Sunday, January 18, 2009

Action: Government trying to kibosh MPs' expenses disclosure

Having spent over £1 million collating the files of MPs' expense claims in order to make them available under the Freedom of Information Act, the Government is now trying to pull off a last-minute parliamentary ambush that would exempt them entirely from this disclosure. They are attempting to use the provision in section 82 of the Act which allows exemptions to be made by statutory instrument (i.e. by executive decision), on condition that the instrument passes a vote in both Houses of Commons.

The document has been laid before Parliament (scroll right down to the bottom); it is the Draft Freedom of Information Order(2009) and it's all Jack Straw's fault. Fortunately, not everyone is an arsehole, and Jo Swinton, Liberal MP for East Dumbartonshire, has put down an Early Day Motion against the move.

But the EDM is gravy; the real challenge will be the two parliamentary votes ("affirmatory resolutions"), one in the Commons, one in the Lords, which are scheduled for Thursday. If either fails, the order falls, and being merely a statutory instrument, the Parliament Act doesn't apply to it, so it can't be blasted through the Lords. It's also typical that the passage of a statutory instrument is a very low energy event; no bugger turns up, there is little debate, and this suits the executive government right down to the ground.

This also suits us, as it's likely to need fewer MPs (or Lords, but I'd like it if we didn't have to depend so much on a gaggle of corpses and placemen) to kill it or talk it out. So, it's time to write to them. Your talking points are:
  1. The Government has spent a million pounds preparing the documents for release.

  2. The reputation of Parliament is at stake.

  3. If this goes through, you can be certain that the only information that gets out will be selectively leaked to embarrass political opponents. It will happen to you.

  4. They are trying to get away with this by sneaking it through in the middle of the Heathrow row, Gaza crisis, etc - they think you're stupid.

  5. Sign the EDM, but most of all, vote against the Freedom of Information Order 2009 on Thursday.

  6. And persuade a Lord to do likewise.

And, finally, do it now. If the order is passed, all existing FOIA data and requests on this topic will be shredded.

Personally, I've always been lukewarm about the expenses crusade; it reeks of 80s "your tax dollars at work" know nothing yelling. Did you realise they are paying people to study BEETLES? Eh? Eh? And they shop at....shudder...John Lewis? However, the principle is fair enough. And the Government's action has invoked a much more important principle. They would love to encroach on much more important FOIA subjects, and this is a fine opportunity to slam the door on their pinky. By all means, blog about this, join the facebook group, but first of all, go hit your MP right now. I just have.

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