementing FOI on the basis that "if a government is genuine about wanting a partnership with the people who it is governing, then the act of government itself must be seen in some sense as a shared responsibility and the government has to empower the people and give them a say in how that politics is conducted."

It's not unusual for people to change their views once they're sitting on the other side of the fence. But there are some gaps in Mr Blair's self-critical account of his government's FOI policies.

Although he admits he criticises his officials for not warning him of the damage he now thinks he was doing when legislating for FOI "in the first throes of power", he doesn't point out that the Act eventually introduced was actually a much weaker version than the plans his government initially proposed. Maybe he should be more grateful to his Sir Humphreys.

Nor does he mention that after FOI came into force his government decided to change the regulations so that fewer requests, especially tricky and troublesome ones, would succeed in coming under the cost limits. These plans were abandoned by Gordon Brown when he took over - but then, as we know, that's only one of many things they disagreed over.

But while it's easy to grasp why Mr Blair was irritated by media FOI requests to Downing Street, it's harder to understand why he thinks they resulted in the free supply of mallets to journalists wielding blunt instruments against him, or why he says of FOI that "the power it handed to the media was gigantic".

It's obviously true that MPs as a class got thoroughly battered by the media's FOI mallets during the expenses row, and Gordon Brown took at least one tough blow personally, but Mr Blair himself never got hit very hard by FOI.

I suspect something rather different may be going on here. Because there was another area, not freedom of information, where Labour's greater transparency did huge harm to Tony Blair's premiership and gave some very effective weapons to his enemies. That was the law requiring the publication of details of donations to political parties.

In due course this led to bad publicity over party donors - and the provision of huge loans to the Labour party which then did not have to be publicly declared and eventually prompted the "cash-for-honours scandal".

For Mr Blair, this investigation was undoubtedly one of the most stressful, disruptive and damaging episodes in his premiership. I wonder if at some point in this difficult period he thought ruefully of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (which introduced the disclosure of party donations) and muttered to himself "You idiot, you naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop."

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