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The last straw

March 4, 2009

column-picture2I don’t know whether you saw the news about Jack Straw last week?

The Justice Secretary made history. For the first time, he used the Government veto which is part and parcel of the Freedom of Information Act.

Going against the decision of the Information Tribunal, Mr Straw chose to block the publication of two sets of minutes from Cabinet Meetings leading up to the decision to go to war in Iraq.

He said that to publish the minutes would do ‘serious damage to Cabinet government’.

I confess to having been (to use one of my granddad’s favourite phrases) a bit vexed about this decision.

Mr Straw has now spent the last of the Perry family goodwill credits earned (unbeknown to himself) when (as President of the Student Union) he helped my dad find new digs at short notice in Leeds, in the late 1960s.

I mean really. The use of the veto stinks.

New Labour has shown itself to be the arch-protagonist of ‘one rule for them, and another one for us’ governance.

This tendency has shown itself in so many and varied arenas. Whether it’s been the obfuscation on MPs expenses, the failure to restrain the City, the backing of the Bush foreign policy, or now the dodging of the Freedom of Information Act, it has added to the unpleasant odour of decay which surrounds the Labour Government…

I was so incensed by Mr Straw’s actions that I wrote to our Labour MP and asked him what his own position was on the matter.

When I have questioned Michael previously about the Government’s stance on ID Cards, on 42 day detention and the DNA database, his response has always been that if people have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear.

From this perspective, surely it was unacceptable to him that the public would not be given access to information about one of the most controversial foreign policy decisions in the country’s recent history?

He wrote back with a question: if Cabinet members knew their discussions could be published, he asked, how would you deal with the tendency for them to say nothing or simply hold private conversations beforehand?

My reply is that whilst it is understandable for politicians to have private conversations, the country should expect the Cabinet itself to be a democratic body, and that Cabinet ministers should be prepared to stand by what they believe.

That Cabinet members might choose to avoid making comments because of the Freedom of Information Act is one of the most concerning things I have heard for some time.

It’s what we’ve come to, politically.

And the Tories are no better.

I have still to get a reply from my Conservative counterpart after asking her if she supports her party in backing the Government’s veto.

Her silence speaks volumes.

I urge you to remember this at the ballot box: it was only the Liberal Democrats who voted against the Iraq War, and it was only the Liberal Democrats who voted against the use of the FOI veto.


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