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Research on Open Data and Transparency


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To Block or Not to Block: Does Veto Use Matter?

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As we know from the recent controversy over HS 2 and Charles’ ‘black ink’ letters, if the government doesn’t want to release something under FOI, it can use its veto to block a decision from the appeal system. Under section 53 of the Act it can just say no (the only other veto is held by the head of both Houses of Parliament)-see this BBC overview.

Since 2005 the veto has been used seven times. Seven times too many, argue campaigners but use is rather sparing compared with other countries. Does it really matter if the veto is used?

The first reason veto use matters is because it has been used on some of the truly ‘sensitive’ issues. Vetoed or blocked requests include

  • the Cabinet minutes where the war in Iraq was discussed
  • letters from the heir to the throne to government ministers
  • background decisions relating to Scottish devolution (not too sensitive normally but right now a bit more so)
  • The business case for HS2

See this House of Commons Library Note for an overview. All these are sensitive political issues: from Iraq to HS2 they are controversies that can severely damage reputations and policies. They also touch on sensitive areas of government and ‘constitutional issues’ such as the Monarchy or keeping cabinet discussion confidential. Government nervousness is shown by past attempts to totally exempt cabinet documents or extend the veto use (see page 17 of the government’s response to the post-legislative scrutiny of FOI).

There is a very large element of crocodile tears here-Cabinet confidentiality is a very important part of how government works-except when Ministers need to leak. Former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’ Donnell’s concern over FOI ‘taking away’ confidentiality was based on two examples he gave-one a very unusual situation (Coalition negotiations) and one a hypothetical example that never happened.

There’s a bit of a dilemma for politicians: the more the veto is used, the less attention it will attract. Truly cynical governments should (and have) used it more often. The Australian government used it 48 times in the first four years of its own FOI Act. The result? Everyone stopped noticing (see page 6 of this report and this CFOI briefing).

Country Use of the Executive Veto in first four years 
Australia 48
New Zealand 14
Ireland 2
UK 1

 

The second reason it matters is that the veto sends a ‘negative signal’ out to the system, telling everyone else that the government in charge doesn’t think the system is working as it should. It’s a vote of no confidence in FOI as a whole. Like any other veto it tells us that something, somewhere is not working very well.

The third reason is the effect on the public. FOI was designed to bring openness and confidence or at least reassure those who fear government secrecy. If government chooses to block something suspicion almost always follows, especially on such sensitive issues. To take the example of the FOI requests for the Iraq war minutes, few, I think, would believe it was vetoed due to the importance of preserving collective cabinet secrecy. They would believe that the government did not want us to see what the minutes did (or did not) say. Similarly there may be the suspicion with the letters from Charles that blushes are being saved (though whose I don’t know).

So the conundrum for government is whether to use it a lot or not at all. Use it a lot and hope no one will notice it-but you might get a reputation as secretive and the system as whole will suffer. Use it not at all and expose all sorts of difficult issues. No wonder Tony Blair saw FOI as one of his two biggest mistakes (the other was banning fox hunting with dogs).

 

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Gone But Not Forgotten? The MPs’ Expenses Scandal Five Years On

 

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As the Maria Miller controversy rumbles on, what, nearly five years on, has been the impact of the MPs’ expenses scandal of May 2009? At the time it was compared to great political earthquakes such as Italy’s tangentopoli scandal. But the exact effects may be more nuanced.

The impact on Parliament, at least initially, was clear: a lost speaker, a record number of MPs stepping down and imprisonment for a few. A slow burn of expenses related scandals followed as individual MPs continued to leave or step down -in May 2011 David Laws left office only days into the Coalition and Denis Macshane resigned in November 2012. There was also controversy around George Osborne’s train tickets and in April this year the Mail claimed Conservative whips were leaking expenses details to intimidate opponents of gay marriage. Talk of a pay rise in 2013 kept MPs’ finances in the headlines. And now the Culture Secretary….

Did all this upheaval change Parliament? Did it force a new culture of openness? Interviewees for the project we worked on had mixed views. MPs felt they had been forced to open up and adjust, but officials felt that many had to be ‘dragged’ towards compliance. The Telegraph is not convinced.

The most significant effect was an end to the right of Parliament to ‘govern itself’. A new independent body, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, was created to oversee expenses. The head of IPSA pointed out that ‘Regulators are very rarely at the top of the Christmas card list of those they regulate’ and, given its remit, IPSA was likely to be controversial. So it proved. Since its creation there has been a series of battles about MPs being landlords, poor behaviour and now IPSA is suing one member over their second home. Various politicians have spoken out against the new body with David Cameron hinting it must change or could go. Depending on your point of view, this conflict may be a sign of the success of the new system, its inherent unfairness (one MP claiming he borrowed money from his parents because of IPSA) or just teething troubles.

The ripples outwards also led to a brief but intense competition between Gordon Brown and David Cameron as to who could offer the most constitutional reform. David Cameron justified much of his reform agenda on reversing the effects of the scandal. Coalition proposals to reduce the size of the House of Commons and have a referendum on AV all drew on it as justification. Five years on, the first is on hold and the second was lost. Only the issue of Parliamentary recall (whereby electors can trigger an election if an MP misbehaves) keeps being resurrected as a kind of ‘look at what we are doing’ policy .

So what about the effect on the public? Research indicates the scandal had only a mild effect on voting patterns, and 2010 was not an ‘expenses’ election-see here and here– raising some interesting questions about the UK electoral system.

Neither is the scandal’s impact on public trust clear. Although the consensus was that it led to a fall in trust, this needs to be understood in context. First, trust in MPs fell from a low point. Second, to many the expenses scandal came as a confirmation of what they thought about politicians, not a revelation:

‘There has not been a fundamental realignment of views about MPs and the political process as a result of the expenses scandal…it has merely confirmed and hardened the public’s widely held scepticism about politicians rather than changed their views’ (2010, 3)

This briefing paper maps out some of the complications. Just to further confuse the picture, the most recent Hansard Society audit shows a rise in public confidence in parts of Parliament’s work. It also finds a fall in satisfaction in MPs’ work since 2010 (a year after the scandal).

The scandal did deeply impact on both Parliament and public but the effect is more nuanced than it appears. As a confirmation of the iniquity of politicians, expenses undoubtedly played into a growing anti-system or anti-politics mood among the public. So, instead of giving us constitutional reform, did MPs’ expenses, five years on, help give us UKIP?