SO, THE Information Commissioner has ruled that ministers can’t have private meetings any more.
This is undoubtedly a cause of celebration for LibDem MPs who don’t expect ever to be in government anyway. But at the risk (and for “risk” read “certainty”) of being accused of being an anti-democratic control freak, there can sometimes be good reasons for holding private meetings where a record isn’t taken. The most successful negotiations, between ministers and his civil servants, between departments or between a department and an outside body, can very often start with an informal discussion that, technically, didn’t actually happen.
No more, apparently. Openness and transparency counts more than successful delivery of policy, I suppose. Hooray for the Freedom of Information Act and the Information Tribunal.
As a transport minister, I once received a request from the department’s press office for details of the car I drive as a “civilian”, as it were. I informed my private secretary that, naturally, I wouldn’t be divulging that information. But out of curiosity, I asked the press officer in question why he wanted the information. He said he had received a request from The Times for the make and model of car each minister drove in their private lives.
Why should this information be divulged? What would be the rationale, I asked? Because if the department is telling people what kind of car to drive, their own choice of car was a matter of public interest, came the reply.
Two points of interest here: the Department for Transport doesn’t tell anyone what kind of car to drive, and I certainly wouldn’t have anyway. And even if that was something it did, I still wouldn’t have dreamed of divulging that kind of thing.
I pointed out to the disappointed press officer that if we agree to give out details of the (non-government) cars we drive, the next thing will be a demand to know if we intend to take a long-haul flight when we go on holiday, or whether or not we have central heating installed in our homes. A flea in the ear was duly administered.
Of course, that particular piece of information was not applied for under FoI, but under MOPB (Minding Other People’s Business). Still, given some of the recent rulings of the Information Tribunal, had it come under FoI, they would probably have sanctioned it.