Friday, May 18, 2007

They've Gone and Done It

Palace of Westminster
Soon to be no longer a public body as far as the FOI act is concerned
The image of parliament took another dent today as a valiant rearguard action to talk out the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill today failed and it passed its report stage and third reading.

In a naked act of self-interest, MPs decided to bring to an end the equal treatment of parliament under the FOI Act after just two years. Two years in which not a single case could be pointed to in which the work of parliament was damaged by the increased openness, unless you count some temporary embarrassment over MPs expenses. Cases were raised by the proponents of the bill, however not one was shown to have arisen because of the FOI act, or that could not have been dealt with under the data protection act.

The worst performance was undoubtedly during the third reading where only David Maclean, whose private members' bill this is, spoke in favour of the bill. He failed to address any of many points raised against the bill, preferring to concentrate on the fact there had been unanimity when it was considered in committee. This being a private members' bill of course Mr Maclean was entitled to, and did, appoint whichever 'politically reliable' members the committee he saw fit with no necessity for balance. Their 'detailed scrutiny' apparently was wrapped up in an hour.

I'm starting to tot up the numbers on who votes how on decisions that impact on the transparency and effectiveness of democracy in this country, or impinge on real civil liberties (as opposed to those concerned with non-senisical freedoms under the human rights act). Just like the league table after the first games of the season the figures are not a very interesting read at the moment. It's safe to say though, for using the very valuable opportunity of getting the chance to introduce a private members' bill to advance such a self-serving cause, it's safe to say on my scoring system Maclean is rock-bottom of the table and will need to play out of his skin for the rest of the season to avoid the wooden spoon.

Another dishonorable mention goes to Bridget Prentice, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, who stretched the definition of 'neutral' in describing the government's stance on the bill far beyond breaking point. I guess you could say the shadow front bench's performance this time was an improvement on the last time the bill was debated, in that they cowered in the trenches rather than give the same kind of neutral support as the government, as they did previously. At least John Redwood, as a senior figure, did stand up and argue against the bill.

Update: I have just learned via Conservative Home that Shadow Solicitor General Jonathan Djanogly did speak out to give the Conservative position:
"Let me say from the outset that the Conservative Party remains neutral on this bill."

I probably had my head down the toilet at the time. I won't comment further, not knowing if there was anything else in tone or substance that indicated the same tacit approval as the government gave. At the end of the day Maclean is one of theirs though and it's hard to believe some pressure could not have been brought to bear.

A valiant effort by the same team as at the last debate who all deserve the greatest of credit. Sadly, for me, they were dominated by Lib Dems (with honourable contributions from both government and Conservative benches), but sadly fell a few minutes short, thanks to some manipulation from the chair, of the 2:30PM deadline when this piece of legislation would have been consigned to the dustbin where it belongs.

As so often these days, it will be up to the unelected peers to try and put a spanner in the works. As we've seen over all manner of subjects, including the most odious of the lot, ID cards, I have every confidence they will try to do the right thing, where our elected representatives have failed us so badly.

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