Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Can we have too much information?

It is extraordinary that the Information Commissioner is insisting that Cabinet minutes should be released regarding the Iraq war because of the controversy surrounding them. The minutes themselves may not name those who are speaking in the debate, though they are likely to be more detailed than merely recording the decisions made, as Vernon Bogdanor asserted on Today (20 minutes into this segment) this morning. But they simply shouldn't be released for at least a decade after the discussions (I wouldn't object to cutting the 30-year rule back a bit) any more than the civil service advice to ministers given in recent years should be made public. I'm with Michael Heseltine on this one: unless cabinet ministers can discuss issues without the expectation that their deliberations should be as public as a morning spat with John Humphrys, then we might as well give up the whole notion of cabinet government. Equally, unless civil servants and advisers can offer ministers - who are elected to take decisions - a range of options without having to worry about how they might look in the Daily Mail, then the notion of an independent civil service is dead, not to mention effective government. Like Ben Brogan, I do wonder whether the Information Commissioner hasn't mistaken his role as a guardian of free information with that of an advocate for the anti-war movement.

As someone who is self-employed, I have rather less sympathy with MPs arguing against keeping receipts or recording their expenses (though the publicity of their expenses should be done in a way which explains how they spent their money and why, and not in some absurdly prurient shopping list for the tabloids which simply feeds the notion that politicians are all corrupt, a point Nick Robinson makes well).

1 comment:

Lee Griffin said...

If the Information Commissioner had declined the request no doubt we would be hearing claims from the other side that he was a pro-war advocate.

What's the point of arbitrary time limits anyway? It was 5 years ago, it might as well have been 50 years ago, the time scale has no relevance unless ministers involved believe that they have political capital to lose by what they said in the meeting...in which case do they even deserve to be our representatives?