All governments need their feet held to the fire…but they choose how close to hold them

Last week, The Telegraph published an article by Francis Maude arguing that “transparency is tough but necessary.”  Not much to argue with there unless, of course, you are on of those whose feet are being held to the fire.  Maude’s argument starts to turn a little hard to stomach very early on, the second paragraph in to be precise.  Maude writes:

Transparency is risky, difficult and uncomfortable for governments – it also sticks. Once you start, you can’t go back. This government has put transparency at the heart of its agenda. As the new lead chairman of the Open Government Partnership, we will promote transparency all over the world. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s hard to take this sentiment seriously when put in the context of this government’s actual record on transparency.  From the NHS to the Olympics, this government has done very little to further the transparency agenda.  If the government is claiming that it is putting “transparency at the heart of its agenda”, then it has no heart (but then we knew this already…).  Ludicrous as Maude’s words felt at the time, events around it only highlighted the emptiness of the Paymaster General’s rhetoric.

Only the day before Maude’s article, it was revealed that the Attorney General had blocked disclosure of Prince Charles’ letters to government ministers.  In his statement justifying the use of the veto, Dominic Grieve stated that:

“Much of the correspondence does indeed reflect the Prince of Wales’s most deeply held personal views and beliefs. The letters in this case are in many cases particularly frank.

“They also contain remarks about public affairs which would in my view, if revealed, have had a material effect upon the willingness of the government to engage in correspondence with the Prince of Wales, and would potentially have undermined his position of political neutrality.”

The statement itself raises a number of questions, aside from the simple point that the request has been refused on the grounds that it might be “difficult” and “uncomfortable” (to use Maude’s words), it raises questions about the actual role of the monarchy in the UK.  If the communications could “potentially have undermined his position of political neutrality”, it is clear that Prince Charles is indeed involving himself in political matters, something that  undermines the idea of a politically neutral monarchy.  Indeed, as FOI Man has argued in hisanalysis of this issue:

Either the Royal Family are mere figureheads for our country with no real power, or they seek to influence Government. They can’t be both. If it’s the latter, then I think there’s a public interest in at least some of their correspondence being available to us all, so that we can gain a true understanding of their role.

It is clear to me that if the Royal Family are engaged in the democratic process, their communications should be completely transparent.  How can we “promote transparency all over the world” when our government prevents its electorate from accessing communications between it and the future head of state?  This is not the transparency it would appear that Maude is calling for, this is selective transparency. And this selective transparency runs deeper than letters between Prince Charles and the government.

The day before Maude’s article was published (surely not suspicious timing??), it was revealed that private emails between David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks were withheld from the Leveson Inquiry as a result of “personal legal advice” taken by the Prime Minister. From The Independent:

The cache of documents, which runs to dozens of emails and is also thought to include messages sent to Andy Coulson while he was still a Rupert Murdoch employee, was not disclosed after No 10 was advised by a Government lawyer that it was not “relevant” to the inquiry into press standards.

The contents of the private emails are described by sources as containing “embarrassing” exchanges. They hold the potential to cast further light on the close personal relationship between the Prime Minister and two of the media mogul’s most senior lieutenants.

Clearly rattled at the subsequent Prime Minister’s Questions, Cameron refused to answer a question from Chris Bryant MP on the emails, a refusal that was a serious breach of parliamentary procedure (will other Ministers refuse to answer questions because they are upset with the questioner?).  Whilst Cameron has now responded to Labour’s deputy leader, he still has not addressed the substantive point about the nature of the communications between himself and Brooks.  Clearly, Cameron is not keen on his feet being held to the fire…

The truth is that, despite Maude’s words offering greater transparency and a commitment to end the “closed door culture“, nothing substantial has really changed under the current government.  The final sentence in Maude’s piece rather gives the game away:

Far better to work under the knowledge that what you do will be scrutinised, analysed, picked over – that will make people at every level in government think twice about how they spend taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

For this government, transparency is all about how much money is spent, not about the actions of our elected representatives.  If the government is to be serious about transparency, it needs to go beyond pound signs on a balance sheet and encompass the workings of the state and our representatives.  Whilst the Freedom of Information Act has brought a greater degree of transparency to the workings of government, there is still a sense that it is the government alone that determines the transparency that the people deserve.  Until this selectivetransparency is eradicated, no government has a right to argue that transparency is “at the heart of its agenda”.  What is the good of claiming that governments need their feet held to the fire when it is their fire, their hands and their feet?  It should be our hands, our fire and theirfeet, only then will we truly have transparency that is “risky, difficult and uncomfortable”.