Sunday, 22 June 2014

Farcical lack of transparency.

My current Kindle read is a book that shines a light into the dark corners of our Government. Any ideas I might have had that we now live in more democratic and enlightened times are blown away by this book. We need transparency for the state and privacy for the citizen; instead it is the wrong way round. The Silent State: Secrets, Surveillance and the Myth of British Democracy. Written by Heather Brooke, is the second book in a trilogy made up of the following titles "Your Right to Know", "The Silent State" and "The Revolution Will Be Digitised." 

The Silent State: Secrets, Surveillance and the Myth of British Democracy. Its back cover description says it all. "Revealing that the MPs expenses scandal was just the tip of the iceberg. Heather Brooke exposes the shocking and often farcical lack of transparency at all levels of government. Heather is a journalist and freedom of information campaigner. She helped to expose the MPs expenses scandal, which culminated in the resignation of House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin." heather Brooke is Professor of Journalism at City University, London's Department of Journalism.

Wikipedia says:-
In October 2004, Brooke started to request details of MPs' expenses, via the House of Commons Freedom of Information Officer, Bob Castle. However, the information was in a bulk format, and could not be broken down to individual MPs. In January 2005, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into force, allowing members of the public to request disclosure of information from public bodies. She started out requesting all 646 MPs' expenses, but the Commons claimed that would be too costly.
Too costly to us the tax payers or too costly to the cheating lying MPs. Heathers book shines a light on the putrid heart of what we have been led to believe is British democracy. And the myth of being the mother of all parliaments. The book exposes just how little real information is disclosed to the electorate by MPs elected local government officials, the police services and even the judiciary. The public are entitled to transparency and openness about how money is spent, and how decisions are made. The growing secrecy of the British political establishment is a major threat to civil liberty and effective governance.

Heather then asked for request for travel information. (refused) Heather then asked for information on second homes for the details for all MPs, but this was also refused. Then heather asked for the names and salaries of MPs' staff. Which was (refused) this time personally by the Speaker of the House of Commons Michael Martin. I wonder why 'Gorbals Mick' refused the request. After all, the tax payer was paying out for second homes that would reap a huge profit when sold later. What was there for the speaker to hide?

As a nation we pay for huge amounts of data to be gathered. This is essentially done on our behalf. Much of the information collected is about us. Yet we are often denied access to that information. We are presented with a public relations press release that has been subject to the work of a spin doctor. Information is given that bears little or no resemblance to the true facts. Because if the news is bad which MP wants to publish and be associated with it. 

Heather Brooke then reduced even further her FoI request. Which she now limited to just ten MPs. The requests were for party leaders and a few ministers. After again being refused, she made an appeal to the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas. Her request was considered for a year. The Information Commissioner ordered the release of some information. Once again our beloved MPs closed ranks. The house of commons authorities objected to this order. They cam up with a fudge in the form of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill which sought to exempt MPs from the FoI act. The amendment bill was ultimately withdrawn prior to second reading in the House of Lords because peers were unwilling to sponsor the bill.

After referral to an Information Tribunal, it was ruled that Commons authorities must release the requested information. The Speaker 'Gorbals Mick' appealed the decision. Directly challenging the requests for publication of expenses for Gordon Brown, David Cameron, John Prescott, Menzies Campbell, Margaret Beckett, George Osborne, William Hague, Mark Oaten, George Galloway, Barbara Follett and Ann Keen. Plus three former MPs including Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and John Wilkinson. The appeal was heard at the High Court of Justice, which ruled in favour of releasing the information.

The court said: "The House of Commons expense system has a shortfall both in terms of transparency and accountability. We have no doubt that the public interest is at stake. We are not here dealing with idle gossip, or public curiosity about what in truth are trivialities. The expenditure of public money through the payment of MPs' salaries and allowances is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers."

No appeal was lodged against the High Court ruling. Subsequently the Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman, tabled a motion to exempt MPs' expenses from being disclosed under a Freedom of Information request. Labour MPs were placed under a three line whip to force the motion through the Commons. When large scale public opposition emerged. The proposals were ultimately dropped. The Commons authorities announced that full disclosure of all MPs' expenses would be published on 1 July only after the European Elections due to take place in early June.

Before the election The Daily Telegraph obtained and began publication of unedited details of all MPs' expenses. Including address details which showed the practice of "flipping", that is, changing the registered main address for various tax and expense fiddling purposes. Cleaning moat's and duck houses were amongst the more unusual claims. The disclosures led to several MPs resignations and it then became a national scandal. The fallout from the expenses scandal continues today. The perception of distrust by the public towards MPs, is only second to the level of distrust we hold for bankers. The rest as they say is history. Heather Brooke's ability, and persistence, to get at the truth, places her at the cutting edge of modern investigative journalism.

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