Thursday, 22 September 2011

The limits of FOI?

The MP for Loamshire, holding a junior minister's position in the Department for Innovation, unscrews the cap of his fountain pen to write his weekly letter to the Chairman of his constituency association. Theirs is an old partnership, dating from the time he first took his seat in Westminster thirty years previously. They both hold to the old courtesies, reserving email for impersonal messages.
" ... and if you can, it would help me to know the views of our car-dealer members on the proposed £2k levy on diesel vehicles that our LibDem friends are pushing to include and our civil servants are supporting. My instincts are that this is simply not the time, but some hard evidence would be useful."
A private party communication or a piece of government business, and therefore subject to FOI disclosure? And as the communication was a hand-written letter, the MP for Loamshire couldn't even claim privacy under Data Protection Act rules as he could with email. Now his department's permanent secretary wants to trawl through all his constituency office correspondence to uncover anything that may be subject to FOI. 

I can't help but suspecting strongly that the 'furore' arising from Michael Gove's private emails is manufactured, and has been manufactured by Whitehall mandarins. "A meeting of permanent secretaries yesterday discussed ordering a "trawl" of personal email accounts held by Mr Cameron, senior aides and government ministers to see if they contain messages which fall within the remit of the Freedom of Information Act, The Independent understands."

Mandarins have never in their history acted proactively to assist the working of FOI. The contrary has always been the case. The many emails sent by senior civil servants that now carry the signature line 'Sent from my Blackberry' or 'Sent from my iPhone' all fall outside the repository that FOI requests comb through, so why not a trawl of the mandarins' smartphone records as well? Why not a trawl of the mandarins' home computers and personal laptops? 

There's much more to this than at first appears. What game are the mandarins playing here? An attempt to define the limits of FOI to their own advantage? A suspicion that ministers are governing without them? The carefully planted news stories from the Cabinet Office suggest that Gus O'Donnell is in this up his neck, but for what outcome?

1 comment:

Greg Tingey said...

They are trying to turn the clock back, and resist the freedom of information, so they can keep control.
They will fail, but it's going to be a long, bitter struggle.