Revenge of the Nincompoop

With his charm, TOWIE tan and beaming smile, ageing smoothie Tony Blair increasingly resembles Lewis Archer, the character Nigel Havers played in Coronation Street. Ingratiating, suave but clearly with a huge amount of dodgy business in his past, Blair sidles up to us, offering a wonderful future. Unfortunately, like his fictional cousin, Blair’s past hangs around him like a fart in a lift, and we know that he’ll let us down again. As he jets into the UK to “re-engage”, his statement to the Justice Committee on FOI, a parsimonious 570 words (HT @alistair_sloan), hardly persuades me to fall in love with him again.

I’m sure the Justice Committee were genuinely offended that Blair did not do them the courtesy of appearing before them, and his no-show was disrespectful to Parliament (even his old colleague Jack Straw acknowledged this on the Today Programme). The Justice Committee’s work on FOI has been thoughtful, thorough and ultimately very sensible – every time I watched the proceedings, I was impressed by how positive many of the Committee members were about FOI. Blair’s refusal to participate was a disgrace, and they should have empty-chaired him. Nevertheless, giving the old fox a kicking also gave the media a handy peg on which to hang their coverage of the Committee’s report. And who am I to rise above the sideshow? I’ve picked out some of my favourite moments from Blair’s musings, but all I have to show for it is bile.

The Commissioner naturally tends towards curtailing the exemptions and especially where there is any sense of public anxiety faces a great temptation to stretch the ambit of the law.

This is bollocks. While Chris Graham is clearly presiding over a more assertive and truculent Information Commissioner’s Office, Blair’s views on FOI were set while Richard Thomas ran the shop. Blair’s experience of FOI would therefore have been in the backlog days, when information was only disclosed after years of dithering (i.e. long after the sensitivity had passed), and when the Tribunal made many of the bold decisions (the BBC Governors minutes for example) and rarely overturned the ICO’s disclosure orders. In other words, it was the judicial process that forced information out. Blair is a lawyer by profession, so shouldn’t he respect the legal process a bit more?

So the original idea was to make available the facts behind the decisions, not the confidential policy debate around those decisions.

The Act does not reflect this original idea, and what Blair fails to acknowledge is the FOI Act reflects the will of a Parliament dominated by his party and his people. Blair wants to create the impression that a fast one has been pulled, that the original intention has been perverted by the implementation. Labour’s first stab at FOI (the one sponsored by David Clark) went further than the Bill that was originally presented, and it is not the implementation of the Act that has created the problem Blair identifies. Section 35 is a blanket exemption for government policy making, but it has a public interest test. Section 36 is a wide exemption for discussions, advice and views, but it is loaded with hurdles. Nobody made Blair push this forward – he had been Prime Minister for 3 years by the time FOI was being debated and so he must have understood what effect the legislation was going t0 have. Blair was clearly unwilling to be straight with the public by either pulling the bill or forcing his MPs to vote through more restrictive provisions.

In reality, publication now goes way beyond that with the public interest tests giving a big impulsion in the direction of publication.

In other words, Blair sets himself and his version of politics against the public interest. I still can’t quite believe he said this. It’s worse than his self-flagellation in his autobiography, because he’s explicitly saying that the convenience of politicians is more important than the public interest.

Thus, the absolutely necessary committing to writing of often complex political and technical issues, is undermined. Of course, this is a subjective judgement. But I suspect it is one shared by most senior politicians

Only Tony could stress the value of ‘openness’ in a bid to defend secrecy. Blair failed to properly reform the House of Lords, bottled changing the electoral system, and looking at one of the few positive constitutional changes he achieved, he prefers secrecy and spin. Look at his choice of words: these are “complex political and technical issues” and “most senior politicians” feel the way he does, as he was no doubt saying to Kofi Annan and the Sultan of Brunei over the fish course at Davos. However he wants to be perceived, Blair’s statement comes across as elitist, conservative and imperious – FOI is a grubby and unwelcome intrusion that trespasses on the VIPs who run the world, and he resents the metaphorical presence of the hoi polloi at the top table. In reality, I suspect that what Blair really fears is that the Vaseline-lensed image of himself as International Man of Statesmanship will be undermined if we get confirmation of how he (and many other politicians) actually do their business.

But the truth is that, if people know that what they are saying is going to be published, they will be less frank and open in how they express themselves. If you believe, as I do, that such frankness and openness is essential to the proper conduct of decision-making, then again the impact of publication or even the threat of it, is counter-productive. 



Blair’s view of the civil service in particular and politics in general is damning. He describes a bunch of people who would rather keep inadequate records of major decisions, keep incomplete risk assessments, or withhold the best options for fear of what the public might make of them. Either he’s right, and the people running the country have a contemptuous view of the public, or he’s wrong. If Blair’s narrative is more about himself than the system, he clearly has a lot of things about the way he does business that he does not want us to know. Given his current role as jet-setting eminence grise for rich nations with ambivalent human rights records, one can only wonder what he got up to in office.

The purpose of the legislation was of course not to open such frank discussion to public view. It was to allow issues to be better debated; to permit people to access information about themselves held by Government; and to encourage the system to be more accountable.

It’s impressive that in such a meagre communication, Blair still has time to drop clangers that show he’s not really thinking about the substance of the issue, just whining about how it’s all so unfair. FOI provides greater access to personal data on the margins, but that is not its purpose and nobody could have thought it was, given that the Data Protection and Access to Health Records legislation had already ‘permitted’ (thanks Mr Tony Sir, so kind of you) this access in 1984, 1989 and 1998. If Blair really doesn’t know what his FOI Act did, he’s even more of a nincompoop than he claims to be. But wasn’t his statement to a Parliamentary Committee investigating what he considers to be his biggest career mistake important enough for one of his henchmen to fact-check it first?

Long term it will just result in a different way of conducting the business of Government.

Blair’s verdict on what this different way entails is less record keeping, worse decision-making. The problem is, that’s not a damning verdict on FOI or the people who use it to ask questions. It’s how he sees himself and the people he’s worked with, and how he thinks they react to increased scrutiny. Blair’s view is a relentlessly depressing critique of the political class he wants to protect. As another FOI reverse-ferret merchant said, he was the future once, and now he’s just a spokesman for political self-interest. I agree passionately with the above sentiment – FOI will result in a different way of doing business, but it doesn’t have to be the unrecorded, back-covering future that Blair cynically predicts. If politicians (some of whom I am perfectly prepared to believe are not bastards) grow up with FOI, they might actually make better, more informed decisions in the knowledge that journalists and troublemakers will catch them when they don’t. David Cameron has shown himself to be in the Blair mould, but that doesn’t constrain those who come after him.

In the meantime, one can only hope Blair stops pestering us and is eventually run out of the street, leaving only a trail of self-justification and Ambre Solaire.

Comments

  1. I said similar on twitter about Blair digging himself a deeper authoritarian hole with his statement to the Committee, but you’ve dissected it nicely. The Inquiries Act 2005 that he instigated also demonstrates this streak, as you’ll have seen from recent reports regarding the difficulty Chilcot has had in getting ‘permission’ to disclose the documentary evidence held in government. Blair was never interested in “allow[ing] issues to be debated” in a more informed matter, only ‘Papa Blair knows best now children, so take your medicine and join the dole queue over there in a nice orderly manner.’ The Inquiries Act powers are no mistake: they were the clear reaction of O’Donnell, Blair, Powell et al to the Scott, Philips, Saville and Hutton Enquiries. Never again would a senior judge be able to do the job that Parliament is incapable of doing: holding power to account with aid of the facts and ministers’ and officials’ own writing. And, thanks to the existence of a class exemption and a ministerial veto in the FOIA, the public are also stymied.

    What the Committee and, sadly, the Law Commission in New Zealand have also done, is unquestioningly accept the notion that officials need a ‘safe space’ of non-disclosure in order to speak frankly and give candid advice. It may have been beyond the remit of either review, but others have been writing about this for ages there’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest that making policy in the cloistered monastery or convent of secrecy does not produce good outcomes. We’re living in the ruins of the ‘trust us, we’re technocrats who know best’ approach with economic, social and environmental crises abounding, and yet two reviews examining whether greater openness of policy advice is good for government and society don’t even ask the question of whether the way that governments formulate and develop policy should change as a result of FOIA. Crazy and depressing – especially as Rhodri Morgan instigated just such a change at the Welsh Assembly, with the requirement that the structure of cabinet papers be changed, so as to allow far greater levels of disclosure. I’ve seen no enquiry as to how that worked out in practice.

    As others have written, it’s the culture within an organisation subject to FOIA that can have the greatest effect on whether the organisation benefits from the disciplines imposed by the law, or engages in the Sisyphean task of resisting request after request. Officials have acute hearing for the messages given out by their masters and mistresses – after all, increased pay and career prospects can hang on it, even leaving aside normative issues like trying to deliver the desired goals of elected leaders. If those ‘leaders’ take Blair’s attitude towards the public, is it any wonder that those officials reject attempts by the public to get them to open up on issues of concern to them, and the conscientious ones suffer the stress of cognitive dissonance?

Trackbacks

  1. […] Now the report has been published, and we are – broadly – very pleased with the outcome. The Committee have also lambasted Tony Blair for his failure to co-operate with the process – but we’ll leave it saveFOI co-founder Tim Turner to demolish Mr Blair’s stance. […]

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