Too much information

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.

Advertisements

32 Comments

Filed under Department for Transport, FOI, Media

32 responses to “Too much information

  1. I agree completely. What angers me most is that this bureaucrat (and the parliamentary commissioner, amongst others) has NO accountability, NO mandate and NO-ONE can remove them easily from office.

    These ‘great and the good’ figures are a disgrace to British politics.

  2. Patchouli

    What are they to talk about during tea-breaks?

  3. John

    “Freedom of Information” in it’s current form is a joke. It should be a means of getting access to records that:
    a) Are in the public interest, and
    b) Pose no risk to being made public

    Examples include how many hours each MP spends in the chamber during a session, how much the civil service spends on stationary, and other somewhat trivial nuggets that no-one would bother to collate had they not been asked.

    Any more than that and it becomes a joke, as it has. Tom’s car is none of our business. The contents of meetings are none of our business. Tom’s home address is none of our business. The list goes on and you get the idea.

    The freedom of information act should be redrafted to be as specific and trivial as possible. There should be no ambiguity as to just how trivial it is. Otherwise the scope could well, and in fact appears to be infringing on public official’s ability to do their job.

    I for one want public officials to be aware of making the right decisions, not aware of what they say and do being poured over with the benefit of hindsight at a later date.

    Just how averse to the freedom of information act can I be?

  4. Iain Menzies

    i agree aswell, but as a tory its not you per se that i think is anti democratic just your party 😉

  5. Johnny Norfolk

    I see Tom you do not like what we have to put up with all the time. Why should you be exempt.

    It reflects the them and us attitude very well.

    I think you are right Tom to be concerned as we have been for 10 years.

  6. But hang on – that isn’t what the Information Tribunal has ruled at all, according to the source you linked to. In fact, it has ruled that the Prime Minister must release the names of all of the people he had meetings with over a period of one month, and the dates of the meetings. That’s all, just the names and dates – not the purpose of the meeting, and not the contents of the discussion.

    I accept that you know more about how government works than I do, so maybe I’m just not understanding the implications properly, but how does requiring the PM to say who he has met equate to having to disclose the content of all ministerial meetings?

  7. Carolyn, is that you? Tom says stop posting on his blog, it will only end in tears, and that you’re wanted back in the kitchen 🙂

    Just my little joke.

  8. Very Anonimous

    So you’re not going to disclose your views on Gaza and Britain’s arms for Israel either then, yes?

  9. richard

    Heaven forfend that we, the plebs, should be able to learn what sort of shady back-room deals the Government are making.

  10. You don’t ‘tell’ people what car to drive, but car tax is based on carbon dioxide emissions and there are lists on Government web sites of environmentally responsible cars.

    So the request to your press office was a case of trying to expose another case of ‘do as I say not do as I do’ ie brand you as another hypocrite. Various ministers’ choice of private schooling refers, where the reason is ‘just because I am a member of a government committed to equality of opportunity doesn’t mean that I should not seek to give my child the best start in life I can afford’.

    As for the car request, you should have lied and said an Aston Martin!

  11. Alan Douglas

    Tom, considering that you are a senior member of the most “MOPB (Minding Other People’s Business)” party that has ever existed, I would have thought you would rejoice in such laws, or is it the old “ministerial car lanes” system at work – one law for the hoi polloi, and one for the commissars ?

    Hypocrit.

    Alan Douglas

  12. Barney Waits

    Tom,

    Please inform of us your sexual orientation and ethnic origin.

    That question is asked on more and more official forms, so it rather beggars belief that you should be complaining about FoI, which is not fit for purpose as it stands anyway, being able to be stymied at the drop of a hat by government.

  13. carolyn

    Iain

    No, that earlier comment wasn’t from me – I know my place. I only leave a comment on Tom’s blog when his phone is switched off and I am trying to get hold of him-it usually works.

  14. Phil C

    John – so you think what goes on in Government is none of our business? What an appalling thought. Actually you’ve got it completely wrong. The Government is OWNED by us, it governs on our behalf as taxpayers and voters. It has no rights – it only has duties.

    I see no reason why the Prime Minister’s – and Tom’s – official diaries should not be published on the internet. There should be no excuse for trying to pull the wool over the taxpayer’s eyes.

    And we don’t get told what car to drive? Pull the other one. We get differentially taxed according to what car we drive. This Government proposed a change to car tax that would have hammered people who drive older family cars because they have higher emissions. These include people who need a big car for their family and probably cannot afford a newer, lower-emission car. Rich people can afford new cars and may pay lower tax for the same sort of car. It is that sort of hypocrisy that is being challenged.

    Anyway I don’t see that the sort of car I drive is “private” for the simple reason that I am seen out and about in it, it’s hardly a secret. I am happy enough to say that I drive a PT Cruiser (and hopefully will shortly be driving a TVR). What’s so embarrassing about yours, Tom?

  15. Graham

    My my…

    Israel wiping out Palestinian children, Hamas lobbing rockets in a Mad Max inspired game of ‘pin the tail on the donkey’, interest rates through the floor and unemployment on the up and what do we get – your good self taking the nip about a personal car question and going all ‘Daily Mail’ again on the red pen non story.

    wish I got to use a red pen here

    see me

    must try harder and do better

    love to C

    G

  16. Zorro

    What Captain Deltic and Phil C said!

    At a first read it does seem wrong to ask what car you drive in private – but considering the hectoring and taxing your government does to try to get us to drive stupid little cars, it’s not unreasonable for us to see if you are doing as you are asking us to do, or if your ministerial salary, perks and personal hypocrisy allow you to continue to drive a gas guzzling jag or whatever…

  17. Zorro – for the record, I have never told anyone to drive “stupid little cars” and in fact refused to accept a milk float Toyota Prius as a ministerial car. Why would it be hypocritical of me to own a “gas-guzzler” (hypotheticaly) when I have never told anyone else not to buy one?

  18. John

    Tom, as the resident ‘all things sci-fi’ expert, could you shed any light on that UFO incident in Lincilnshire where that windturbine blade was damaged?

    Could it have been Gordon returning from the ‘other planet’ he’s on? 🙂

  19. Stephen

    I am struggling to see why Mr Harris so offended to be asked the make and model of the car he drives in his private life. It poses no security risk whatsoever, unless he drives a unique model of car. His government is attempting to influence our choice of cars by means of road fund taxation. I have no problems with its doing that but it is legitimate to know what sort of cars the ministers who direct that policy drive themselves. Labour politicians are fond of telling us that those who have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear from the disclosure of information, whether this be to the National Identity Register or to the new surveillance data being planned. What has Mr Harris to be afraid of?

  20. Stephen – you might have missed this in my previous post: “… 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.”

    The government influences the type of car you buy by taxation in the same way it influences the size of house you buy through stamp duty. That does not mean I have to divulge the value of my house. Or does it?

    The car I choose to drive, whether or not I’m a minister, is none of your business. Good luck in trying to come to terms with that.

  21. Zorro

    Tom,

    I did say “considering the hectoring and taxing /your government/ does to try to get us to drive stupid little cars”, not you personally – your government (which until recently you were a member of) has most certainly tried to hector and tax us into smaller cars. Regardless of how many kids/how much stuff we may have to move around…

    On a side note, I’m glad you turned down the Prius, they are most certainly not environmentally friendly, doing hardly any more MPG than a decent petrol/diesel car, and certainly containing a lot more planet damaging toxins (in all those Li-Ion batteries).

    Having said that they (Prius’) will make a jolly useful household power generator when the Russians cut off the gas and we have no power because of Gordon’s dithering about new nuclear power stations…

  22. richard

    Surely the car that you drive and the type of school to which you send your children is a matter of public interest.

    A party which promotes fuel efficient cars through punitive taxation (while themselves driving 4×4’s) or sends their kids to top fee-paying schools while simultaneously trying to stop other from doing so represents the worst form of hypocrisy.

  23. Stephen

    The government influences the type of car you buy by taxation in the same way it influences the size of house you buy through stamp duty. That does not mean I have to divulge the value of my house. Or does it?

    That’s being rather disingenuous. Road Fund tax changes have been made within a specific green agenda. It is of legitimate public interest as to how much commitment ministers have to that agenda. Their choice of car is a good index to that.

    The car I choose to drive, whether or not I’m a minister, is none of your business. Good luck in trying to come to terms with that

    On the contrary, within the context of the green agenda, your choice of car is of legitimate public interest.

  24. Stephen

    A party which promotes fuel efficient cars through punitive taxation (while themselves driving 4×4’s) or sends their kids to top fee-paying schools while simultaneously trying to stop other from doing so represents the worst form of hypocrisy

    Richard – I think that is the key point. The public has no moral right to know about the private lives of ministers; but when those private lives contradict with policy then that is a different matter. I have no interest in the sex lives of politicians. But when politicians start preaching morality, as John Major’s government did with its ‘Back to Basics’ agenda, then it is legitimate to expose any instances of sexual immorality by ministers.

  25. Rapunzel

    Tom, I really don’t care what make of car you drive, or how big the engine is, or how many miles it does to the gallon, or whether it’s diesel or petrol, or what size wheels it has, or whether it’s an automatic or manual, or how quickly it goes from 0 to 60 mph.

    But, would you mind telling me what colour it is?

  26. richard

    @ Stephen

    Agreed. The key point being that it’s very difficult to ascertain whether there is any hypocrisy if politicians assume they have the right to keep their personal lives completely private.

    It’s a short step from “privacy” to “conflict of interest”.

  27. Chris' Wills

    I can see a certain logic in knowing what and how many cars a politician drives if that politician is trying to force the public (by tax rules for example) to drive certain cars and not others.

    If two jags suggested people use the trains more, yet didn’t himself, that is information the public should have a right to know.

    If a politician berated the public for flying away on holiday and then goes on a long haul flight 1st class for their holidays; again I think this should be in the public domain.

    Just like politicians waxing lyrical about how everyone should be green and then being gross polluters or perhaps how everyone should bare the burden and then managing to offload their share.

    Shows the politician to be two faced and or hypocritical and I believe we have a right to know how selfish, hypocritical, duplicitous etc our elected representatives are (if they are any of these things, they may all be pure as the driven snow).

    Otherwise it isn’t anyones business.

  28. Paul Williams

    But at the risk (and for “risk” read “certainty”) of being accused of being an anti-democratic control freak

    Blimey, 24 comments thus far and not one has accused you of being an anti-democratic control freak, you must be disappointed 😉

    Although if you were Gordon Brown, I would imagine your response now would be; I never said…what I said was…

  29. Interesting. There does appear to be some double standards though – Tom writes,
    “The government influences the type of car you buy by taxation in the same way it influences the size of house you buy through stamp duty. That does not mean I have to divulge the value of my house. Or does it?”
    But you do – if you buy a house, the purchase price is now available on the publicly available register … legislation was passed to specifically permit this.

    The minister can decide to whom your medical records can be revealed to (and this is not for medical purposes), provided that the information is suitably anonymised (says the law), without reference to you.

    Your child’s details are added to the national database – whether or not you agree to it.

    You are asked for your religious preference in the National Census.

    And that’s before we look at RIPA and other powers taken by this Labour Government and before we consider the proposed national DNA database or the powers for local authorities and others to come into your home to see what you have done to it for various purposes.

    Oh, and that is also before we consider whether the Government is capable of holding such vast databases securely …

    Sorry, Tom, but what car you drive is hardly intrusive in comparison to the details that your Government has decided it needs …

  30. Perhaps having suffered such irritating intrusion into your business you might encourage the rest of your party to stop prying into the lives of the public.

    For instance, I’m sure that as an MP, if the police hacked your computer without a warrant there would be uproar. Sadly, the public has no such protection now.

  31. reason_please

    Just three points

    1. It seems a bit odd to complain about FoI when the point you illustrate is, by your own admission, not based on an FoI request

    2. If an FoI request was made about your private vehicle then tell them to get stuffed. If on the other hand the car in question was a publicly funded and maintained vehicle then an FoI request is more justifiable.

    3. If there is a reasonable expectation that answering the FoI request would expose you to danger then you have solid grounds for a refusal so where is the problem?

  32. Auntie Flo'

    “… the next thing will be a demand to know if we intend to take a long-haul flight when we go on holiday”

    Even tortured flight path dwellers and anti-airport expansion bods like me aren’t interested in that, Tom. If you choose to shower my family and home with particulate carcinogens when you go off on your hols, that’s your entirely your concern… isn’t it?

    My only rights in the matter are the right to campaign for you and all of those who fly to pay a very hefty ‘polluter pays’ tax, one proportionate to the environmental and health damage you cause and to the levy that all other polluters are made to fork out.

    That’s fair, isn’t it…?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s