I am in favour of more openness in government, and against leaking by civil servants.
Almost everyone recognises the need for secrecy in some discrete areas of government, such as security and defence, and for information about individuals to be protected. But there is debate about whether information about other areas of government policy should be protected.
There are some – including my father, Brian Barder – who argue that governments are entitled to retain some information privately to permit effective decision-making. On this view, Ministers are entitled to advice and analysis before a choice is made, and if that advice is likely to be published then it is less likely to be sought, or it will be provided in phone calls, text messages or in un-minuted meetings to avoid the need for disclosure. This will result in less comprehensive and frank advice, and less well-informed decisions. That is a serious concern.
The alternative view is that if officials know that advice will be published, they will do a better job in providing evidence-based, impartial and comprehensive advice; and Ministers will do a better job of making decisions consistent with what the evidence and analysis is telling them. Transparency makes it harder for Governments to do irrational things. It reduces the power of insider lobby groups and creates political pressure for better government. It makes it more likely that governments will take a longer-term view rather than seek short-term political advantage. Furthermore, controlled release of information is sometimes used by government to “spin” the message and to create an unhealthy dependency between the media and government spin doctors.
A lot of government information is classified to avoid embarassment rather than to avoid harm to the interests of the nation. (The use of the classification “sensitive but unclassified” is a case in point.)
But although I am in favour of greater transparency in government, I am not in favour of leaking of government information by civil servants.
The media and MPs seem to have sided with Damian Green MP on the basis that democracy requires a flow of information from government to, err, the media and MPs, and that this information would not be available within the current law.
Parliament should debate and decide the amount of transparency it wants of the executive part of government, and ministers and officials should then comply with that law. Parliament has done this by way of the Official Secrets Act (1989). Having passed the law, there is no excuse for those same Parliamentarians to collaborate with civil servants who break the law by receiving or using that information, still less by encouraging them. If MPs believe that the good functioning of democracy depends on more information being made available than is currently required and allowed by law, then they should change the law, not break it.
For the police to enforce the law, as passed by Parliament, is not an intrusion of police power into democracy. Enforcing the law is the job of the police; and if Parliament doesn’t like the law then they are in a peculiarly strong position to do something about it.